Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year

As usual at New Year, The Man and I went to visit Okaasan. She does not live far away (only one train stop, and then a short bus ride), but we don't get there very often, or at least I don't. The Man occasionally pops in to check on things, but I am generally too busy with work. So is she. Her house is a sort of day-care centre for old people. She has been doing this for decades, and now most of the 'old people' she is paid to take care of are quite a lot younger than she is. (The payment comes from the city government, and it is peanuts. However it also includes some nice perks, like her big new flat screen TV.) This job keeps her busy six days a week, and she enjoys it enormously.

We got there after a slight detour to buy a saucepan. Why Okaasan suddenly urgently needed a saucepan on New Year's Eve I don't know. We didn't ask. Or, rather, The Man did ask, when he was talking to her on the phone, but when I asked him he said he hadn't quite understood her explanation.

It was lovely to see Okaasan, but in her way too small and uncomfortable house we felt rather cramped, as we always do. Okaasan is a tiny woman, and doesn't seem to mind the tiny house, but it always makes us feel squashed. This squashed feeling spread inward as Okaasan plied us with food, mostly things she had been given for New Year by her various friends and the old people. We ate far too many cakes and snacks and other assorted rubbish, but apparently not enough because she kept opening new boxes and telling us that THIS was delicious! We should try some! And look at THIS! It's famous in (insert obscure Japanese town here) until finally we told her we were ready for our soba noodles, the traditional New Year's Eve meal. The Man prepared that, and having us obviously busy with food in front of us kept her off our backs for half an hour or so. Okaasan seems to think that we are starving to death if we are not constantly stuffing our faces.

After we had eaten our noodles Okaasan told me about her teeth. She has four new front teeth. I was surprised. I hadn't heard about this, or noticed. The new teeth look exactly like the old ones did, and I had thought all her teeth were her own.

"They were, until earlier this year," she told me. "But then I had the eye operation and my teeth fell out."

I nodded sympathetically and assumed I had misunderstood. Okaasan frequently makes me doubt my ability to understand Japanese, but asking her to explain never works. She just tells me again, only faster. (I am not complaining about this. It was in the days when I was seeing her more frequently that I made the most progress with Japanese. I was forced to, in self-defense.)

The eye operation was for cataracts. Okaasan can now see clearly again. This doesn't seem to have helped her to put on her eyebrows straight, but I didn't really think it would. If Okaasan's eyebrows looked normal I might start to worry.

She told me that she is fantastically healthy. Her cholesterol levels are fine, and so is everything else, except her teeth. She seems to go to the doctor a lot, but I suspect this is more for the social occasion than anything else, like a lot of old people in Japan. She told me what her doctor had told her – that she has nothing wrong, no complicated medicines to take, her heart is fine, and she's in very good health overall. She was very proud of this. I guess the fact that she seems to have shrunk a little every time I see her is normal considering her age. After all, she is eighty, even if she doesn't look it. She looks about sixty-five. (She also looks rather like a bag lady, but The Man gets a little touchy if I mention that.)

Speaking of doctors, my friend and I were talking the other day about this custom of elderly Japanese people treating doctor visits as social occasions. Whenever you have to visit a hospital here there are always large numbers of elderly people sitting around in the waiting area, gossiping happily. My friend told me about an incident when she and her husband were waiting to see a doctor at a hospital, and her husband suddenly started laughing. When she asked him why, he told her that he had just overhead some of the conversation coming from a bunch of old people who were also waiting. The conversation went something like this:

"Where's Honda-san today? She's usually here on Fridays."

"No, she's not here, is she? She must be sick!"

It's good that Okaasan is healthy, though. It's one less worry for us, although at some point we'll have to think about how we're going to care for her. Not yet, though. She scoffs at the idea that she might need help, and seems to be doing very well. At one point she told us that she had been up since 2am, and when The Man scolded her for not sleeping enough, she added that she had gone to bed at eight, and (she counted on her fingers) six hours is quite enough at her age.

"But didn't you nap in the daytime?" The Man asked.

"No!" she said, and laughed at the very idea. Who needs naps when they're fantastically healthy, like her?

The Man told her that her back was looking curved, so she obviously had stiff shoulders. He gave her a shoulder massage. For a while all we heard from her was,

"Itai! Itai! Itai!" ("Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!")

After a bit she trailed off into mumblings, then she went silent and her head drooped forward, and she went as limp as a rag doll. I did not notice this because I was watching TV, but then I heard The Man's asking something quietly. I turned around.

"Is she all right?" he asked, smiling worriedly. He was still working on a knot in her upper back with one hand, while the other was holding her shoulder to prevent her from collapsing completely.

She was sitting on a cushion, her legs encased in bright orange long felt boot-slippers (I am slightly ashamed to admit that I gave these to her, as if she didn't look eccentric enough) sticking out in front of her, and drooped over so far it looked like her head was about to hit her knees. I put my own head down and looked up at her face. Her eyes were closed.

"I think she's dead," I informed The Man.

"Don't say that!" he said, laughing but looking alarmed. "That's what it feels like!" He continued with the massage, and Okaasan's head jerked up briefly.

"Hmm? Hee hee! Itai!" she said, and her head drooped forward again.

When she finally woke up again her back was much straighter than it had been. We sent her to bed before midnight, and she wasn't as reluctant as she pretended to be. After she'd gone, The Man and I looked at each other.

