There is Truth in Beer!
- Slogan printed on a Cushion
Christmas is big business in Japan. Around early-November, just after they have finished their Halloween campaigns, Department stores start decorating with Christmas trees, red ribbons, little
Santa dolls and fake snow. Gift giving, generally to boyfriends or girlfriends rather than family, is heavily plugged, but it all ends on Christmas Eve when these presents are exchanged.
Christmas Day itself, is like any other working day.
For the Japanese, the end of the year, or more correctly the New Year, is the big holiday of the season, with an abundance of traditional activities. The first of these I experienced was the Bonenkai or end of year trip (literal meaning; "Forget the year party"). Now a long lost victim of the recession, this could vary in scale from a night out in an Izakaya Pub to a two day trip to a hot spring resort. In our case, the company provided financial support in order to "ensure worker fraternity", and two days in the Itoh Peninsula was the selected destination.
We gathered at the factory at about 9 A.M. on Saturday morning at the beginning of December and clambered on to a bus. No sooner had it left the factory gates than cans of beer were being passed over people's head from the front. I was amazed to see a bus with a television in it, and was even more amazed to find out it was also a karaoke machine. For the next three hours I was surrounded by the good natured slagging of whoever was singing the karaoke and general jollity of my workmates, but I couldn't understand much of it. Not only was the subject matter different from what I had been learning and hearing around the office up till then, but since this was a less formal situation, people were reverting back to their local accents and slang, and all this was beyond the capabilities of my Standard Tokyo Japanese comprehension. Not wanting to drag everybody down by getting everything translated, I just laughed when everybody else did, and threw in any wisecracks I could think of fast enough to keep up with the flow of the conversation.
All that beer necessitated a toilet break at a motorway parking area, which gave me my first clear view of Mount Fuji up close. It didn't look as big as the queue for the ladies' toilets. Some of the older and more desperate women were foregoing their own queue to sneak into the gents' cubicles, although you couldn't really call it sneaking, as they were waddling like high-speed penguins, trying to retain their bodily fluids more than their dignity, pretending to be oblivious to the many men around them. In fact many places in Japan have public-use toilets which are shared, but which have an outer room with a stand-up urinal for men and the washbasin outside of the inner room holding the sit-down cubicle. Thus women commonly have to pass behind a man in mid-discharge to get to the inner room to do their business. Modesty can be preserved by triggering the noisemaker attached to the wall, which makes a loud sound of leaves rustling or a waterfall to camouflage the sounds made by the user.
Once we arrived at the hotel, we were assigned to our rooms and everybody changed for the bath. This was followed by a meal and more karaoke, which lasted for the traditional two hours, after which anyone who was still too sober was sent off to one of the rooms for a continuation of the party, which ran into the small hours, much to the misfortune of those who were designated to sleep in that room.
On the second day we went to play miniature golf. Having never played before, I gave a magnificent demonstration of how to lose your ball on your first shot. This was followed by a few hours at an amusement park, and then we got on the bus to go home.
The following Friday my luggage, part of a shipment that about twenty of us from the Japanese course sent as a bulk shipment, arrived. It had been delayed in customs for several weeks, according to rumour, due to the presence of some pornographic material in one of the cases. I had sent two tea chests with clothes and books, all the heavy stuff I couldn't carry on the flight, and the weekend was spent sorting through it. To make the day even more like Christmas, I got my first bonus, which I would use the following Monday to buy a Video and TV. The following Friday my stereo, which I had bought from the company in their special-prices-for-staff-only year of end sale, arrived and my room didn't look so bare any more. The following weekend I tore down to Tower Records in Ikebukuro and bought 14 CDs in one go. Since I could not nail anything to the wall, the only personal item I had in the room was a photo of Dun Leary Harbour which my father had always had on his desk at work, but which he gave to me when I left, inscribed to his "best fishing buddy". I treasure it still.
For the year's end we had just over a week of holidays, with New Years Day in the middle. My junior leader approached me in late December to ask my plans for the holidays, and when I said I had nothing special lined up, he told me what he had planned for my holiday season. On the following Saturday, the first day of the company holiday I would go to his house and join his family in making mochi, while on New Year's Day itself I would receive the honour of having lunch at my department manager's house.
