New Year's Day is the quietest day of the year in Japan. Nothing moves. Buses and trains come to a stand still, no stores are open, and women even stop cooking for the day. They have precooked meals for the three to four days ahead, and have stored these different foods beautifully presented in square lacquer boxes that stack up. All the women need to do for the first few days of each new year, a rare well-deserved break, is to measure rice into the rice cooker and hit the "on" button so there will be rice to eat with the dishes in the boxes.
In the nine years we lived in Japan, I can only remember a handful of Japanese homes we were actually invited inside. It is a real honor to be invited inside - not just for foreigners, but for anyone. There was one family, the Nakamuras, (the same family of the babysitter who knocked over our Christmas tree,) who welcomed the two gaijin (foreign) children into their home on New Year's Day every year. Mom made us wait until after Noon so they would have at least a morning of peace. We skipped around the corner of our silent street, past the big Japanese flag one of our neighbors hung outside their wall to the Nakamura's house and climbed the stairs to their gate.
I don't know if the Nakamura Family was happy to see us on New Year's Day, but they sure acted like they were glad when we showed up. Mrs. Nakamura still wore a kimono every day. When we arrived, their family was usually gathered around their low table, sitting on square zabuton pillows, and David and I joined them after climbing up into their house after removing our shoes. We went right to the table without being asked, showing the real purpose of why we had come. We came for the omochi.
Omochi is rice that has been pounded and pounded and pounded into a sticky gooey dense cake. The Nakamuras kept a little grill on top of their small table at New Years, and Mrs. Nakamura offered David and me a piece or two. Of course we agreed, since that was why we had come. She placed a couple of pieces on the grill, and we waited with anticipation, just like the rest of the Nakamuras, for the pieces to puff up, turning from a hard brick to the gooey, chewy treat. As it cooked, Mrs. Nakamura warned us about eating it too fast, telling us about the number of Japanese people who had died the previous New Year holiday choking on omochi.
When the omochi was ready, puffing up to double its size, a round air bubble poofing in the middle and the bottom turning a crispy brown, she used her chopsticks to place the hot piece on top of a piece of nori (seaweed) on a plate for each of us, and gave us some shoyu (soy sauce) to dip it in. Then they watched us eat it, all the Nakamuras, smiling at our pleasure. What a show we must have provided.
I am missing omochi today. I can buy it at Saigon Market, the oriental food store, but I can't make it like Mrs. Nakamura did, kneeling next to us in her gray kimono, her hair pulled back in a bun.