a happy tet (chuc mung nam moi)

i don’t know who started the calendar as it is today. who decided today is january 25th? at least, i know there are 2 calendar systems: solar and lunar. to avoid confusion, most people on this planet use a solar calendar now. but in some asian countries such as china and vietnam, people celebrate the new year by lunar calendars. as a matter of fact, the first day of the lunar (or the chinese) new year falls on january 26th, tomorrow. they have their own customs and vernacular style of celebrations, all the same, it is time for family reunions just like it is for the japanese.

in vietnam, the new year is called tet. a week before tet, shion, my daughter, and i visited ho chi minh city, formally and better known as saigon, in 2007. vietnam had been sort of my obsession since i met cong, who is a parisien painter and of vietnamese origin, back in 1991. it was a chance encounter that happened to me at la brasserie lipp in saint-german des pres during my trip to paris. one afternoon, i was having my late lunch by myself at the table next to the one where he and gary, a hawaiian guy on holiday visiting cong, were sitting. a clumsy garçon who served me got us started a “sympa” conversation. we clicked instantly.

cong invited me over to dinner and cooked excellent vietnamese dishes for me and gary. his apartment was so chic, adorned with vietnamese brocantes. after the dinner, we went out dancing to le balajo, a popular nightclub at the time. although i didn’t really fancy dancing, we had fun. while gary and i still stay close (we reunited in manhattan last year!), cong lost contact with me. even so, cong had instilled a longing for vietnam in my heart. later on, i was intrigued by the book, “l’amant” written by marguerite duras. as a result, i always associated saigon with paris and kept on dreaming about the city… luckily, the time was ripe at last.

flying from chilly osaka to some city in tropical southeast asia was something i had also longed for in winter. on our arrival at the airport, i at once felt a touch of everlasting summer: a humidity. then shion and i moved to the arrival lounge where we met our local guide and we walked up to his mini van. as we drove into the city centre, buzzing motorcyclists swarmed onto every road. what a chaos…we were completely mesmerised. i’ve never ever forgotten experiencing the bewildering moment and the momentum of ho chi minh city. people were going home in an awful rush as dusk was deepening.

there were few traffic lights for pedestrians in ho chi minh city, so if you wanted to go the other side of the road, it would be murderous. shion and i at first had to wait till some local people crossed the road. we later got used to it a bit and did cross over by ourselves, though. frankly, we got tired of the hustle bustle a little. our hotel room, overlooking the saigon river, was situated opposite the lamppost with a public speaker, from which some loud voices came every single morning at, i guess, 6 am. the rush hour started incredibly early in the morning in ho chi minh city. we had no clue what it was for or what was announced.

by contrast, vietnamese people walked quietly and talked softly. they were somewhat even graceful in manner. for example, the room staff, both male and female, of the hotel appeared and then disappeared, practically making no noise. they smoothly moved from one room to another in bare feet. we were impressed. ah, i selected the majestic saigon by the way, because this grand hotel had a french colonial flavour and was said to be some great authors’ favourite. it turned out satisfactory. the hotel was located in the heart of the dong khoi district, so most sight-seeing spots we planned to visit were all in walking distance.

shion and i especially enjoyed bargain-hunting at the ben thanh market for silk scarves, exquisitely embroidered bags and slippers and other pretty little things, or at trendy boutiques for a celadon green ceramic tea set and kitschy souvenirs. ho chi minh city was a girlie shopping paradise, so to speak. we came across a gorgeous hindu temple and a mosque, as well. they all looked overwhelmingly exotic. in the majestic, i sunbathed on the poolside chair (shion tried hiding from the sun) and pampered ourselves with a heavenly 1-hour massage at the luxurious spa. there was almost nothing that could cast a shadow over our holiday.

still, i must confess. shion and i skipped the war museum, which i knew it was our obligation to see what happened in this country. as far as the citizens’ daily life was concerned, the vietnam war seemed to have sunken into oblivion of the saigon river. the city was vibrant and progressive. but, one morning, i recognised a woman vendor who had some abnormality among other vendors selling fruits on the street. i suspected the cause was a sort of toxic weapons like agent orange used during the war. so cruel. she could’ve been a young lady back then? i could not help averting my eyes from her. there should've been tens of thousands of little children or babies in mother’s wombs who fell victim to the deadly chemical in this country.

anyway, why not celebrate tet, the lunar new year, too? in asian countries including japan, a happy new year means a happy new spring. actually, it may be already the new spring. like those pictures of flowers springing into bloom i posted last time (except that crazy cherry blossom), signs of spring are apparent. despite the recent big chill, spring is approaching faster and closer than we think.


