Turning Japanese New Year’s style

In America, the winter season holds special meaning for each individual. Whether its family traditions, Christmas cards or something as simple as catching snowflakes on your tongue, winter is more than just a few cold months. I can’t say that I miss seeing snowflakes, having been a Floridian all my life, but being here in west Japan I have really become accustomed to seeing my own breath when outdoors. What I can’t get used to is seeing my breath when indoors.

As I spent this winter so far away from the traditions and celebrations that I am used to, I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to stay in a traditional Japanese home. My first stark realization was that there is no central heating. Japan is a country with few plentiful natural resources. Any chance to conserve water, gas or energy will be taken. But this doesn’t mean that people sit around and freeze all winter, either. A traditional Japanese home has many small gas or electric heaters, which the Japanese call stobu (stove). These stoves are put in the main rooms and bedrooms of a house and used only when someone is present. The rest of the house remains as cold as a meat locker.

Along with these stoves is something every Japanese home has: a kotatsu, which is a low, square-shaped table covered by a thick blanket extending to the floor on all sides with a heater located underneath. The blanket traps the heat under the table so that anyone who puts his or her frozen legs under the table can’t fathom leaving that spot for at least an hour. After asking around, I found that about one out of every five Japanese considers sitting under the kotatsu to be the best part of winter.

Much like the popularity of sending holiday cards in America, the Japanese tradition of sending New Year’s cards is huge. The average Japanese family sends out one hundred or more of these cards. These cards are postcard-style, with a graphic or family photo and a printed New Year’s greeting. One particular type of card is called Otoshidama. This card is sent to younger family members and has a side pocket, much like American wedding or graduation cards, for holding a gift of money. Since Japan is a cash-based society, the money is always a generous amount of crisp bills fresh from the bank .

The post offices in Japan stay open on New Year’s Day to deliver all the cards. I have only been in Japan four months and I even received a few in the mail. For a country that is so resource-conscious, t here is definitely a lot of paper being wasted here. If only they could be recycled into better dinner napkins.

The Japanese have many traditions at this time of year. For instance, families take trips to family shrines sometime after midnight Jan. 1. A traditional first New Year’s breakfast is also an important part of the Japanese New Year’s celebration. But one tradition I can’t avoid mentioning can happen at any time during the winter season: the nabe party.

Nabe (pronounced “nah-beh”) is a warm soup or stew which many people share while sitting around the kotatsu. Nabe can be prepared in many different styles with various sets of ingredients. During a cold Japanese winter, a nabe party may be among the most fulfilling things to do. Nabe is made in a big pot heated on a regular or portable stove. Once the soup comes to a slight boil, guests fill their small bowls again and again until all the ingredients are gone. After enjoying the nabe, drinking and socializing, more ingredients are added. The process then repeats itself until everyone is full.

Many different styles of nabe exist, all of which are delicious. One of these, yami nabe, is more fun than it is appetizing. You see, in Japanese, yami means dark; but yami nabe doesn’t mean “dark nabe,” it means “nabe in the dark.” Strange as it sounds, there is a good reason for the title. Before the nabe party, every guest is asked to select and bring a mystery ingredient, preferably something strange, unusual and definitely not suitable to be cooked in a stew. There are no rules for what is acceptable and unacceptable, save for one: The ingredient must be edible.

The water is boiled, the lights are turned off and everyone adds a mystery ingredient. In a circle, one at a time, each person sticks chopsticks into the pot and eats whatever happens to be picked up. The rule here is that you must eat whatever you get, no matter what. As you might imagine, people may bring some foul and unusual ingredients. But if you add something truly awful, it just may be the case that you end up being the first one to eat it.

At my third nabe party, yami nabe, which I had never tried, was eaten after real nabe. At the supermarket I picked out hot peppers, not having a clue what others were bringing. So what mystery foods met my peppers in the nabe that night? Pineapple rings, full cloves of garlic, tomatoes, octopus tempura, a whole apple, an entire kiwi and mini custard-filled donuts, all with a soggy, beefy, fruity, garlic-and-pepper taste. The laughs and excitement drowned out the bad tastes and the yami nabe proved to be a great party meal.

The Japanese tend to take so much pride in their food that it was amusing to experience this meal that is meant to be a complete joke. My mom always told me not to play with my food, but yami nabe takes food play too far by allowing dinner antics like having a food fight with your mouth open.