2022 was the first year I ever attended a funeral.
Not only was it my first time experiencing the passing of a close family relative, but also the first time I had been in a hearse, the first time I had sat in a crematorium, the first time I had to write a eulogy, and the first time I had to read my eulogy out, while trying not to breakdown. All of this, in front of my recently widowed grandmother, staring at many faces, some of whom understood my loss and others who did not.
This first loss of one of my five grandparents was a cruel awakening into what seemed to be the advent of ‘adulthood’. The loss of my beloved basset hound Chloe, less than four months later, was another crushing blow that very clearly signified the end of the liminal phase between childhood and adulthood—a space I had been occupying for some time after being a student for the majority of my life.
Instead of the three luxurious months of summer holidays that could have been spent with family and friends, they were replaced with the hassle of having to request bereavement leave from work. I was permitted a generous one day to go to the funeral. The application form had a ranking of the number of days one is allowed to take depending on the ‘proximity’ of the family member—one day for grandparents, longer for parents, and a lengthy two days for siblings. A permitted timeline for dealing with grief in a workplace still confounds me.
L: My beautiful and angelic grandmother with one of my mother’s cousins, R: My grandad Colin and me in Kent
The New Year festivities fell in between the loss of my first grandparent and the passing of Chloe. At the time, my Japanese grandparents were also going through 喪中mochū , the traditional year-long mourning period due to the passing of one of my great uncles. As a result, the regular new year festivities were not carried out in the household.
In Japan, like many other countries, there is an incredibly complex and ritualistic relationship between food and significant life events. The birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, the 7th day of the new year, the marking of the change from winter to spring, the list is almost endless. It is through the preparation of these symbolic foods, in their multitude of special iterations across regions, communities, and families that helps us mark the passing of time and cements bonds between people.
The last day of the year is called大晦日 oomisoka. In my household, my mother spends the day furiously cleaning every corner of the house, ensuring that we will not have any bad luck or evil spirits in our home as we welcome the new year. Our most recent oomisoka was incredibly efficient, perhaps too efficient. My usual family of five was down to four due to a business trip that my father had planned. Thus, my mother, brother, and I worked diligently and perhaps too quickly finished cleaning the home as Chloe, our dutiful supervisor, watched on.
Typically, after ensuring that your abode is a spotless and enticing space for good spirits and fortune to reside in, it is traditional to visit your local shrine or temple at midnight to ring in the new year. The auspicious food to consume on the day is soba or buckwheat noodles called年越しそば toshi-koshi soba. 年Toshi means year and 越しkoshi means to cross over, and so they are meant to help one cross over into the new year. Soba are very thin, very long, and easily cut. The length is meant to signify the prolonging of one’s life and fortune, and with them being easily cut they ensure that with every bite you can separate yourself from the year’s bad luck and hardships and begin the next year with a clean slate. While this sounds like a very good tradition, it is one that my family very intermittently follow—soba is much more enticing to me on a hot summer’s day than during the usually dreary cold days of December. It is a cool, earthy, and slippery food that I think ought to be eaten with crispy tempura in blistering heat. I think the last time we participated in this new year tradition properly might have been three or four years ago.
Another tradition in the run up to oomisoka and before the end of the new year is to prepare お節料理osechiryori that will be consumed during the first three days of the new year oshougatsu , the first day of the new year being called gantan. Most of the dishes, since they have been prepared in part beforehand, involve little to no cooking on the actual new year’s day—which my mother claims is so that the wives can have a ‘rest’ on the first day of the new year.
While one is in mochū you are not supposed to receive any new year’s cards or eat any of the celebratory food—in fact, you customarily must send out cards to other people to tell them not to send you cards. Although we were all technically in mourning, I think my mother and I agreed that between the three of us, my terminally ill dog, and the absence of my father, we all deserved to enjoy at least part of the usual festivities. So we carefully prepared a couple of dishes in our Brooklyn apartment, thousands of miles away from my Japanese family, with ingredients that had travelled many miles to get to us, the dishes that our families had been making for generations.
Osechiryori is made up of many different dishes, all of which either have an auspicious name, colour, or meaning. For example, some of the staples include sweet and shiny kuromame—which are black soybeans stewed in a sweet sauce. 豆 まめ mame means bean, but the phrase mamemameshii means to be diligent, and this similarity in sound has resulted in this dish being eaten every year to ensure a diligent and hardworking year to come. The tai fish is eaten as it is similar to the word medetai which means joyous or auspicious. Kamaboko, usually a red and white fish cake is eaten as the colours are meant to ward off evil spirits and symbolise purity. There are many dishes that have incredibly fascinating histories and stories that you can learn about.
Perhaps one of the more humble and lesser-mentioned dishes is the Kinkan no Kanroni. Kinkan or kumquats, as they are labelled in supermarkets here, are slightly oblong, small nuggets of bittersweetness that can be eaten skin and all. The fruit is slightly sharp on the first bite, but then it mellows to a juicy richness that purifies your mouth. My mother had somehow managed to track down two packets of the fruit and had been saving them especially for my brother and me to return to New York for the holidays. This dish has been a staple in my family’s osechiryori for years, partly because of my grandmother, but also because of our collective love for this rather underappreciated dish.