in the depth of winter

after that day, life is never the same. “that day” is the day doctor tells you “you have cancer.” everyone of us knows someone who’s had to face the news – this is what leroy sievers, who was a respectful journalist and passed away last summer, put on his daily “cancer blog” as a lead-in. while i was taking my own cancer treatment in the summer of 2007, jason, my american friend, told me about his blog. but before i read these lines, exactly the same ones had already come into my mind. certainly, all the cancer survivors should share this feeling, including my big brother.

my brother had a major operation on friday as he told me so last month. on friday morning, i got up at 6 am and his wife picked me up at 10 to 7:00. we reached his award at 7: 30, which was early enough to have chats with him. while we were exchanging some light jokes, his mobile beeped every time it received a message from his friends. then, a nurse turned up and made sure the operation was scheduled to start at 9 am and likely to be completed at 5 pm at the earliest. it was going to be a long day for all of us. when my brother had to move on to a stretcher, he handed me his ipod and said: “you’d better bring this with you, otherwise you’d get bored. you love madonna’s oldies, huh?”

my brother on the stretcher flanked by nurses, his wife and daughter and i went down to the 2nd floor. other patients with their entourages were waiting in front of the automatic glass doors, heading to operating rooms. it was a rush hour for surgery sort of time. after several minutes the traffic started to move and my brother on the stretcher was taken behind the doors. then, there was another traffic jam. all the stretchers were queuing up as if they were on a conveyor belt. after a minute or two, it moved again and we waved each other goodbye. he vanished into the unknown place at last. it was never meant a goodbye for good, but my tears kept falling down. no wonder, other people had their heart-wrenching moment, too.

meanwhile, in a cramped waiting room, we took a seat, doing really nothing but waiting. although we’ve been getting along pretty well since i settled in osaka, my brother’s wife, let alone my 20-year-old niece, and i had little in common in terms of hobbies or tastes. so our banter tended to fade away sooner than i wished. i fished in my tote for the ipod; grabbed it and played the music – “holiday! celebrate!” -- actually, my brother took me to madonna’s concert in the summer of 2006 (his wife is not keen on pop music like madonna’s). inevitably, the music made me think how he was supporting everyone in the family with no stint.

i could not hold my tears back. i thought this was just not fair -- why my brother? why does he have to have cancer and why does it have to be at the stage 3? in my case, it was also at the stage 3 and had no possible surgical option. a miracle kind of happened, however. radio-chemotherapy worked extremely well to me. i'm alive and kicking now. so why didn't that happen to him? why does he have to go through a horrible bout like this? -- while i was wondering why, why, why, my brother was undergoing surgery on his body to remove all malignant parts of his gullet, cardia and lymph nodes. poor thing. but maybe, i should put it this way: his diagnosed case was operable, which is good. isn’t it?

i tried so hard not to think about my brother anymore. otherwise, my heart would ache unbearably. i found the best way that i let myself hear the babble of people’s voices in the room rather than listening to the music. when the telephone in the room rang to announce that some patient’s operation was over, his family walked out. they were to visit a private room where a doctor would provide them an explanation of how it went. a group disappeared from the room one after another. by 4 pm, there were only two groups left including us in the room. at 4:30 pm the telephone rang and it was for us. we learned that it was even a half hour earlier than expected, which was obviously a good sign.

a woman-doctor in surgery-suit was awaiting us in a tiny room with a desk and chairs. as we sat, she explained, drew a picture of my brother’s body and showed us the parts she removed. my brother’s wife just nodded or replied to her. i asked her a couple of questions, which i don’t remember at all now. although we were told to wait back in the waiting room for another half an hour or so, we felt relieved no end. eventually, we were allowed to see him in the icu. as soon as i saw him, lying on the bed with the bronchial tubes surrounded by many medical machines, tears welled up in my eyes. a visible scar with horrible staples of his throat was too poignant for me to look at. i talked to him...there was no reply. one of the surgeons said that my brother was still half-unconscious, but he moved a little and looked like he was struggling to wake up.

i held his right hand gently. he held my hand back and tightened even more, though his eyes were shut. before we left him there, i told my niece to hold her father’s hand. to my surprise, she refused it, saying “too creepy.” he in fact looked quite ghastly, but how come did she see her father creepy? i told the same to his wife next, she touched her husband’s hand very tentatively. the way they reacted to my suggestion simply shocked me, which would not escape me, actually. but on my second thought, they were quite normal. because we japanese have no such "body contact" between parents and children once they grow up. what’s more, we don’t say “i love you” between family members, maybe because it’s too obvious to tell?

