Dave Dreams of Sushi ...

Before I ever set foot in Japan, I read a great deal about the place. I had been developing an interest in the country for a few years, and had purchased a number of books on the culture and language. Many of these books included descriptions of Japanese seasons and holidays, and of course among these, the New Year festivities featured heavily.

I learned that this was far and away the most important of all holidays in Japan, with normal activities coming to a complete halt for at least three days. Housewives prepared in advance all the food that would be needed, including any number of seasonal dishes, as there were no shops open during the holiday. On the first day of the year, everybody dressed up in their best clothes, many of them in traditional kimono, and headed out to a shrine or temple for a ceremonial visit.

Yes, well. My own first New Year in Japan was a somewhat different experience. Myself and the young Japanese lady who would later become the mother of my children arrived in Japan late one November, and after a few weeks of travelling around here and there, headed for her family home to spend the new year season with her parents. I was very much looking forward to the visit. No more reading about it - I would actually be here, spending this wonderfully exotic holiday out in the country in a small village, surely the heart of 'real' Japan.

But as we drew near her hometown, my partner grew more and more visibly nervous, perhaps having heard me talk about this. "Please don't expect too much! My family are not wealthy ... we won't be wearing fancy kimono, you know!"

Well ... OK; I can see kimono anytime, I guess.

"And don't expect any of those fancy specially-ordered 'o-sechi' meals. Everything will be prepared by my elderly mother ..."

Well ... that actually starts to sound pretty good ...

"But they are very plain and simple people, and their food is the same. Do you like sushi?"

Do I like sushi? Are you kidding? Lead me to it!

Well, I could draw this story out for quite a long time, but let's see how it actually played out. The family home that she led me to must at one time many years ago have been a buzzing and busy household, but with all the younger generations having left to make a life in the big cities (or overseas), things had become pretty quiet. And when I say 'pretty quiet' I mean it. Her older sister and the elderly couple lived in a small house somewhat separated from the rest of the village. Their life revolved around tending the couple of vegetable plots that were all that was left of the family farm (this was the work of the two women), and spending all day at the household altar praying to the ancestors (this was Grandad's job).

There were no kimonos, no shrine visits, and no festivities, but they did maintain a tradition of preparing special food for the new year. On the last day of the year, grandma cooked up a much larger batch of rice than usual, using the ancient wood stove in her cooking area (I can't really use the term 'kitchen' for this space). Once this was ready, she and the two daughters then formed it into dozens and dozens of small balls, and laid a small strip of 'sanma' (Pacific Saury, a very common fish in that part of Japan) on top of each one. The sushi was then arrayed on old wooden trays that were brought out from storage for the purpose, and these were then stacked one on top of the other at one end of the room.

New Year morning; the ladies served the usual soup and a couple of dishes of mountain vegetables, and we were served the sushi from the uppermost tray. It was ... OK. The rice was from their own fields, but the fish was not exactly what one would find at Tsukiji. There were no shops in this village, and the area was served by guys driving little vans around selling foodstuffs off the tailgate. By the time those guys got up to this mountain village, 'fresh' was not an adjective that would honestly apply to their wares.

Then came lunch; the ladies served the usual soup and a couple of dishes of mountain vegetables, and we were served the sushi from the next tray in the stack. A few hours later, came dinner; the ladies served the usual soup and a couple of dishes of mountain vegetables ...

I should be careful not to make it sound as though I am criticizing or complaining. As my partner had 'warned' me, her family were indeed living a very simple life. They were - as far as I could tell - completely happy and content with their daily routine, and wanted nothing more than what they had ... peaceful days tending their garden and their shrine, and enjoying their rice and vegetables, with the occasional 'special' treat on holidays.

But by the end of the third day, I was beginning to tell myself, "I don't think I'll ever look another Saury in the eye again ... ever!"

And you know, I haven't!


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