My Japanese New Year

kimono girl

My sketch of me in kimono

After writing my last blog about Japanese author Murakami, I was taken back to memories of my time living in Japan. One outstanding memory for me is the time I spent with Japanese friends during the important New Year festival of Shogatsu. This occasion is shared equally between Japan’s two most common religions; Buddhism and Shinto. I was very fortunate to be invited to stay with these friends in order to experience first-hand some of the most revered and long-lasting rituals which take place at Japanese New Year.

On returning to New Zealand, I wrote a story about meeting this wonderful, extended family. My husband and I were privileged to share their home, food and generosity. More importantly, the Kajitani family extended warmth and friendship which I had seldom experienced in my home country. Please find below, a revised and shortened version of my original story.

Granddad, Shogatsu and me

I approached the Kajitani’s home with some nervousness as I was the first gaijin (outside person) to be introduced to my friend Mutsuko’s wider family. Neither spoke the other’s language, apart from my friend. Her parents welcomed me at the entrance. Just inside the doorway, gaunt, eighty-six-year-old Granddad, with a tuft of white hair on an otherwise bald head, was ensconced in a roll-backed armchair. He wore a blue padded jacket with an upturned collar over grey woollen pants. And apart from brown felt slippers with toes poking through, he could have passed for a modern-day emperor. His gaze was fixed on the vast plasma TV screen not two metres from his nose.

“Ikaga desu ka?” (How are you?) I asked the old man as I entered, bending towards him in greeting.

“Genki desu,” he said, brown eyes twinkling as they met mine.

Time for the latest phrase I had learned. “Nihongo wo benkyo shitai desu,” (I want to study Japanese) I said. Granted, it was a little out of context, though Granddad, hopefully, would grasp the intention. His response was to wag a long finger at me while saying a lot of stuff I didn’t understand before abruptly switching his gaze back to TV.

“You must study, he said, and only speak Japanese next time you come,” Mutsuko interpreted, before lowering her voice and adding, “Granddad can’t bear to miss a thing.”

“Oh,” I said, calculating the implausibility of attaining fluency in a language in a lifetime, let alone a couple of weeks. My Japanese study to date had encompassed stilted formalities like: “How much is this? Does the train go to…? I come from New Zealand and my name’s…”

“It’s because he likes you,” Mutsuko continued, “I told him you were an artist and that impressed him.” And that endeared me to him immediately.

This was my first experience of a grandfather; three of my grandparents died well before my birth and the remaining grandmother when I was five. Compounding this lack of a lineal connection was the absence of uncles and aunts, and more importantly my father, who died when I was eighteen.

I was thrilled when Mutsuko’s parents invited me back to stay on New Year’s Eve, to engage in a night of concentrated family ritual and Japanese tradition. After delicacies at dinner, like horsemeat sashimi, grated radish, nato (fermented beans which need the nose held while eating) and umeboshi (pickled plums), we finished with, and were nearly finished off by, several glasses of warm rice sake. Close to midnight we slurped small dishes of cold soba noodles, then walked the winding path to the local Buddhist temple, where we were offered rice cakes and green tea, by the twenty-seventh priest to have had the role in his family for over three hundred years. The twenty-eighth-priest-to-be was in the corner of the temple compound gonging a massive bell as was his duty.

Next day it was snowing gently, the flakes swirling before kissing the ground. Inside, with three kerosene heaters pumping, ‘the girls’ of the family were dressed in kimono by Mutsuko’s mother in the large tatami-mat room. It was a special honour to be dressed by Mrs Kajitani, for not only was she an official kimono dresser (with seven years training in Kyoto) but she was giving me her own kimono to wear.

Mrs Kajitani passed me a white cotton petticoat. “Just leave your knickers on,” Mutsuko said (translating for her mother). “Then I’ll help Mum tie the binding.” I stood, rigid with embarrassment and goose-bumps, while Mrs Kajitani held one end of a cotton strip against my body and Mutsuko circled me wrapping my midriff tight with the rest. Mrs Kajitani lifted a sombre-green kimono from its bed of tissue, and held it out to me like she might a newborn baby.

“Only unmarried women are supposed to dress in brighter colours,” Mutsuko said. And yes, the young ones were dressed in flowery red, pink, and blue kimono.

Mrs Kajitani folded the silk fabric right to left across my body, tugging gently until she was satisfied with the fit. Then mother and daughter both tied the wide, pale pink obi around my middle before fixing it in an elaborate bow in the centre of my back.

“Yoroshii desu ka?” Mutsuko’s mother enquired, as I pushed my white cotton-socked feet into black platform-soled geta.

“Watashi-wa shi desu,” (I like it very much) I said, and bowed to her politely, though it was pretty hard to speak and even harder still to bend.

Thousands of raincoats jostled against kimono as people swarmed towards the Usa shrine, amidst glancing sleet which later turned to snow. Despite the chill, kimonoed men, like competitors in a karate tournament, were in the forecourt with wooden sticks, pounding bowls of mochi (rice mixture) to the beating of drums. Red lanterns swung from awnings, bells rang, and families tied paper-wishes to bare-limbed trees. With fingers stiff from cold I strung my wishes amongst them. Sadly, on this most important of family occasions, Granddad was unable to attend; for all his lively spirit, his body was exhausted by a lifetime of farming.

Back in my apartment in Nakatsu, I set about drawing a portrait of Granddad from the photograph I’d taken at his home, which captured his dignity and sense of fun. I asked Mutsuko to write something appropriate in shodo (Japanese calligraphy) when I’d finished. ‘Long life and good health’ she wrote from top to bottom with a small brush and black ink. I signed my name in pencil underneath.

On the morning I left Nakatsu, Mutsuko took me to see Granddad so I could say goodbye.

Ki wo tsukete (take care),” I said, and gave him the portrait.

“Me!” he cried, hugging his framed self to his chest, “Me!”

Mutsuko’s parents waved until the car turned out of the drive. It wasn’t until we joined the main road that the tears came, and try as I might I just couldn’t stop crying. “What’s wrong?” My friend said and touched my arm.

“I might … never … see your family again.”

Granddad died the following year, and the portrait I drew, now rests beside his ashes.


Plum petals

Falling in the wind

Leave aromatic odours

On the sleeve

Of the imperial robe

Fujita Koshiro (1842-65)

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