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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year 2017!

Hello and welcome to a new year - 2017... the Year of the Rooster.

Japanese New Year is a bit of a dog's breakfast.

On the one hand, since 1873 o-shogatsu (aka 正月, Japanese New Year) has followed the Gregorian calendar (western calendar)... but, because Japan is an ancient culture, it still follows the traditions of celebrating the New Year on a different date based on some Asian cultures, notably China, Korea, Burma, Thailand, Mongolia and Vietnam.

So... prior to 1873 and even now when it celebrates the "old way", the ever changing Asian New Year dates are based upon the Chinese lunar calendar.

This year the Traditional Japanese New Year (Asian calendar) begins on January 28, 2017... and is the year of the Rooster... but everyone (non-Asian) celebrates the beginning of the Year of the Rooster beginning January 1.

See... the year is screwy already.

The elemental symbol of this year is Fire... so it is called the Fire Rooster.

The Asian animal zodiac is a repeating cycle of 12 years, with each year being represented by an animal and its reputed attributes. Traditionally these zodiac animals were used to date the years. They are, in order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.
  • Rat: 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960;
  • Ox: 2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961;
  • Tiger: 2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962;
  • Rabbit: 2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963;
  • Dragon: 2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964;
  • Snake: 2013, 2001, 1989, 1977, 1965;
  • Horse: 2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966;
  • Goat: 2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967;
  • Monkey: 2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968;
  • Rooster: 2017, 2005, 1993, 1981, 1969;
  • Dog: 2018, 2006, 1994, 1982, 1970;
  • Pig: 2019, 2007, 1995, 1983, 1971;
So... since the Lunar Calendar changes dates between January 21 and February 20, you have to check each year's starting dates to see if you are one of those creatures to find your Asian zodiac symbol.

As such... if you want to follow the Lunar Calendar and determine your symbol, note that for those born before January 31, 1957 or January 28, 2017, they belong to the zodiac animal of the Fire Monkey.

What are these elements I speak of? Well, the calendar breaks things down to the elements of Metal, Earth, Fire, Wood and Water.
  • Metal Rooster: 1981 (February 5, 1981 - January 24, 1982);
  • Earth Rooster: 1969 (February 17, 1969 - February 5, 1970);
  • Fire Rooster: 1957 (January 31, 1957 - February 17, 1958) and 2017 (January 28, 2017 - February 15, 2018);
  • Wood Rooster: 1945 (February 13, 1945 - February 1, 1946) and 2005 February 9, 2005 - January 28, 2006);
  • Water Rooster: 1933 (January 26, 1933 - February 13, 1934) and 1993 (January 23, 1993 - February 9, 1994).
Nothing's easy. Me? I'm a Wood Dragon. And a Scorpio. Apparently we're introverted, but hate to do easy things, preferring things when they are more complex. Nailed it.

So... 2017 is the Year of the Fire Rooster... only, traditionally, it's not yet.

We'll look at the Fire Rooster in greater detail when it's really the proper time... say on January 28, 2017.

So... Gregorian Calendar 2017 New Year's Day in Japan... that's January 1, 2017... what do the Japanese like to do?

Well... celebrations actually begin on December 31 and run through January 4... see... screwy.

So... even though traditional Japanese New Year will be celebrated on January 29, 2017 with the changing of the Asian zodiac, on January 1, 2017 the Japanese will be celebrating the new year with traditional foods. So... they do traditional things even though it's not the traditional new year yet.

It's a good thing a seem to have been hard-wired into preferring things more complex. It's the rest of you I worry about.

Ringing In The New Year
At midnight on December 31, monks at every Buddhist temple will ring their big bell 108 times. Joyanokane (bell ringing 108 times, 除夜の鐘) is meant to symbolize the getting rid of the 108 wordly sins felt by the Japanese populace. The bell is rung 107 times on December 31, and once past midnight. It is also very common to eat buckwheat noodles called toshikoshi soba on the New Year's Eve.

Food For Good Fortune (or Death)
You know what I hate? And this might be a blog for another blog I sometimes write... I hate it when people say that "Their" culture or country has a love for food.

I'm pretty damn sure every culture, country, nay, people on the planet love food.

Anyhow, the Japanese will, at this time of the season make and eat certain foods called osechi-ryōri (御節料理 or お節料理).

The osechi dishes are sweet, sour and dried - things that would typically be kept without refrigeration - because shops in Japan would be closed during the holidays, and we are talking about an era before everyone had refrigerators.

Started in the Heian Period of 794AD - 1185AD, osechi are placed in boxes called jūbako (重箱), that look like bentō boxes.

