Friday, 8 January 2010

New Year in the mountains

I bumped into him on New Year's Day on the snow-filled pavement leading from our house. At first I didn't recognise him in his best suit and newly opened face, his gold-rimmed incisors shining in a grin cracked like a safe. It was an aunt's husband, usually reticent  and serious, a maker of fine home-grown and prepared soba noodles and grower of some of the best tomatoes I have ever tasted. "Ah, ha, domo, domo, happy new year! Please come to my house anytime today!" Well, New Year seems to agree with him,  let's take him up on that, I thought, in my everyday slobby clothes and with my blurred and ambivalent relationship to this pivotal day in the Japanese calendar intact.

Home grown and hand made soba noodles, now re-packaged in our stomachs

He had kindly sent some of his wonderful soba accross for us to eat as is traditional on the 31st of December in many parts of Japan, though not here in Aizu. This was partly as a thanks for the portrait I had given him earlier in the year, partly in honour of my daughter's visit, and partly because generosity is a natural reflex in Kaneyama-machi.

This first day of the new year my next door neighbour was also in his suit. I had misunderstood his joined hands and gesturing upwards as hoping for the snow to let up, and laughed and nodded like an idiot, whereas of course he was indicating that he was off to pay his respects at the small shrine up the hill, a rather more serious business. As a daily forager in the mountains for wild food he needs the luck, and his family worry about him. More social gaffs than a whaling ship, that's me. Whoops, there's another one. 

We decided to do the same, and had the place to ourselves, the sound hushed and muffled by the snow. The things that lend the place an air of cheerful, unstuffy normality in the summer were gone, the swings and see-saw dismantled, and the all-important gateball gear safely stashed under the shrine.

Such small, obscure country shrines as ours are as much worth visiting as their well known counterparts, which can be swamped with people queueing round the corner for that special brand of luck that seems to be available only there. The relationship between the shrine and the few houses around it is a natural one, often of centuries long standing, and I can manage without the razmataz of food stalls, frenzied lucky charm buying, and madding crowds dropping in before hitting the departo sales. New year in Kaneyama is an altogether more peaceful affair, based on seeing which of your city-flown offspring can make it back to the nest through the snow and the motorway jams. Children are particularly appreciated, and can make a tidy sum handed over in used notes and slim envelopes.

We called in at auntie's house much later, but still beat the man of the house home. Along with the other men of the village he was doing the rounds of other houses, he had been out some time, and they were starting to worry. It is traditional to take a cup or two of sake in each house, and there are a lot of houses for one man to get round and still remain concious. They get the good stuff out for this special day, and by that I mean strong, and he doesn't normally drink. One wonders if the history of New Year in Aizu is littered with the corpses of men just having a little lie down in the snow, so soft, so inviting, on the non-too straight way home.

It was clear when he arrived shortly after dark that he had managed to make it round most of the houses in the village, and was now feeling really very sociable indeed. He probably spoke more words than he had all year, gesturing and waving, and at one point keeling over completely. Still, no bones broken, no harm done, except for the hangover of Bandai-san proportions heading his way like an avalanche in the morning.

He had earned his day in the cups. It turned out that it was he who had cleared the path to the shrine that morning at six thirty, sledging it off by hand so that the rest of the village could walk there easily, while we were still sleeping.


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