Hanayama style New Years

The temperatures of Miyagi are shockingly colder than Tokyo.

Mountains. Snow on the ground. Old friends. Feels like home.

We stayed in our makeshift floor bed until the late afternoon, eating, chatting and avoiding the cold that awaited us on the other side of the blankets.

When we did finally leave our nest of warmth, we were rewarded greatly in the form of a traditional Japanese new years eve with an old Hanayama Family who had been in the area for over 300 years; their original home still standing (and being lived in), with necessary renovations and additions every few years.


The youngest son of 22 years, is the 19th generation to continue life in this Hanayama house, traditions and memories passed on orally from grandparent to grandchild, year after year.

Before eating, we offered food and prayers to the deceased ancestors. Bow twice. Clap twice. Bow.

A grand meal of fresh tuna sashimi, octopus, squid and scallops were served. I put aside my normal dislike of sea-tasting creatures and got adventurous with a large glob of fish eggs; I won’t say I regret trying it, but it did take Julie giving me a whispered pep talk off to the side, encouraging me to just swallow before anyone else could notice my dry heaving, for me to get it down. A little more sake, a big gulp of Asahi. Done. Never again. Never.

Before the meal was complete, the 17th generation grandpa took the opportunity to turn on the television to watch the Jpop new years concert celebration; this reminded me of my own grandfather, who left the Christmas dinner table early to watch Baywatch reruns.

After a few hours of watching the hottest Japanese pop singers sing their hearts out for new years, we took our leave.

Back at Phoebe’s house, we loaded ourselves with coffee and tried to pretend we weren’t tired. We headed back out, to the home of Phoebe’s best friends in Miyagi, Kouko and Shuji. Shuji is an amazing potter and surely a hunk in his day. Kouko, his wife, is a sweet, kind and unique woman with a warm smile and a warm heart.

They welcomed us into their home and fed us sweet red beans (tradition for new years eve) and filled us with cold sake, where we rang in the new year.

A bit after midnight and the beginning to 2012, we ventured back out into the cold and headed further up the mountain with Yasutake, another Japanese friend of Phoebe’s, and hiked up to his grandfather’s shrine.

After about 15 minutes of hiking in the dark night, with only the light of Hello Kitty to guide us, we arrived to the shrine and were warmly welcomed in by five older Japanese men who were celebrating with snacks, cigarettes and of course, sake.

We hopped into their kotatsu with them and had a few good laughs.

When the cold got to us and the yawns starting coming more frequently, we bid sayonara to the keepers of the shrine and headed back down the mountain.

Following tradition, we went back to Yasutake’s place and ate our first meal of the new year, fresh soba noodles.

It was during this first meal, at around three or four in the morning, that I experienced my first earthquake. Just a small rumble, nothing to skype mom about, but we felt it. As strange as it sounds, I’ve always wanted to experience an earthquake, and on the first day of the new year, I got it.