The Japanese really know how to celebrate a new year. In addition to the traditions of going to the shrine, eating soba, and pounding rice, there’s Shishi-Mai, or the Lion Dance. The Lion dances around to the beat of drums and the tune of flutes. As it dances, people can put money in its mouth for good luck. Because most Shishi-mae troupes originate from a shrine, all money goes to support the shrine. The Japanese lion consists of a wooden, lacquered head called a “shishi-gashira” (Lion Head), and a characteristic body of green dyed cloth with white designs. One family at my daughter’s school sponsored a shishi-mai demonstration at the International School the children attend. It was quite a treat to watch.
In past years my family has participated in rice pounding – omochitsuki – at our kids’ school. It’s a tradition at the first of the year for the Japanese to take special mallets and pound the cooked rice so that it becomes a glutinous mass and can be formed into yummy balls that people roll through such treats as soy sauce and seaweed, azuki bean paste or sesame powder, and then eat. In prior years, my job has been to watch the kids and adults pounding and shout “Yoisho!” along with them – meaning something akin to a Jewish “Oy!” My husband was always the adult pounding representative from our family – I had never even taken up the mallet! This year, however, was quite different.
I am the co-head of the Cross Cultural Committee at my daughter’s school, and as such, I’m nominally in charge of the day. I’m just a figure-head though; the six other committee members, beyond just cultural knowledge (most are Japanese), all have institutional memory since they’ve been doing it for years already.
The preparation really began the day before with all of the rental equipment arriving and the washing and soaking of all the rice. Every last grain has to be cleaned and soaked overnight. The rental equipment included some stove-like items that boil the water to steam the rice the old-fashioned way. NO electric rice making in this operation!
We had volunteers throughout the day. We needed them. While two people are pounding in the ceramic bowl, someone needs to be standing by to “flip” the rice so it gets pounded evenly. And then there were at least ten people every hour of the day who made the mochi balls and rolled them through various toppings. It was so great of people to be so ready to help out.
By the time the first students came to take their turn at pounding at 8:45, we were ready with rice – it had been ready at 8:30 and a few fathers had been pounding it down so it was fairly flat. The other volunteers took about half of it to make the mochi to give to the kids immediately after pounding. It was a smooth procedure – but only because the committee members and volunteers made it look that way.
What a wonderful day it was.
Next year I’ll have so much experience that I’ll be able to do it with my eyes closed. It was a privilege to be involved.
New Year is a special time in Japan. It’s not an over-the-top party type of special; it’s more like a quiet, reflective, be-with-family type of special. In that vein, there are traditional games that children play and intricate performances to watch, all to ring in the new year with a sense of luck, happiness and prosperity.
Every year, Roppongi Hills, a trendy area not far from our home, has a little festival in their center arena. We’re not often here for New Year, so this is our first time attending. The kids got to spin tops, and juggle with professionals as well as watch a dragon performance and a group of Taiko drummers. The tops are the type that are spun with a string, and to wind them and then “throw” them properly is quite a skill. The professional organizers of the day spent as much time as each kid wanted with him or her, patiently helping until the child could do it. It really was an amazing feat of patience.
Here are a few more photos on the day.