every japanese family holds an unbreakable family bond. even if my niece doesn’t say “i love you” to her daddy, she does love him heart and soul. maybe, i’ve been westernised too much? maybe i was also wrong in expecting them to wear their heart on their sleeve. the japanese are shy. apart from that, i am always grateful to them for their kindness. above all, i greatly appreciate the fact that my brother has his own family especially when he is ill. i thank his wife for her optimistic attitude towards his illness from the bottom of my heart. but (oh, no), then again, i was upset that my 18-year-old nephew did not come and see his father either before or after the operation.
why not? it beats me. as my brother confinded to me he was sad that his son seemed not worried about him while taking chemotherapy, i called my nephew to visit his father the next day. he sounded a little bit annoyed. for all that, i know it is not fair if i criticise his family for not crying for my brother. i know they are having a hard time, too. we, as an extended family, must share the feelings for him, right? i knew i should not go on any further. and i did not. even so, when i was having my breakfast alone yesterday, unexpected tears rolled down my cheeks. i couldn't help recalling that they looked uncannily unflappable standing beside my brother.

i still could not understand how they learned to control their emotions even when they saw their beloved one suffering. how ever did they manage that? i can tell, none of my family couldn’t do that. in fact, my mother is too fragile to face her son in pain. as she is a terrible worrier, her blood pressure would easily go up beyond the safety level. anyway, there was no point in complaining and blaming. so i had a walk in the park to change my feeling. i was ashamed of having had such a narrow mind. i appreciated the park-scape of winter, which freed me from the silly pettiness.

later on, the news my brother's wife kindly brought me was that my brother already got out of the icu, making a quick and good recovery when she visited him. good news! what else should i want from his family? i'll be seeing him tomorrow with no anxiety.


having a bowl of rice porridge after feasting

on january 7th we japanese went frugal on our culinary front nationwide. it was 七草の節句 nanakusa no sekku (the festival of 7 herbs) and is customary for us to have a humble bowl of お粥 o-kayu (rice porridge) with 春の七草 haru no nanakusa (7 young spring herbs: some of them are edible common weeds and used to be easily found in meadows; we don't try to find any of them anymore). recently, this slow-cooking custom has become increasingly popular again. it’s never come that frugal, however. most japanese go to local supermarkets or greengrocers to get an exquisitely packed 七草nanakusa (7 herbs) for cooking 七草粥 nanakusa-gayu (seven-herb rice porridge) at home.

in my opinion, it doesn’t have to have 七草nanakusa (7 herbs). because, this custom is originally meant to give our stomach a break from rich festive foods. so, (some would think i’m a cheapskate rather than being frugal, but i love to see myself having a genius for substituting) i cooked my お粥 0-kayu (rice porridge) with chopped leaves of 大根 daikon (japanese white radish), which usually go straight down to a rubbish bin. the key to make it yummy is adding small stone-like dried pieces of お餅o-mochi (pounded rice-taffy/rice cake) that give it a better flavour and a bit of crunchy texture, which i learned from a tv chef.

what sort of festive foods did we eat for the new year celebrations, then? you might be curious about that by now? voila. i took every bit of the festive food home, stuffing them in one box (originally 3 layered) after my mother and i celebrated the first morning of 2009 together (my pictures are all in one "solo" versions, but, gee, my plate looks too greedy!). traditionally, we have a big breakfast on the new year’s day morning, which is called お節料理 o-sechi ryouri or just お節 o-sechi for short. and it must be served with お雑煮 o-zoni, which is rice-taffy (like dumpling) miso soup or clear broth soup, depending on where your parents come from. mine is kyoto style, made with white miso soup.
prior to the big morning, all women from young to old used to be slaving over a hot stove till quite late on new year’s eve. in fact, お節 o-sechi, containing lots of sugar and soy source, is designed to last for the 3-day period of new year’s celebration in order to lighten women’s workload preparing breakfast during the holidays. women no longer let ourselves slave away even on new year’s eve. we still do cook something we like, but not the whole stuff, while everyone certainly make お雑煮 o-zoni at home. more and more people get delicious お節o-sechi from restaurants or delis through department stores than before. in this way, we japanese women don’t need to be already worn out at the new year.

my mother, too, cooks only a couple of dishes and buys a semi-complete set of お節 osechi. i don’t cook anything since i’m not particularly good at japanese-cooking, instead, i can be creative for presentation. quintessential お節料理 o-sechi-ryori is usually arranged in 2 or 3 layered lacquer-ware boxes. every food must be beautifully presented. many prefer a complete ready-to-serve set of お節 osechi, which means one already in fancy plastic boxes, to a ready-to-arrange set. i dislike plastic boxes. so, i go hunting foliage such as fern and bamboo in the park before hand. arranging food in lacquer-ware boxes is my happy new year’s eve job.

