Crisp. Cold. Clear. Bright sunshine permeates the air on New Year’s Day in Japan.
Not once did I experience gloomy weather on the first day of a new calendar year in Japan. As I begin 2024 on a gray morning in Muncie, Indiana, I recall that brightness and bring it into my heart as I look forward to a new year with new opportunities to fill new dreams and visions.
And for fun, here’s a moment from the past – a representative of many New Year’s Days in Japan when I soaked up the sunshine and celebrated rituals designed to appreciate both the present moment and the unfolding of a new year.
The neighborhood shrine was abuzz with festivities. A pop-up market, ladies’ clubs selling sweets, men’s’ clubs organizing games, mothers chasing toddlers, teenagers moving in groups like the swell of sea waves under strong winds.
“Swing and smash!” he commanded.
And just like summer days at the county fair when I’d hammer down on the red metal bell at the base of the Power Tower, Daddy cheering me on from the side, I slammed the heavy mallet into the concrete bowl filled with doughy rice. The man-in-charge cheered me on, calling out tips for smashing into the rice dough, heavy and sticky, sucking the mallet into its bulk, refusing to release it back to me.
“No, no, no! It’s a reflexive pull,” he explained, taking the mallet from me. “You have to get your body into it. Bend your knees when you slap. Pull back with your whole body. Lean into the momentum of the mallet.”
He readied his stance. “Like this,” he said.
WHAP! His body lurched forward as the mallet head hit the doughy blob. He sucked in air as he squatted and leaned backward, jerking his arms up and back, the weight of the mallet propelling itself up, back, and over his head. There was no pause; the rebound from the upward swing turned and sent the hammer plunging again into the rice. His body followed the momentum. WHAP and lunge. Pull, swing, shout.
The group of men circling the ritual shouted and clapped, all rocking rhythmically, as if harmonizing the activities with their own bodies.
“Try again,” he said.
I took the mallet and gathered my energy. The men all took their places circling the bowl.
“Yoosh!” In unison, their shouts signaled me to begin.
Whap! With the first slap of the mallet and its rebound, my body began to dance rhythmically - forward and slap – back, pull, and swing again. The men soon harmonized their bodies with mine. With each sucking pullback with the mallet, they reached into the pounding bowl and scooped up one side of the rice wad as if lugging at the side of an inflatable swimming pool. They swiftly folded it over and punched at the middle, leaning back and away just in time for the next slap of my mallet. Lift and punch – down with the mallet – WHAP and pull.
I worked up a sweat and we all cheered as the rice was slowly transformed into a smooth, thick, taffy-like substance.
It was someone else’s turn, and I wandered on over to the grilling station. There, the women guided me in pinching off a small amount of gooey rice, rolling it between my palms, and smashing it into a flattened ball.
“This is for good health and good fortune,” the woman-in-charge explained. “Two for the price of one!”
We wrapped the flattened cakes in salty rice paper and placed them on a grill. Everyone had long chopsticks, and we all turned all the rice cakes over and over, noting the brown grill marks slowly emerging on the surfaces.
I noticed the women were moving the placement of the cakes as they turned them and eventually lost track of which one was mine.
The woman-in-charge saw my eyes scan the grill and giggled. “Silly one,” she said. “All the cakes are for everyone. Yours loses its connection to you the moment you place it on the grill. That’s the point: your good health and good fortune are the result of the group effort, not yours alone. And that’s how we all have good health and good fortune in this new year.”
I share that story with you today as the background for my wish for 2024:
May Zokawa serve as the neighborhood shrines in Japan: a place of community where the health and good fortune for each of us is the result of all of us.