I never give too much thought to the passing of my birthday. I’ve never been too keen on attracting too much attention to the day or having large parties. I assumed my birthday would pass as usual this year. I wasn’t aware of any Japanese norms for birthday celebrations, and I certainly hadn’t spread the word of the upcoming holiday.
November 30th was a day to remember. I am still amazed at the kindness, compassion, thoughtfullness and intentionality I experienced in the form of words, deeds, and of course, some presents.
It was a Great Day. I couldn’t allow it to pass completely without taking thorough note of all the wonders I experienced:
The Day Before (November 29th)…
I worked at Yakami High School, primarily administering interview tests to nervous Senior High School students. Most of them did very well, however, and I received a big smile from almost everyone when I told them “Perfect!” upon completing the test. Later in the day, I bumped into the school librarian in the hallway. I look forward to being close friends as we are similar in age and both enjoy local adventures (i.e. Omori-Ginzan…). She surprised me with a birthday gift, and a perfect one at that – toasty warm holiday-themed socks with rubber bottoms so I can wear them around school while I work. I later discovered that I’m not the only one enjoying Christmas-themed foot attire in Japan….
That night I rode with a friend to the nearby town of Kasabuchi for my bi-weekly attendance of a Japanese conversation group called Halo Halo. This group meets in a 100+ year old Buddhist temple. Attendees includes a sweet potato farmer, a Buddhist priest, a fantastic cook of Phillipino food, and a couple other foreigners. We always have a good time, even if we don’t study as much as we are hoping… This week, however, I was surprised upon my arrival with a bouquet of flowers and a traditional Japanese winter lounging jakcet (called a chanchanko).
The Day of my Birthday (Tanjoubi):
I woke up early to prepare vegan banana bread to bake at Cafe du Soleil before work. I couldn’t find a recipe I was too excited about, but I tried one with oatmeal and silk tofu to see how it would turn out. I showed up at the Cafe and popped my bread in the oven (only after figuring out how to calculate 350 degrees Farenheit into degrees Celsius…).
Iwano-san, the Cafe owner, taiko player, shamisen teacher, and living-well extraordinnaire presented me with a bottle of locally-produced nihonshu (jizake). I have been searching for local sake for a while, so this was a pleasant surprise. Nihonshu is my favorite style of Japanese osake as well…the people here know me so well!
A moment later my regular Wednesday morning Eikaiwa student stopped in for some English conversation. He pulled out a piece of paper and read: “I have a present for you – it’s a birthday cake.” Iwano-san reached behind the counter and pulled out a box containing one of the most beautiful and delicious-looking cakes I’ve ever seen. It was made by a young patissery chef that works part time at the Cafe. She had even written my name in tiny kanji on a piece of white chocolate. The kanji name was given to me by Iwano-san. We had been talking the previous week about kanji meanings in relation to people’s names and I told him how dissapointing it was that English letters have no stories behind them – only sounds. So he used sounds of my name (Ji – e – na) and chose kanji accordingly. The three characters he chose mean:
Ji – Sowing the seed.
E – Art.
Na – A common Japanese girl’s name w. a difficult-to-distinguish meaning.
I was elated. We each ate a piece of the chocolate and strawberry cake right away, and I put the rest away to bring to another gathering that evening.
I was late to school that morning, but was forgiven upon informing my supervisor that it was my birthday. I taught several classes that morning, and was surprised when I returned to my desk for lunch to find a gift from the 3-3 Home Economics class waiting for me:
I enjoyed the meal and was even given seconds for helping to wash the dishes afterwards. The menu was:
Shirae (tofu, seaweed, carrots…)
Kenchinjiru (hefty veggie soup)
Toriaburage (fried chicken)
Takekomegohan (mushroom rice)
After lunch I went to the school library to help decorate for Christmas. The week before, the librarian and I had gone around the school collecting materials to make Christmas wreaths. We displayed them around the school in hopes of enticing students to visit the library to see the rest of the decorations. My favorite part of the afternoon was hearing the librarian say: “Christmas feeling up up!” every time we placed a decoration.
We even decorated the Clifford doll my mom sent me in the mail…
After work I returned to the Cafe to pick up my remaining banana bread loaf and birthday cake. I delivered the banana bread to my new friend who lives in the next apartment over. We met the week before through an eikaiwa class. I like her because she is exactly the kind of grandmother I hope to be someday. I show up on her doorstep unexpectedly and she drops everything she’s doing and sits down to tea with me. When I told her I had already eaten dinner she made me a plate of rice, daikon pickles, yuzu jam, nori salad, and a macha cake for dessert. I will be spending a good deal of time with her as she has promised to teach me to prepare Japanese meals : )
After my second supper for the day I took off for eikaiwa class with the local lord of the farmers. I showed up with my birthday cake, only to discover that five others had brought gifts of food to the gathering. Whoops! But a delicious whoops… We enjoyed birthday cake, yuzu-mochi balls, a couple varieties of cookies, and yatsuhashi. It was delightful. Another ALT had brought a couple of daikon from her garden, and the local farmer gifted me a head of cauliflower (my first cauliflower since living in Japan!). The great surprise of the evening was when the local karate master stood up and said: “You can hit me for your birthday.” I was baffled. It took me a while to realize he was serious. I didn’t really want to hit him, he’s so kind and gentle. When he began to flex his chest to prove he could handle a punch I wound up and hit him. It was funny, and kind of crazy. I can’t say I’m a fan of punching people, but I’m also glad I can now say: “I punched a karate master in the chest for my 24th birthday.”
The evening ended perfectly – I came home to a cup of sake and found MJ ready to talk to me through the computer. Easily one of the most delightful birthdays I have ever had.
But it didn’t end there…
The Friday after my birthday I hosted several other ALTs for a birthday drinking party at my apartment. We enjoyed local sake from the 100+ year old brewery in the next town over. It was delicious. I chose an unfiltered variety which had a good bit of rice still floating in it. When I purchased the bottle the shop owner gifted me a small bottle of “warm sake” – the kind that tastes best when heated before serving – probably my favorite way to enjoy nihonshu.
We sauntered down to Kanchan’s for some birthday okonomiyaki and enjoyed sitting around the grill where Kanchan makes all of the okonomiyaki. I was thrilled to finally see every step of preparing this delicious dish. I hope to make it at home soon.
We spent the remainder of the evening snuggled around my kotatsu (heated table) enjoying some unique conversation topics while carving a winter squash another ALT had brought.
The night came to a close with everyone slowly falling asleep – half under the kotatsu and half on the tatami: a typical gaijin Japanese winter coping mechanism.
The next day my friends stuck around for a lunch party with the Halo Halo members. They came to my apartment loaded with cooking utensils and ingredients to make:
Ankou Nabe (monkfish hot pot including daikon, green onion, carrot, enringi, shiitake, shimeji and ponzu)
Biku (celebratory dessert from the Phillipines featuring mochi rice, kurosato, coconut milk, grated yuzu, and nuts)
Zenzai (sweet winter soup made with azuki beans, sugar, and mochi dumplings)
The meal was delicious and I learned how to prepare each dish from scratch! I can’t wait to make them in the States when I come home for Christmas.
We spent the afternoon talking about the reverse culture shock many Americans experience when returning home after living in Japan. I’m a little bit nervous…
I can hesitantly (hoping not to hurt any feelings…) say this was the most enjoyable birthday I have experienced. It feels great to be twenty-four.