Examples of osechi and why they are eaten at New Year's Time are:
  • Daidai (橙) is a Japanese bitter orange. Daidai means "from generation to generation" when written in different kanji as 代々and it symbolizes a wish for children in the New Year;
  • Datemaki (伊達巻 or 伊達巻き), is a sweet rolled omelette mixed with fish paste or mashed shrimp, and symbolizes a wish for many auspicious days;
  • Kamaboko (蒲鉾) is a broiled fish cake, with slices of red and white cakes placed alternately on a dish to represent the rising sun of Japan;
  • Kazunoko (数の子) is herring roe (eggs). Because kazu means "number" and ko means "child", it is meant to be a wish for a family to be gifted with plenty of children in the upcoming year;
  • Konbu (昆布) seaweed is eaten because it's name is similar to the Japanese word for joy, yorokobu... which all just sounds weird. The western way would be for everyone to kiss a cunning linguist like myself because... well, you know;
  • Kuro-mame (黒豆) are black soybeans... and because mame also means "health" (in a different Chinese/Japanese kanji character), it has come to symbolize a wish for health in the upcoming year;
  • Kohaku-namasu (紅白なます), literally "red-white vegetable kuai," is a dish made by cutting carrots and daikon into thin strips and then pickling them in a sweetened vinegar with yuzu flavor;
  • Tai (鯛) are red sea-bream - again the word tai is similar to the Japanese word medetai, which is symbolic of an an auspicious event. Auspicious, by the way, means "favorable".
  • Tazukuri (田作り) are dried sardines cooked in a soy sauce. The literal meaning tazukuri is "rice paddy maker," as the fish were used historically to fertilize rice fields. The symbolism is of an abundant harvest;
  • Zōni (雑煮) is a soup of mochi rice cakes in clear broth in eastern Japan, or for those in the western part of Japan they have a miso broth;
  • Ebi (エビ) - shrimp - skewered and cooked with sake and soy sauce and is meant as a wish for long-life as the shrimp looks like someone with a long beard and bent waist; 
  • Nishiki tamago (錦卵) is an egg dish where the egg is separated before cooking individually. The yolk's yellow symbolizes gold, while the gooey stuff that turns white symbolizes silver. Placed on a dish together and eaten it is meant to symbolize wealth and good fortune.
These are classic traditional Japanese New Year's foods and I don't think I ate them... but as noted many times in this blog, I did get a chance to make mochi rice cakes - pounding glutenous rice to make a gooey rice that is powdered and eaten... and if you are lucky the consumer survives.

When eating mochi... and let me be clear - take small bites - like half the size of a caramel cube. Every year plenty of very old, very young and ignorant foreigners choke to death or choke while eating the very tough to swallow but very delicious mochi cakes.

Ozōni (お雑煮) is a clear broth soup made with a vegetable (or two), a meat, and a mochi cake slab. Its actual ingredient make-up differs from region to region. It is meant to symbolize a most auspicious year.

Nowadays, because I think most people don't really care for the old traditional foods as much, Japanese will also eat sushi and sashimi and non-Japanese foods. Westerners don't eat the traditional foods much anymore... I mean when was the last time anyone had a Christmas goose (to eat)? Sure - some of you, but in the west, it's ham or turkey or some sort of mock turkey for the non-meat-eaters.

Despite the festivities supposedly ending on January 4, on the 7th of January the women of the family (it ain't the men, brother - despite all the chefs) who will brew up a seven-herb rice soup (七草粥, nanakusa-gayu) to sooth the over-indulged gut.

Postcards Of Fortune
I have written about this before... but Japanese send out postcards to friends, family and co-workers wishing everyone a happy new year. The cards usually are purchased (blank or pre-printed) but have special lottery numbers on them, and on the postage stamps that can be checked on in the New Year to see if you have won a prize. More on postcards can be found HERE.

Show Me The Money
Kids will traditionally receive envelopes containing money, known as otoshidama and given out in special decorated envelopes called pochibukuro.

In the old days, traditionally, a small bag of mochi and a Mandarin orange was given to the kids by the rich families and large shops as a means to spread happiness.

Nowadays, there is no set amount kids receive in their pochibukuro, but every kid in a family, regardless of age, will receive the same amount.

Spring, Sprang Sprung
I don't think that I shall see a poem as lovely as a tree, or in the Japanese case, haiku and renga.
Traditionally, someone in the family is supposed to compose a haiku (17-syllable poem) or a renga (linked poetry) that must contain kigo (seasonal words) of the New Year, such as hatsushi (first sun) or waraizome (first laughter) or hatsuyume (first dream). Now... since the lunar New Years started later, Spring motifs were more common in the old days.