The factory Christmas party was held in early December in the gymnasium, and I woke up the next morning with a very scant memory of events and a bottle of whiskey someone gave me standing on my desk. Beside it was a Christmas tree I had won in the raffle at the party. It was two feet tall, plastic, and rotated while playing "Silent Night" if you put batteries in the base. Since it was cheap Japanese whiskey, I never drank it, and only threw it out about ten years later. I still have the tree.
On one of the last days of work in the year, I was in the smoking room when another worker struck up a conversation, apparently trying to practice his English, which was quite good. When he heard that I had nowhere to go over the long holiday, he offered to take me in for a couple of nights. I was at first unsure whether I should accept because I did not even know his name, but since he worked at the same factory I presumed he was not the type who was going to have my liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti, so I accepted.
On Christmas Day I went to work as usual, and for my Christmas (?) dinner had a curry rice. It happened to be payday, and the union rule about not doing overtime on payday meant that I went home on time, back to the dormitory, with nothing to do. (Niall, Ronan and Alex had all gone home for the holidays, so there was no one to even go for a drink with.) In the evening I phoned home, unfortunately just as the turkey was coming out of the oven so that set off my mother and sister crying for the rest of the day and ruined the Christmas spirit (and dinner) back home.
On Saturday morning, December 30th, I met my junior leader at the local station and we walked to his house. The main event of the day would be making, and then eating, the mochi. Mochi is a paste made by pounding rice, which is then flavoured and moulded into various forms, with the presentation being every bit as important as the taste. Pounding the rice involves one person swinging a huge wooden hammer down into the already cooked rice in the barrel sized wooden bowl that holds it, while another person reaches into the bowl between swings to turn the rice and knead it. Being very difficult to chew, (it is coagulated, not hard, somewhat like wallpaper paste) it has been known to choke older folk and children. While we were eating, my junior leader had to fish a piece out of the throat of his younger child with chopsticks.
Sunday was New Year's Eve, and I had arranged to meet my friend Eamon for an assault on Roppongi. For obvious reasons, my memory of this night is hazy, apart from the realisation at three minutes past midnight that we had missed the countdown due to dancing in the street with beers in hands and firecrackers going off left, right and centre, hugging and congratulating people we didn't know in the general party atmosphere that had taken over the town. My only other memory of this night is the sudden, but thankfully mistaken, realisation that I was going to die. As I walked into one bar, (definitely not the first of the night), I remember thinking "where the white women at?", a line from the Mel Brooks film "Blazing Saddles", I realised I had actually said it out loud, as the large black bouncer who I had failed to notice at the door grabbed my wrist and started to pull me outside. My mind raced with the complications involved in shipping a corpse back to Ireland, but he merely drew me outside and wordlessly pointed to a sign on the door that said "Couples and Regulars only". The rest of the night was spent drinking more, eating and trying to catch some sleep in MacDonalds, and riding the first train home in the morning.
I was woken by a knock at the door. The only other resident of the dormitory who did not go home for the holidays, (and, who we noticed before setting out the night before, had sneaked a girl into his room, against regulations!) urgently informed me "Your Friend Come!" It was 12:45, and my junior leader, who I was supposed to meet at the station at noon, had finally found the dormitory and looked me up. I ran downstairs and apologised, then got dressed quickly and went with him, unshaven, unwashed and probably stinking of beer, to my department manager's house for lunch. This was to be the first time I would face an awkward situation that I have had to face several times since. Seafood is common in Japan, and is considered a luxurious treat for visiting guests. I, however, have a real problem with eating it, particularly shellfish, not only because of the strong smell and taste, but because of the fact that there is no real way to distinguish whether you are eating their bones, balls or brains. I politely declined the large shrimp that was put in front of me, aware that I was being rude, but all around me were gracious enough to let it pass.
The next day Onishi picked me up at the station, and I spent two nights at his parents' house. The first day we just had a long meal and talked, but on the second we went to Harajuku, particularly to KiddyLand, and then out to Yokohama, mainly to drive across the Yokohama Bay Bridge, which since it had just been built was something of an event in itself. He brought me home on the fourth, and it was back to work the next day.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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