"I bet she naps ALL THE TIME," I said. "She couldn't possibly have stayed awake that long."

"She just doesn't remember," he agreed.

After midnight The Man and I walked to the nearest little shrine for our traditional New Year visit. We usually go later when the crowds have thinned a bit, but last night we were both feeling a bit sleepy ourselves (probably from all the food), and anyway this is such a small shrine that it's never all that crowded anyway.

The cold air woke us up fairly quickly, and by the time we got to the shrine we were ready to spend some time in front of the fire pit.

I tried to take a picture of the line of people waiting to pray at the shrine, but forgot to use the flash for the first picture. As it turned out, I like this picture better than the one where I did use the flash, though.

At a counter they were selling Omikuji (fortunes) and Hamaya (arrows that are supposed to ward off evil, but are really treated more as decorative). People bring back their old Hamaya from last year, to be burned in the fire pit. Then they buy new ones.

Here is the barrel for returning last year's talismans, Hamaya and so on.

There is also a place to hang your Ema. These are basically written prayers, or wishes. People ask for things like good health, good exam results, success in finding a job, and so on.

The beautiful shrine maidens were there again, serving sake from a barrel. I think they were the same shrine maidens as last year, and the year before, and the year before that. (Actually I did see one actual shrine maiden, but she looked about 95 years old and I missed taking her picture.)

Before you go in to pray at the shrine, you are supposed to wash (i.e. purify) your hands and rinse out your mouth at this trough. Not many people did. It was too cold.

We did, and that was when we decided that standing around the fire for a while would be a good idea.

There were lanterns hanging everywhere.

After the shrine visit we walked back to Okaasan's place and warmed up under the kotatsu before going to bed, where we discovered that Okaasan had forgotten to turn on the electric blankets and all our carefully stored-up heat vanished into the chilly beds.

In the morning we had the traditional New Year meal, which was, as usual, neverending. Okaasan kept remembering more and more dishes she'd forgotten to put out, and we kept telling her that we had ENOUGH, thank you, we CAN'T EAT ANY MORE. She seemed rather disappointed with us, and pointed out later, as she was clearing the table, that it looked like nobody had eaten anything. She was right, but that was not because we had not eaten. It was because there was enough food there for about twenty people and we'd only managed to eat enough for six.

When we were leaving Okaasan came out to the gate with us, and that was when I noticed that her hair has gone a rather strange shade of pink, mostly (but not only) at the ends. It hadn't shown under the artificial lighting. I did not mention this, however. I was still trying to get my head around the teeth explanation, and didn't need another one. Instead, I gave her a big hug, which made her giggle and get all flustered.

I asked The Man about the teeth as we were walking towards the main road.

"She didn't really say that, did she?" I asked. "I must have heard it wrong. What was the real story?"

"No, you heard right. That is what she said," said The Man.

"Oh," I said, and felt simultaneously cleverer and more stupid. "How can eye surgery make your teeth fall out?"

"I didn't ask," said The Man.

I love Okaasan, and I'm always happy to see her. She injects mystery and wonder into our lives.

But the occasional one day visit is enough. If we had stayed very much longer I think I would have expired from a combination of overeating and terminal confusion.


torrygirl said...

Okaasan feeding everyone up reminds me of my grandmother, who used to do the same thing. No matter how much you ate, she would always expect you to eat more.

Happy New Year!

Keera Ann Fox said...

I like how the Japanese celebrate New Year's. I like the idea of bringing back something from last year to burn and be exchanged for a new one for this year. I know what my Ema would say. I write for myself at the new year.

kenju said...

That's a wonderful story. She must be a little like my mother-in-law and my mom and grandmom too, who always wanted you to eat far more than you had room for or needed.

lina said...

what a nice story. Okaasan reminds me of my grandma. :-)
the story of the old people at the hospital is funny!

Ian said...


Phew! What a post! I'm sure you could have split that up over a few days, but it was very informative.

However now I can't stop thinking about how the heck could an eye operation cause teeth to fall out. After I finish reading all of my Japan Blogs for today, I'm going to try and find out some info!

Badaunt said...

Torrygirl: Maybe it's a Grandma thing? (Okaasan is 'grandma' generation, after all.)

Keera: The New Year traditions are really changing, and not for the better. It used to be that everything closed for three days over the New Year, a big surprise to me in my first year because NOTHING was open, and I ran out of food! But these days shops are open on the 2nd, and some even on the 1st. In fact there is a new mall near Okaasan's place which has had a huge sale on the 1st for two years running, which means that on our way back home we passed an enormous traffic jam coming the other way. In previous years it was rare to see more than about four or five cars in the 10 minute taxi ride to the station - and we had to phone for a taxi because there was never one out on the street. It's a bit sad, really. It used to be extended family time, but now it's just shopping, like any other day.

Kenju: Is it because they valued food more, do you think? Or it had a different meaning? The more you eat, the more you are appreciating their hospitality, maybe?

Lina: I laughed and laughed at the hospital story when my friend told me. It summed up the whole 'old people at the hospital' thing here PERFECTLY.

Contamination: It was a long day - and I made up for it by not posting for the next couple of days. :-)

I wouldn't bother trying to find an explanation for the eye operation/teeth thing. I'm fairly sure the connection was all in Okaasan's head. The tooth thing was probably from a long-standing problem she hadn't noticed until it was too late. After all, she is eighty! She did pretty well to hold onto her own teeth this long.