The first time I did Tug of War in Japan was amongst a bunch of fathers of kindergarteners at a sports festival almost seven years ago. Sports festivals are a staple among annuals school activities, and Tug of War, or Tsunahiki as it is called here, is a stable of sports festival games.

“Is this your first time doing Tsunahiki? It can get pretty rough!”
“No, we have it in America too. I did it when I was a kid.”
“Eeeeehhhhh?”
“I thought it was just a Japanese thing.”

Given the ceremonious use of straw ropes (shimenawa) through Shintoism and the game’s ancient use in harvest festivals and centuries-old, famous Tsunahiki events throughout the country, I cannot blame them for thinking it was unique to Japan, but a game with such a simple and straightforward objective has been found among ancient cultures all around the world, with no discernable first origins.

Of course, in modern Japan with its array of infamous game show stunts, a straightforward game is often adjusted to draw a crowd, especially if there is a big cash prize like 100,000 yen up for grabs. I’ve been dragged (no pun intended) into similarly reinvented team competitions before, and this time when I heard we were going to the beach for Tsunahiki on Marine Day (a public holiday on the third Monday of July designated for enjoying and appreciating the ocean), I thought we’d be standing in the water as we pulled. That was what the “shoes that can get wet” warning was for, right?

What? No? This “on the ocean” thing was literal??

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Kitaura Beach, facing the Sea of Japan on the Mihonoseki Peninsula portion of Matsue City, hosted the its 18th annual Ebisu Cup: Tsunahiki on the Ocean Competition. There were 18 teams with partipants from as far as the Kansai region, Kyuushuu, and… well… in my case, America. Though only five people could pull on behalf of the team at a time, there were about 590 participants signed up.

Unfortunately for our team of eight people called “Hippare! Global Girls”, only five of us got to try it out because we lost on the first round to the women’s team that wound up winning first place. We put up a really good fight, though! It was really close, and none of us fell off the slippery floating platform for the 30 second competition. After our defeat, we had to jump into the salty water and swim back to shore (as did the victors, to save time on boat rides back and forth). At the shore, there were TV cameras and reporters waiting for me (should have seen that coming), and it turns out I got a brief sound bite on national TV. I would add the link here, but the page has since expired. Translated, my comments were, “It was fun, but it’s a little vexing (to have lost).”

It turned out to be a very, very long day at the beach with matches all day long, but our consolation prize for waiting around and playing in the gentle and clear waters and barbecuing and bashing watermelons while blindfolded was a box full of very sweet melons. Such is how these sorts of competitions work in Japan.

suikawari

Well, my slipper table tennis game improved since last year, so maybe our Tsunahiki and Suikawari (watermelon-spliting) skills will improve by next year too. After all, it’s a global game and we’ve got a lot of other countries to represent!

As the last of my New Year posts, I have a lot of traditional food to report on.

Soba: Buckwheat noodles
Long noodles signify long life, so it’s good luck to eat these on the last night of the year. Udon noodles are also acceptable, but the Izumo region is moreso known for its soba, which as more of the wheat plant, and is therefore healthier and has a deeper flavor. At the Izumo soba restuarants around here, it’s commonly served in three dishes with different condiments on each (things like seaweed, daikon radish, katsuo (fish flakes), and raw egg are common).

Click for a blog page about Izumo soba and other local specialties (English)

Soba making parties also seem to be a common end of year party activity, and I got invited along to one last month out in Inbei, a rural part of Matsue to the south. Making soba may seem like a simple process (making the dough, rolling it flat, slicing it thinly, boiling it, serving it with fresh condiments), but it requies specialized tools and having an expert on hand helps.

The soba I cut all turned out a little thick…

Mochi and zoni: Sticky rice cakes, and soup made with them
I neglected to take pictures at this, but I joined in a mochi-making party at Matsue’s history museum–a common December activity throughout Japan. Everyone took turns using a wooden mallet to pound the rice in a special basin.

Not my photo, but pretty much like this.

Experienced old men get a very good rhythm together, with one pounding and one turning the mixture (and I have yet to see any fingers get whacked). My favorite person to watch was a little boy who looked about 3 or 4 or shouted with aggressive fighting spirit the whole time.

Inside, we gathered around tables to roll the cakes in flour and pound them flat, then covered them in soy bean powder (it’s sweet) before eating them. If they sit for a while they get hard, but when they’re fresh they’re soft, chewy, and stretchy–and easy to choke on if you don’t chew carefully!

Mochi is a traditional New Year decoration, too. A couple of them get set up on the family altar inside traditional homes as part of the Kagami Mochi. By the 11th of January or so when the New Year festivities wind down to a close, they’ll be so hard that you can break them apart with a hammar and eat the pieces.

Mochi is the main ingrediant in zoni, a soup eaten at New Years. Originally a meal for warriors, the ingredients vary from region to region, but the basic idea is to eat mochi in a broth with some other flavors. When I had it, it was more like typical zenzai (a specialty dessert of the Izumo region with azuki (sweet red beans).

O-sechi: Cuisine that doesn’t require cooking
It’s considered bad luck to cook for the first three days of the new year, so while some families still make their own o-sechi in the days leading up to the new year, many restaurants and stores had been promotions for o-sechi you can order instead. More info here on the Wiki page.

I got to enjoy a wonderful array of it on January 2nd at a party one of my supervisors invited me and the other CIRs to out at his old home in Izumo. It looked pretty much like you’d picture a traditional house party–sitting on cushions on the tatami mats, surrounded by sliding screens and seasonally decorated walls, and an array of food to eat over the course of several hours while everyone talks and plays games.



The shells at the front are from a game that was played in the Heian courts roughly a thousand years ago, called Kai-awase (shell matching) or E-awase (picture matching). It’s like Memory, only with pretty painted scenes from the Tale of Genji on seashells. This a rather old set which we admired instead of playing with.

We opened the stack of trump cards to play games like Babanuki and Daihinmin, and the stack of old cards next to that was for Hanafuda, though a couple cards were missing so we skipped that.

In the back was a nice, unopened pack of Utagaruta or Hyakunin Isshuu from way back when Nintendo specialized in printed games! Well, we opened it. Karuta is a typical New Years game spanning a few hundred years of popularity, in which a set of cards are spread out and someone reads proverbs from a corresponding set of cards. The first person to grab the corresponding card takes it, and person with the biggest stack at the end wins.

Utagaruta is a version played with an old set of Heian era poetry called the Hyakunin Isshuu (a hundred people, one poem each), so it’s commonly called by that name, too. The reader reads a poem on one card, and the players look for the ending verse. You can listen for the words, or if you have the poem memorize, you can grab it as soon as you know what poem it is.

At first I thought it would be hard if you don’t know the poetry, but after I got used to it (and started to memorize where certain cards were), I got a lot faster and came from behind to win the game. Maybe I should start studying this poetry! After all, I was mostly listening for pronunciation since classical Japanese isn’t easy to understand right away. Nevertheless, we paused the game several times for some thoughtful interpretation of the poems.

Finally, today (January 7th) is known as Jinjitsu (Human Day), when Nanakusagayu (seven herb gruel) is eaten. It day for both being kind to humans, and kind to your stomach after all that mochi and o-sechi!

Click for the recipe (Japanese)

The herbs:

Seri: Japanese parsley
Nazuna: Shepherd’s purse
Gogyou: Jersey cudweed
Hakobera: Chickweed/stitchwort
Suzujiro: Turnip
Suzuna: Daikon radish
Hotoke-no-za: Henbit deadnettle

Take care of your tummies, everyone, and have a good 2013!