The Sweetest Spot in the White Room

Sunday, December 30, 2001
Mountains of Big Bear and back to the Flatlands

End of the Year Greetings!

O, DH, and Freddy B
Wherever they are is the sweetest spot
 in the white room -- our backyard in the wintertime.

Rested up and energized, we drove back to the flatlands, ready to tackle the final and intense preparation for our traditional New Year's Party for our island 'ohana.

It's a multi-cultural, island-style celebration, a potpourri of Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, American and Japanese influences.  I am grateful to my parents and grandparents for keeping their traditions vibrant and alive and passing them on to us, their children and grandchildren.  I remember those special New Year celebrations with a full, grateful and nostalgically happy heart.  

Although we are half an ocean away from our homeland and our blood relatives, in gratitude, we wish to pass these traditions on to those we love here on the mainland.  "They" are our adopted family or 'ohana hana`i, who are also far away from their parents' island roots, as well as their grandparents.  Perhaps, some of these traditions will stick and get passed on, to be enjoyed by their future families and generations to come.  

Why?  Because traditions bind the past with the present, forming a strong foundation of family and meaningful ties for the future, thereby creating a seamless flow of life.  

Growing up in Hawai`i, New Year's preparation started right after Christmas.  House-cleaning and decluttering were the top priorities. Windows and screens were washed and cleaned; furniture was polished; and drawers and closets were cleaned out and straightened.  In Hawai`i, as in Japan, our "spring cleaning" is actually post-Christmas cleaning as the new year god that brings good luck visits only clean, uncluttered houses.

Or so we were told -- or brainwashed to believe.  It worked.  We cleaned.

On New Year's Eve, we decorated each room with two rounded mochi (rice cakes), symbolizing the sun and moon, topped with the choicest tangerines picked from our backyard trees with stems and leaves still attached. The many seeds of the tangerine symbolized good fortune through offspring.  

Of course, I knew none of this symbolism as a child.  

New Year's Day was first traditionally spent with my immediate family members and close relatives. In my family, after we had all our morning baths and donned our new clothes, we were visited by our neighbors, and then my family, aunty, uncle, and cousins would gather at our maternal grandparents' house to pay our respects to our ancestors at the family altar and offer incense in remembrance.

Then, the the adults would pour sake and toast in the new year by thanking and wishing each other a prosperous and healthy year, while we kids swilled soda like water, an indulgence reserved for birthday parties, funerals and New Year's Day. We'd all gather around the big family table to wolf down an early lunch of traditional dishes, prepared by our grandmother.  

sake is Japanese rice wine, served hot on New Year's Day.
Sake is pronounced sah keh' with the accent on the second syllable 
and NOT sack' key as is often mispronounced.

The Japanese are too polite to correct this gross mispronunciation and just let it slide.  I'm Americanized, and believing that maybe you'd like to say it correctly and not wish to perpetuate a mispronunciation, I've included this little lesson.

Most of the foods eaten at New Year's are those considered to be auspicious -- among them are kuromame (sweet black beans for health ), kazunoko (a briny herring roe which represents "treasure that is children," i.e., fertility), gobo (burdock root for strong family ties) and kombu (rolled kelp is a play on the word yorokobu, which means delight, joy or gladness). 

My grandmother ALWAYS made sure we had at least one kuromame (black bean) to stay mamena (healthy); ate some of her nishime, a Japanese stew made with several of the aforementioned auspicious foods and namasu, a cucumber salad; and helped ourselves to the morimono (the dessert platter) with yokan (Japanese sweet bean jelly), decoratively cut oranges, small grape clusters, kamaboko (decorative fishcakes, symbolizing sunrise) and home-made Japanese "jello" called kanten, which I just learned today may have anti-cancer and healing properties.

It is only after learning the symbolism of these foods that I realized that her insistence was never for her sake, as she was a well-known cook n our village without the slightest need for our kid approval, but always for the sake of our health, family ties, and personal joy.   

She was not demonstrative, and in retrospect, I see that this was her way of showing her love, affection and concern to us.  My heart warms to think of her kindnesses to us now, although she is long gone from this Earth. I now have a far greater appreciation of the work, time, and effort that went into preparing her feast for us.

Our family would then pile into the car and go our separate way to join the partying with my parent's social circle -- truth be told, my dad's poker bunch and their wives and kids -- held on a rotating basis at one of their homes.  

My mother was known for her tasty island-style potato-macaroni crab salad (now DH's signature pot luck dish) with her secret ingredients of sweet pickle relish, grated onion and lots of eggs, prepared ahead on New Year's eve, and her generously stuffed won ton, deep fried on New Year's morning; these were her usual contributions to the potluck.  Both are labor-intensive dishes, and early on, we were recruited to help with their preparation.

Again, we'd gather around the tables laden with multicultural island foods, usually makeshift tables of wooden planks on short wooden horses and covered with meat paper, lined up lengthwise in the garage.  We'd sit on zabuton (cotton-filled cushions) on the garage floor, covered with goza (reed mats).

We'd eat up a storm, then run outside to play fireworks and games, while our parents sat around the tables talking story and drinking with their friends. There were nearly thirty of us children running around, playing and getting into lots and lots of mischief.  Miraculously, we all grew to adulthood with fingers, eyes and eardrums intact, in spite of our excited, sugar-stoked exploding of fireworks to drive away evil spirits. 

Except for the fireworks which are banned here, these are some of the island traditions we seek to preserve for our adopted family here on the mainland and the future generations, even if we are far away from our homeland of Hawai`i. 

So, today, on the way back from the mountains, we stopped at Nippon Foods in Anaheim to pick up the traditional New Year vegetables for the morning soup, including mochi, mizuna (Japanese watercress), daikon (Japanese turnip which represents longevity and a strong family foundation), carrots, and other staples.   

The rest of the day was spent cleaning the house from top to bottom.  The process is called susuharai, its purpose is to rub out the uncleanliness of the old year and purify the new. We cleaned our house as ritual dictates, and we also cleaned our inner houses, spiritually, by letting go of ill feelings and forgiving those who have hurt us, knowingly and unknowingly.  Just as we decluttered physically, we got rid of the past year's useless emotional baggage, including any worries, concerns, and negativities.

In Japan, years are traditionally seen as completely separate from each other, and the new year as a fresh start. January 1st is traditionally believed to be representative for the whole year that has just commenced. Therefore, the day should be full of joy and free of stress, anger and worries.

We intend to start 2002 with a clean slate. 

And so, DH and I carefully organized the serving areas: the dessert table, the sake table, the drinks area, the potluck table, and the dining room centerpiece.  

The fun, creative part, just as in my childhood, was gussying up the place.

To our parents, grandparents and ancestors, "Osewanarimashita and Aloha." We are forever indebted to you. 


"Life is a Gift."

Sweetly grateful,
Author Unknown

P.S.  If you would like to share a portion of yourself with words, in response to this journal entry, you may do it here.  

 "The only gift is a portion of thyself..."
Ralph Waldo Emerson


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This web journal was created on a September Morn, 
September 29, 2001
September Morn 2001