New Years with Ai – 1/3/2013

Happy 2013!  So I have some past events to post about, including a trip to Kyoto I just got back from yesterday.  But first I thought I would post about a special experience I got to have tonight. 

So in Japan, Christmas isn’t that big of a holiday, and it’s typically spent with your partner.  I actually ended up working on Christmas!  However, New Years is a big, big deal, and most people get the week around New Years off to go spend with their family.  Ai invited me to a big New Years dinner she had with her family tonight, and I felt so lucky to get to experience such an intimate, traditional event.

The first aspect that made this dinner so special was, of course, the food.  In order to save themselves the trouble of preparing food later, the cooks of the household prepare a bunch of extra food before new years so they can relax over the next several days without cooking.  This traditional food is called “osechi-ryori”, and they use a lot of sugar to help preserve it over several days.  I got to try sugary carrots, sweet shitake mushroom caps, delicious daikon (a type of Japanese radish) trianguloids, weird heavy potato triangulons, kombu (seaweed) wrapped with bamboo so it looked like a little present, and some other special osechi treats!  Besides the osechi, we had temaki-zushi, which translates as hand-rolled sushi.  It’s a really fun dinner, because there are small pieces of nori (seaweed used to wrap sushi) that you spread rice over, and then you get to choose what to put in for the innards.  The nori is small enough so it’s easy to wrap up with your hands, and you get to try a bunch of different fillings.  For my first hand-rolled sushi, I put on tamagoyaki (sweet, fried egg), avacado, and natto.  Natto is a special sort of food you typically don’t see much of outside of Japan because it is so pungent and slimey.  It’s basically fermented soybeans.  It smells like old socks and tastes even worse.  I didn’t think I was a picky eater until I tried natto about a year ago and firmly said “I don’t like this food!”  But I thought I should give it another chance, because it looked homemade and not so distasteful as the stuff you see sold in jars.  It actually wasn’t so bad!  But I didn’t have any more for the rest of the meal.

The most remarkable part of the meal was the seafood.  We started off with a big shrimp which had been cooked, marinated, and cooled.  I was slightly skeptical after tearing off its head and digging out some distastefully black innards; but after removing the shell, head, and legs, I proceeded to eat the most delicious, delicately sweet, crazy-bulging-black-eyes-looking-at-me-while-I-ate-it giant shrimp I had ever eaten.  And then they brought out the plate of sashimi, which is raw meat thinly sliced.  And I fell in love with it. 

Since coming to Japan, I have gradually begun to like sashimi more and more, but I always stuck to the cheap sashimi at sushi restaurants because sushi restaurants are already expensive enough.  Before the meal, I went to wash my hands, and I saw a very helpful lady (I honestly don’t know who she was) cutting up a very large fish in a styrofoam container filled with ice.  There were two more sealed styrofoam containers, and an octopus tentacle on top of the top container.  Ai informed me that the fish was extremely fresh, and once I tried it I had no doubt.  It was like biting into butter.  Ai told me it was because it was the meat on the back and sides of the fish, which are rich with oils.  It was like a revelation to eat this stuff that’s normally around $6 for two bites at a sushi restaurant, and to have it in such abundance that I didn’t need to worry about remembering it from just a tiny portion.  I felt truly blessed after eating it, as if the deity of sashimi granted me a vision so that I could understand why raw fish is so, so great.  Absolutely remarkable, it set a new food standard I will never forget.

There was also squid sashimi, which I have never liked that much, and…this was no exception.  Although it was better than usual, and it wasn’t a pain to get through.  I didn’t try the octopus sashimi, because I remember it being no fun because it’s so chewy and tasteless and stupid.  But now I really regret not trying this top-of-the-line octopus, just to see what it’s supposed to be like. 

The other big aspect to this meal was the people.  It was Ai’s (my girlfriend) father’s family.  So there was Ai, her brother and sister and their spouses and children, Ai’s parents, Ai’s uncle and his wife and kids and their kids and some other people I didn’t know.  I had met Ai’s parent’s before, and felt so happy when her dad sat next to where I had set down my bags, as if he knew I was going to sit there and anticipated sitting next to me, which of course I did.  I had met Ai’s sister and her husband before, and they were very nice, but the person who stole most of my attention was Ai’s uncle.  He was so friendly and was always making jokes (although they were in Japanese so I didn’t really get them.  Ai eventually told me “just laugh”, which worked really well).  He kept trying to explain the customs and food in Japanese, and would sometimes attempt English.  He would usually start his English explanations with the word “Japanese…” and wasn’t sure where to go from there.  After Ai would translate for him and I reiterated what he had meant to say in simple English, he would enthusiastically say “very good!”.  I was impressed when he was able to refer to his grandson as a “Japanese…rascal!”  He said it several times to make sure I knew he was using a cool word.  My strongest impression of him was his smile and how he fearlessly welcomed me and spoke with me, which I found is rare here outside of my work (where people are excited to try out their English).  I hope I get to meet him again soon.

I know Ai has gotten to experience several things with my family in Salt Lake, but this was the first time I got to experience a large family gathering with her family.  It really warmed my heart to be in that environment, in one room eating with a large family.  It has been a while since I’ve gotten to experience that.  I’m so grateful to have a big ol’ family back home, who even though they never fed me heart-breakingly delicious sashimi, they took care to get together often and stayed close.  For this new year I’m especially thankful for them, now that they’re no longer easy and convenient to access.  I’m also thankful for the people here who have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome.  It’s been a slow process feeling like I’m at home here in Japan, so it’s great to get any support.

So I have 3 of the next 4 days off, and I hope to post about a few cool things I’ve been doing over the next couple of days in order to get caught up.  So stay tuned!


One thought on “New Years with Ai – 1/3/2013

  1. Fred Evans

    We love you too, Steve! And we miss you! I look forward to being with you again, but I know you are having an incredible experience in Japan. Continue to make the most of it! Love – Dad.


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