as a rule, the top box is for sweetened foods, which is called 口取り kuchidori (starter). sweet things for a start? you might think i’ve mixed up hors d’œuvre with dessert. well, i don’t know the eating rules, exactly. i don’t know weather or not we should eat things from the top box first, either. every box is to show and be placed side by side on the table, anyway. incidentally, whenever i stayed at my grandmother’s home, in reminiscence, there was a peculiar tradition to have a cup of 煎茶 sencha (fine green tea) with some japanese sweets as the very first thing in the morning before breakfast. for a family tradition and celebration, anything goes just like that. it is ok to start with whatever you like. after all, you are the rules at your home.

besides, our festive foods don’t have to be too traditional. you can add anything to お節o-sechi. in my case this year, i asked my mother to have some roast duck (in the picture, with flavoured root vegetables my mother cooked), which went superbly with chilean cabernet sauvignon. oh, no, i’m no wine savvy at all, and i normally drink white wine, not red, but, instead of お屠蘇 0-toso (special sake), having red wine at the new year is my family's tradition. my parents even allowed me to have a tiny glass of sweet port to make a toast when i was little.

all in all, the new year is for everyone around the world to celebrate and carry on feasting day and night (and also morning for the japanese). but finally, the festive mood of the new year in japan will be disappearing after tomorrow's another festival. i am happily going back on my normal diet of bread, pasta and lots of vegetables as things are also going back to normal now that we’ve already started to hear of gloomy news again.

(keen on japanese new year’s celebrations? click here for more infomation)


deck the halls with boughs of pine

i’m sure you’re still enjoying the holiday season. so are we japanese. we got out of our christmas fantasy completely, though. we japanese don’t mix our new year celebration with christmas. so you can see no christmas trees anyplace in japan now. our 新年shinnen (new year) has got to be traditional, authentic and 100% japanese. once chrismas day (or even christmas eve!) is gone, in my country, people get busy with preparations for the new year celebration, sweating our guts out. how and why, you'd ask? we, at home and also in our offices, dust and clean every nook and cranny -- even statues of buddha and gutters before 正月shogatsu (the new year).

what a sobering thought! ... a killjoy? i guess you think. indeed, we japanese are serious people even when the time is for letting our hair down, aren’t we. but i don’t argue, since it’s a custom and meant to purify things and ourselves. so much so that our new year arrives as a fresh and dignified start. traditionally, in many ways, our new year holidays is just like christmas holidays in christian countries: a mass exodus for family reunions; exchanging (small) gifts; decking the halls; seasonal gastro-enthusiasm for traditional food (to gain weight, definitely!) and most importantly, caring for people in need.

on new year’s eve we visit a buddhist temple to shake off our 108 worldly desires as the temple bell tolls 108 times by midnight, which is our sort of new year's countdown. and then, many people move on to ideal spots somewhere for viewing the sunrise. being at the crack of the new dawn is very important. well, if weather permitting, though. over the next 3 days, we visit a shrine to pray for something we wish. i've come to think of it, to serve our purpose, we japanese can be christian, buddhist or shintoist, or namely anything like chameleon. whatever i will be, the new year is the time when i’m happy to be japanese and feel lucky to be in japan.

especially, i love the refined new year appearance and atmosphere of 東山higashiyama, an old neighbourhood of 京都 kyoto, where i was born. it’s divine. you would be struck by the beauty if you were in kyoto at this time of year. for their colour scheme, their formalism and their presentations, kyotoites’ aesthetics of "しつらいshitsurai (decking the halls)" is even magical. when i walk along the streets lined with neat rows of houses and shops in kyoto, it makes me proud of my origin. kyotoites preserve their local custom and stick to traditional values (good ones) while they are increasingly forgotten in our modern society.

new year decorations must be set on december 28th. but i’m always a tradition-breaker, placing my tiny 鏡餅 kagamimochi (ornamental rice-cake) on new year’s eve, which is considered bad luck. coincidentally, our new year decorations, especially the colours, look a bit similar to christmas decoration. 松matsu (pine), 竹take (bamboo), 橙daidai (citrus), 藁wara (straw) and 裏白urajiro (fern) are main materials for decking, but, like holly, foliage with red berries such as 南天nanten (nadiana), 千両senryo (sarcandra glabra) or 万両manryo (ardiosa crenata sims) are also often used. every item has a meaning that is supposed to bring us good luck. we japanese are good-luck believers (or plain gullible?) and fond of trivial superstitions.

actually, i’d been working hard (except the new year’s day), having a deadline to meet over the past week, so i didn’t go out to kyoto this year. but, hooray! i’ve just finished and sent it to my editor. now i at last feel like celebrating while most people are going back to work tomorrow. by the way, we must remove all the decorations after january 7th that is when our 松の内matsuynouchi (period of new year celebration) is officially over (like epiphany?). till then, i am still allowed to be in the festive mood for few more days.