Plays Well With Others
Games were also a big part of traditional new year celebrations.
  • Hanetsuki (羽根突き, 羽子突き) is like badminton without a net, played with a rectangular paddle (hagoita) (see HERE for my write-up). You keep the shuttlecock in the air by batting it back and forth, with the one who loses the point getting their face smeared by ink. Traditionally, the longer the shuttlecock remained aloft, the greater the "protection" from mosquitoes.... I assume it's from the fanning breeze created from the swings of the hagoita.
  • Takoge (凧上げ) is kite flying... again... it was done more often when the new year began later... still... as I write this on December 31, 2016... I can hear the wind blowing around the house like it's angry at something.
  • Beigoma (ベーゴマ, also known as koma), are wooden spinning tops. What with video game systems, I'm sure this is a dying traditional game.
  • Sugorku (雙六 or 双六, literally 'double six') are two types of board games. One is ban-sugoroku (盤双六, 'board-sugoroku'), which is very much like Backgammon, and other is e-sugoroku (絵双六, 'picture-sugoroku'), which is like Snakes-And-Ladders.
  • Fukuwarai (福笑い, Lucky Laugh) is a game where a blindfolded person places paper parts of a face, such as eyes, eyebrows, a nose and a mouth, onto a paper face, in a manner similar to Pin-The-Tail-On-The-Donkey);
  • Karuta (かるた, from Portuguese carta ["card"]) are Japanese playing cards. I know of the Hanafuda deck that has flowers pictured on them with a poem. The idea is for players to examine the cards spread out in front of them and find pairs. 
Ode To Joy
In the days of WWI, then known as the Great War, because they didn't know there was going to be a second one, the Japanese were on the side of the Allied forces.

Japanese forces of 29,000 soldiers attacked the Qing Tao Fortress in China where the 4,300 German soldiers were stationed. In surrender, the Germans were kept as POWs (prisoners-of-war)  by teh Japanese.

One such camp was in the small town of Bando on Shikoku Island. The Japanese camp commander treated the prisoners well, and eventually the townsfolk and prisoners got to know each other.

Eventually, a group of German POWs was able to convince the camp to perform music for the Bando townspeople, and chose to play Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor.

Fug... even I feel calm now. Still, it brings to mind back all of those torturous piano and accordion lessons I used to take. While I can still toot my clarinet and tenor sax, and do, I feel no desire to touch a keyboard again. And I used to teach it before going to Japan.

The Japanese call this symphony Daiku, affectionately, and for whatever reason, it became a thang.

I promise not to use the word "thang" again in 2017.

The song continued to be played later as a symbol of German and Japanese friendship. On December 31, 1940, the song was played live on air over the radio to usher in the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of Japan.

It is still played as a means of celebration in Japan.

Okay... that's enough... I just meant to actually write a couple of lines wishing one and all a Happy New Year... but I tend to get lost and feel the need to teach.

Starting in a couple of weeks time in 2017, I will take on a head coaching job for my son, Hudson, and his PeeWee Select baseball team. I've watched baseball for 40+ years, but aside from sandlot baseball, never played organized until I did for two years prior to my escape to Japan.

As such, I know the game, but don't know how to teach it. I've been taking courses this past winter and have learned a lot. My goal for the team is to win, of course, but really it's to make sure all of them have a good time and want to continue to play baseball in the future. With regards to me and the piano... I just never "felt" it. I get my artsy side out by writing. But you knew that.

Kinga Shinnen (謹賀新年 - Happy New Year!),
Andrew Joseph


  1. Happy New Year! I've also been in vacation mode, but I go back to the madness tomorrow.

    After 8 years of my own torturous piano lessons from grade school to HS with 3 teachers in 3 countries, I was so happy to quit when I did. But I never really lost my ability to play, and I have to admit I was lazy gal back then and did not put much effort into practicing. Ten years ago, I bought the neighbor's piano when they moved. So now I play purely for my own pleasure. Mostly classical because that's what I know and enjoy. I figure I can reinforce the old brain connections and make new ones before the arthritis sets in. ;-D

    P.S. Still coming to terms with being a Metal Ox. Wood Dragon is definitely much cooler.

    1. My dad's brother was the conductor of the New Delhi Orchestra, and the conductor of the Indian Army, blah-blah-blah... so there was this pressure on ME, for some reason to be the next great maestro... beats me why NO one else in the family did music. My grandfather was a piano tuner, my uncle the conductor, and myself a piano, keyboard and clarinet teacher... but I really get my arts out by writing.
      I'm still out for another week with the boy.
      I, BTW, only ever had one teacher for accordion and piano. Learned clarinet in high school and taught myself all the brass, other woodwinds stuff by taking home instruments and figuring it out. It was easy, but I, too did not put ANY effort into it. If it was difficult, I balked. Now... I embrace it. But it has to be something I think I might want to learn. You know... fun.

  2. Very good written article. It will be supportive to anyone who utilizes it, including me. Keep doing what you are doing – can’r wait to read more posts.
    Roman Atwood