An Okinawan New Year

Last Week I posted an article on Mochi for New Years, and before that, one on Hagaki.  In Japan, New Years is just too big an event(s) for even two posts, so here is a third.  Coincidentally, this was my third New Years in Japan.  My first two years, I was living on Kitadaito Island and was warmly welcomed by a local family.  That island had a unique mix of mainland Japanese and Okinawan culture as it was settled by people from Hachijo (near Tokyo) more than one hundred years ago.

Now I’m on an island on the other side of Okinawa Honto.  This time I got a straight Okinawan New Years (with a slightly stronger Chinese influence perhaps).  Of course this isn’t Kyu-shougatsu or the New Years based on the lunar calendar (the traditional  New Years) which will take place next month.

Like on my previous island, I was warmly welcomed for New Years Eve dinner with their family.  We ate, watched the New Years concert specials on TV, and talked.  This lasted well into the evening.   The next morning I got up before sunrise and went with another family to a local shrine, where we watched the sunrise and made Mochi.

After the shrine, a friend of mine was kind enough to bring me along as he took his son to their various relatives.  In Japan, kids get money from their relatives for New Years.  It can often amount to several hundred dollars!  On Kumejima, at least, that wasn’t the only thing they got.

For the most part, the Grandparents (and mothers) would be waiting for the kids and fathers to show with snacks, drinks (beer and sake for the adults even at 10am… it was New Years after all), and little envelopes for the kids.

My friends’ son would kneel across the table from his relatives and greet them (Happy New Year!) and then get a cartoon covered envelope that would contain some cash.  Afterward, he would put his hands out again (this time a bit more reluctantly, the grandparents often chuckling to themselves), left over right, palms up.  The relative then placed a bit of cooked pork liver with a bit of salt for him to eat.  This is a traditional food here, a treat the adults eat with nostalgia and most kids try to avoid.  The cash and the tradition go somewhat hand in hand.  At some houses they also gave fish flakes.  One of the snacks in common was a traditional sweet blue potato dish as well (though not handed out).

Most of the houses were in the same general area, allowing us to walk to each and greet each segment of the extended family, eat, chat, and share New Years wishes.  I don’t know if this happens on the Okinawan mainland, but it was a special day and an amazing look into why and how such communities stay so closely knit together.  I’m sure that when my friend’s son has kids of his own, he’ll enjoy the liver with the same nostalgia and chuckles at his own kids’ hesitation.

After visiting relatives, we went to a lunch party with the “young adult club” at a person’s house.  The party was because the house had been completed in the previous year.  It was a celebration, a thank you to those who had helped build it, and also an offering in hopes for the safety and stability of the new house for the coming year.

Of course, as a guest, I got a taste of the New Year as well…