Archive for January, 2010


I’m sure many of you are wondering about my recent trip to Tokyo. I have some other stories to tell, but I think you’d probably like to read about this first.

In 2005, I went to Tokyo to spend a month with a host family through the Lex/4-H exchange program. We had hosted Kana before, and so I requested that Kana’s family host me.

Since coming back to Japan, I had been looking forward to meeting up with them. When I was invited to spend the New Year holiday with them, I was thrilled. New Year’s in Japan is, I had read, fairly similar to Christmas in America. I was interested to see what kinds of traditions would be followed, and I was excited to spend time with my Japanese family.


IMG_2996 My host family – from left to right, Kana, Saki, Kaori (Okaasan), and Masayuki (Otousan).

I booked a night bus to and from Tokyo, the cheapest way to travel there short of hitching a ride. It took perhaps 7 hours or so to get there from Kyoto. My family lives in Shinjuku, the very center of Tokyo, so I was dropped off near Shinjuku station, the hub of the Tokyo train lines. From there I took a 5 minute train to the station nearest their house.

Here’s the journal entry I wrote about it:

Wed. Dec. 30th.

Standing in Shinanomachi station waiting for Kana. There are several exits to the station, more than I remembered, but I’m facing the direction I believe their house is. I think I could even get there by memory – though I dare not try…The station faces a large road with a hospital (didn’t remember that) and workers are passing me on their way to work. I think I see them.


Seeing Kana’s family again was very nice – bringing back memories, and spending time with them, even when quietly watching television, was wonderful. College life makes one appreciate the goodness of family life. I got to try some new foods (spaghetti with clams) and to help cook. When I came to visit them in the past, I had given them Five Crowns, a card game, and taught them how to play it. I got to play it several times with the family over the course of the holiday.

This time I brought my portable cribbage board and taught the family how to play cribbage. Now that is a game that’s extremely difficult to teach with limited Japanese!

The Japanese I’ve learned while I’ve been here was invaluable in understanding what people were saying. Even though there was a lot of miscommunication, there was far less than when I came the last time.

Kana’s birthday was Dec. 29th, and this was a big one because she turned 20, the coming-of-age in Japan. She spent a lot of time before and afterwards with college and high school friends. On Jan. 11th, there is a formal ceremony day for her coming-of-age.

That night, on the 30th, Okaasan (Japanese term for “another person’s mother”) perked up and had me listen outside – there was a group of people clacking sticks and chanting, walking up and down the streets. I thought that perhaps they were a group of “carolers” for the new year, but she explained to me that they were like a “neighborhood watch” for fires – warning people to be careful of fire hazards during the winter. Kana was even a part of the watch when she was a child.

On New Year’s Eve, most of the family cleaned, apparently a big part of the New Year. This made me feel rather useless, but it was still interesting to be a part of. That afternoon, Kana took me out on an errand, and I noticed grass garlands hanging outside most of the shops, some hung with the white “sacred” paper. Some of the shops also had a New Years’s “arrangement” hanging – almost like a wreath, but different. It’s hard to explain. Kana’s family had one hanging on their door.

On New Year’s Eve, there is a traditional type of soba that one eats.


In the bowls is the soba, a wheat noodle. The large platter on the right has tempura, which is fried vegetables and seafood. Some of the vegetables were mushrooms, eggplant, squash, and corn. I actually helped to make it, which was a lot of fun. The small bowl of white stuff is shaved radish, and the plate of pink is sashimi. It was all very good – except for the sashimi. I did try it, to my credit! Sashimi is raw fish – in this case, tuna. And if you’re wondering, it tasted just like you would expect raw fish to taste like. 

Okaasan did a brilliant job of cooking over the holiday. She was hard at work!


Kana and Otoosan, who was enjoying a beer.


Saki is in the back, with Kana and I. You can see Okaasan cooking in the kitchen, on the far right.

After dinner, Otoosan went to bed because he was going to work on New Year’s Day. However, the rest of us stayed up. For the most part of the evening we watched a Japanese tv show about a group of comedians who weren’t supposed to laugh for a day – every time they did, they got smacked with a pool noodle. It was very entertaining, even if I didn’t always understand what was going on.

When midnight came, Kana had us all stand up and count down in Japanese. When the new year came, we gave one another high fives, and said the traditional Japanese phrases for “Happy New Year!” – あけましておめでとうございます. (akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!)

For breakfast on New Year’s Day, we had a traditional box of food –


….which opened up to quite an array of exotic food!


I tried a bunch of different things that I didn’t know. In the soup bowls was miso soup with traditional New Year’s mochi.

Now, on the 30th of December, Kana wrote a large amount of postcards (New Year’s negajoto) send to friends – similar to Christmas cards, but more obligatory between friends. On New Year’s Day, the family received all of their New Year’s cards. It was interesting to see the variety of cards there were. Kana had even made one for me!


An important part of the New Year’s Day in Japan is visiting a shrine. Instead of going to the Meiji shrine, a very famous one in Tokyo and nearby, we went to a smaller local shrine. Okaasan told me the Meiji shrine would be packed. 


We stood in line to visit the shrine and pay our respects.


There were fires burning, and this interesting lion figure scared the children:


We passed underneath a grass arch:

IMG_2992 And came to the shrine.


We had some hot New Year’s sake  – but this sake wasn’t liquor. It was a traditional hot drink, made from rice – very sweet with little bits of rice in it. Nourishing.

We also got New Year’s fortunes. These fortunes are usually offered at shrines at all times of the year, but these were special. Here’s mine:


Normally you tie them on poles at the shrine in the hope they will come true, but the family wanted me to bring mine home in order to read it for me. It’s a “nothing good, nothing bad” sort of fortune – in pertaining to money, it says, “don’t use too much.”

Included was a golden charm to put in my wallet for luck.


It’s a maneki neko – a beckoning/lucky/welcoming cat.


The rest of my time with my family was spent well. We had a good time getting to know one another better. I had a wonderful New Year’s, and I hope I can see them again soon.



A New Year in Japan.

I know that I have a lot of catching up to do on here, especially now that I’m back from Tokyo and have a winter break ahead. Expect to see more posts soon!

あけましておめでとうございます. (akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!)     Happy New Year!

(autumn) from Samuel Cockedey on Vimeo.