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Food History

Japanese New Year&

s monsters

Tourists who only visit Tokyo, the industrial heart of Japan, will miss an important part of the country. Japan was primarily agricultural until 1853, and many of the folk customs and traditions which shape the Japanese national character grew from the rice paddies that nourished them. Only by visiting rural Japan can a foreigner really understand the Japanese heart.

Akita Prefecture, some 300 miles north of Tokyo, is a prime example. Two hallmarks of the Japanese character are hard work and reverence for education. The Namahage New Year&

s Festival teaches and reinforces these desirable traits.

&

Nama&

is a local slang word for a scab on your backside caused by sitting too long instead of working. &

Hage&

means to strip something off. On New Year&

s Eve, the Namahage Monsters come to punish idlers, especially lazy students.

Once upon a time an Akita fisherman returned from China, bringing five strong but rather stupid horned monsters. They were docile and hard working. But on New Year&

s Eve, they rebelled. They stormed into the village of Monzen and took over. How could the poor farmers defeat these powerful monsters?

The distraught villagers made a deal with the monsters. If they could lay 1,000 stone steps up the mountain to the village shrine, in one night, they would supply them with food, sake, and women. Otherwise, they would go back to China. They had given them an impossible task, they thought.

Long before dawn they discovered that the Namahages had already laid 999 of the steps! But a quick witted farmer saved the day. He crowed like a rooster. For thousands of years in agricultural societies, a cock&

s-crow has been the universal signal for daybreak. Thinking they had failed, the monsters slunk back to China in defeat.

But they have returned once a year ever since. On New Year&

s Eve, these fearsome horned monsters burst into homes, screaming. &

Are there any lazy children to be eaten? Are there any students who play instead of studying ?&

If the father says yes, the Namahage will chase the children out into the snow. They do not dare return until the monster has left their home.

Oddly enough, the monster becomes almost tame after his bloodcurdling entrance. He bows to the family altar and shares a drink of sake with the master of the house. He wishes his host and his family a bountiful harvest, or a good catch if he is a fisherman, then departs. He runs to the next house to search out and punish lazy children and indifferent students.

These Namahage Monsters help shape the Japanese character by teaching children diligence and respect for education, but there is one tangible evidence of their sojourn in Akita Prefecture. You can still climb the 999 steps they laid up the mountainside to the village shrine at Monzen village. I personally guarantee there are 999 steps. I counted them!

When I stayed in a ryokan (country inn) in Monzen, my host served a delicious but simple ...

Cucumber Side Dish

— cucumber about six to eight inches long

— teaspoon sugar

Japanese rice vinegar

Peel cucumber, slice into thin rounds. Sprinkle with sugar, then cover with rice vinegar. Let cucumber marinate at least an hour before serving.