There’s something about the Japanese new year that saps all the energy out of a woman and plunges her into despair. It’s little wonder that many a working girl returns to the office after the holidays, heaves a sigh of relief and mutters “shigoto shiteta hoga mashi dawa (it’s easier to work)” before heading out for her morning cigarette and coffee.
Indeed, there’s nothing like kisei (a homecoming visit) to bring out that lovin’ feeling for work and its related paraphernalia (free paper clips and the welcome hush surrounding the vending machine). Going home to the bosom of one’s family is fine, but as my cousin Emi always points out: “Ichinichi de iiyo (one day is enough).”
Emi is smart and pretty and knows how to protect herself. Over the years she has learned to divide her holidays between gimu (obligation), which means going up north to our grandparents’ house in Sendai, and tanoshimi (enjoyment), which consists of trips to Guam or Honolulu with friends.
Lately the ratio between gimu and tanoshimi has tipped heavily toward the latter. I keep telling her this is “zuruuuuuui! (not faiiiiiiirrr!)” and Emi makes amends with omiyage (souvenir gifts) of duty free lipstick and Macademia Nut chocolates.
From the sixth grade onward, Emi and I always griped about how our brothers and male relatives were treated like royalty the minute they reached ojiichan no uchi (grandpa’s house) while we were made to put on aprons and headed straight to the kitchen.
Our grandparents were old-school Japanese entrenched in tradition, meaning that during big family gatherings like oshogatsu (the new year) and obon (the festival of the dead), women worked in the kitchen nonstop while men sat in the ima (living room), entertained neighborhood guests and drank themselves into oblivion.
Obon in August wasn’t so bad since it was acceptable to serve cold and/or precooked foods, but oshogatsu was when our obachan (grandma) turned into a machine, churning out osechi (traditional New Year’s dishes).
Now approaching 80, she prides herself on the fact that during the days between Dec. 31 and sanganichi (the first three days of the new year), she never sits down unless it’s to eat a meal (few and far between) and gets by on an average four hours of sleep a day.
If she’s not washing windows or cleaning up the debris from an endless procession of guests, she’s tending to a total of eight pots, all in varying stages of cooking and simmering.
In between, she’s instructing the younger members of her battalion (like Emi and I) to wash, wipe and put away in the correct manner, heat the sake, run out for more supplies, go to the bakery for a special cake she ordered, and so on. Our mothers, of course, would be running to and fro, cleaning and cooking and serving guests and minding babies or mediating some argument between relatives or stopping fist fights between the cousins.
Our family was large and rowdy and predominantly male; the alcohol never stopped flowing, vast amounts of food disappeared down throats and there was singing until one in the morning. For those of us in the kitchen, it seemed we would never stop washing ochoko (sake cups) and wiping the delicate little okozara plates that accompanied the osechi.
Now that the grandchildren in our family have grown up with families of their own, one would think that there wouldn’t be so much emphasis on kisei. Alas, this isn’t the case.
My brother, who married two years ago, insists on carting his bride up north and encourages her to remain in the kitchen while he sits down with the otokoshu (men folk). To make up for it, this year he took his wife on an otsukaresama (you-must-be-tired) onsen trip afterward; I advised him he should do so, unless he wanted to subject his beloved to an osechi-induced breakdown. This year, however, obachan let me in on a secret. She said that there’s nothing like a frenetic oshogatsu week to keep a woman healthy, attractive and slim. “Suwatte tabetsuzukeruto onna wa minikuku naruyo (a woman who sits and keeps eating turns ugly)” is her maxim; for her, the whole ritual is an efficient — in her words “koritsu ga yoi” — way to exercise.
True, winter holidays do take a toll — rather than go on a crash diet right after them, it is, perhaps, better to treat the whole thing like a spin class with eight pots cooking. Next year, though, Emi, I’m going to Guam.