Over this winter break, my friend Mao graciously invited me to spend New Years with her family in Akita. Since I had heard great things about Akita (namely its pretty rural landscape and its great local cuisine), and since I had been curious about New Years tradition in Japan, I eagerly jumped at the chance. I mean, what better way to experience a new aspect of culture than with your good friend?
I can safely say it was one of the greatest things I’ve done so far abroad.
Since Akita is located in the northwest, we went by Shinkansen. For those that might not understand why I would be excited about this, let me briefly explain. The Shinkansen is the fastest rail service in Japan, and currently one of the fastest on Earth. Their trains are built to run regularly at speeds of 320km/h (or around 200mph), and added with the comfortable interior, feels much like an airplane stuck on a track. It even had their own version of a SkyMall Magazine!
The trip was fairly quick and painless, lasting about six and a half hours. During the daytime portion of the trip, the scenery was beautiful. In a stroke of good fortune, I managed to get a nice shot of Mt. Fuji as we passed!
Unlike the urban atmosphere of Kyoto, Akita is very local and rural. The method of travel is usually car, with buses only coming at specific hours in the day. Aside from Akita city, this prefecture is still very much the traditional agricultural region. Because of its northern location, snowfall and frigid temperatures in the wintertime are an absolute given. Since I was coming from a warmer region of Japan, the snow was a welcome novelty.
When Mao and I arrived, I was able to to meet her family for the first time. They had all been excited about our arrival in Akita, and were very kind and accommodating. I think one of the highlights of the trip has to be just talking with Mao and her family, touring around her hometown and just seeing what life is like for a family in Japan. That kind of warm, family atmosphere was something I had been missing from back home, so it was greatly appreciated!
Once I got settled in and had a little tour of the city, it was off to visit Mao’s Grandparents! They live in a little rural community two hours away, and it was interesting to see the contrast between local town and true rural farmland. The snow was untouched in most areas, and the houses seemed decades older, yet also cozy.
Mao’s Grandparents were very warm and welcoming. Although most of the time I had trouble understanding their Akita dialect, their hospitality was something that could be felt even with the language barrier. Mao’s Grandmother was especially kind. With the help of Mao’s translation, her Grandmother taught me how to make Kagami Mochi (special New Years mochi) and Kiritanpo (an Akita traditional food of grilled rice tubes).
Making the mochi and the kiritanpo was a little tricky at first, but I managed to get the hang of it by the time we finished. There’s nothing more rewarding (or delicious) than being able to taste the fruits of your labor, and that night’s dinner was especially satisfying!
Next on the list of events on this trip was New Years. Unlike the typical western version of New Years celebration, New Years in Japan is a more quiet, family oriented celebration spanning three days instead of two. On New Years Eve, we gathered round for one final, delicious meal of 2014, which ended up being a sort of “Make your own Sushi” buffet dinner. As a sushi lover myself, there couldn’t have been a better way to end the year!
Then, after a quiet evening of variety shows and drinks, the clock struck midnight and a new year began. This meant it was time for the first meal of the year: Toshikoshi Soba! This meal has great symbolic importance in the Japanese New Year, as the length of the soba noodle is said to represent long life. It was really a beautiful moment: us all gathered around the dining table, eating soba and talking about our hopes and dreams for the new year. I might have grown up with the American fanfare and fireworks, but this quiet evening will probably go down as one of my favorite New Years Eves.
On New Years Day we went to the local temple for Hatsumode, the traditional first temple visit of the year. It was a frigid, snowy day, which made the long lines seem even longer. However, once we made it up the temple steps we were able to make our first prayer of the year and receive or Omikuji, or New Years Fortune. My fortune looks pretty good this year, so I’m excited to see what come of it!
The good food and good company continued for the next few days, until it was time to return back to Kyoto. I was a bit sad to leave, since it all seemed to go by so fast. But I am extremely grateful for the time I did have in Akita. After months in a language intensive program like KUFS, it was a much needed refresher on why I came here and how fortunate I am to have this experience. It’s definitely on my list of places to revisit!
And, since I’m a fan of bookends, here’s another lovely shot of Mt. Fuji, taken on my return trip. I guess I should thank my good new years fortune for that!