L: Kinkan from my Obaachan’s garden, R: Our smaller selection of osechiryori, with my kinkan no kanroni
The best kinkan are grown in my grandmother’s garden—one of the smaller, more modest trees that have been growing almost haphazardly between the driveway into the garage and the wall separating the house from the road that runs alongside it. Since we were children, my brother and I would scour the garden to find the gems abundant in her garden—the blueberry tree, the tiny strawberry plant, and tomatoes that would burst due to their size and sweetness. Everything that was grown there was quite literally, the fruit of my grandmother’s labour of love: pure, abundant, and full of life.
2022 was the first time I made (to be honest, rather easy) this dish. When living in Japan, we had the best handmade kinkan jams and stewed fruits handed to us whenever they were available, courtesy of my grandmother. The jars were always neatly decorated with a piece of paper that stated the contents of the jar and the date, held in place by an elastic band. This year it was me staring at two packets of kinkan and a massive empty jar a couple of days before the new year, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. The fragrant smell of the kinkan as they lay simmering in my concoction of sugar, water, and a dash of soy sauce made me think of what was in almost every way a kinkan kind of year. It had felt at the time as if 2022 had eaten me skin and all. It had spat out my speeds, was bittersweet in parts, but had a sweet note of purification at the end—hopefully a signifier of what was to come.
While the approach to the new year is inevitably a reflective one—everyone wants to look back, see how far they have come, promise to do better, and think of new things to achieve, I simultaneously felt all of this and none of it. While this new experience of grief definitely made me try to appreciate small moments more, take more photos, show my gratitude, love fully, it also made me feel incredibly anxious. There was a daunting realisation that the people and beings that I love so deeply will inevitably die, and it may be unexpected and there may never be enough time. I found myself worrying about loss, thinking about what if someone else dies next month. I wondered how I would be able cope with the loss of more grandparents, or my parents, my partner, my sibling, in the future. It is our deepest loves and greatest attachments that come with this high price, the fear of loss and the inevitability that someday you will no longer be able to walk the earth with them ever again. These thoughts simmered together with the slow, brown syrup I had made. I poured the syrup into the jar and screwed on the lid until it was shut tight.
As a family, we had prepared ourselves many times for the prospect of Chloe passing—she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer a year before, and between the summer and when I went home in December it was clearly taking its toll. My mother and I were desperate to find some photos of her when she was young. To reminisce on her youth when she was a stocky, often naughty, lively dog. By December, my sweet baby had become small, light, bony—unsurprisingly still a little naughty.
As we were trawling through photos from her glory days, we stumbled on some old videos of my childhood summers in Japan before we moved back. My grandmother’s kinkan tree was the main protagonist in many videos. My brother, cousin, and I running around the garden with my grandmother behind us, all three of us stumbling in our shoes that we had borrowed from my grandad, we gather by the small tree, beaming as we hold shopping bags open with our little hands. My young self is much too eager to pick the fruit from the tree and start almost violently ripping off greenish-yellow fruit from the tree and tossing it proudly into my shopping bag. My grandmother comes beside me, telling me 「エマちゃんそっちじゃないよ！」 “Not those ones Emma!”. I gaze up at her, concentrating as she extends her hand to bring down a gold-studded branch to show me. She points to the kinkan’s fullness, its gleaming golden skin in the sunlight, and holds the branch down for me as my cousin and I get to work, nodding to show our comprehension and stuffing as many as we can off the branch.
While eating quietly osechiryori together, the kinkan dish that I made sat proudly in the middle of our display, golden syrupy nuggets assembled beautifully by my mother. The smooth glide of the kinkan in my mouth prompted me to wish for a smooth new year to come—but as I wished such an unrealistic thing for myself, three gnarly seeds appeared from the tangy gem I had popped, disrupting the syrupy smoothness that I had been savouring. This disruption was not however, a surprise. I knew from the moment that I picked up the fruit between my chopsticks that at some point, no matter how deliciously bitter and sweet the kinkan would be, there would be a point of discomfort and clumsiness involved.
The over-eager child in the video was much like the unripe kinkan that I was picking at the time, and although presently I do not feel like a supple, golden, smooth and refreshing kinkan in its prime, my life and the stage that I feel I am at are not dissimilar to my first batch of kinkan no kanroni. I am a Japanese dish that has been reinvented and made far away from its origins, I have been raised with love, but that is not to say that there have been slightly bitter moments. The seeds, which in the grand scheme of things are only momentary discomforts, were things that, in one way or another, I knew to be inevitable—though I did not know how many would be in the fruit. These new year’s reflections, though heart-warming and once again made me feel so grateful for my family, they were forgotten when I found out that my beloved Chloe had passed away.
L: Brooklyn Bridge January 2023, C: My sweet baby Chloe the Basset 2021 R: Chloe’s favourite spot when I was home. This is where we spent our best time together before her passing in January 2023.
It felt awfully cruel to have so much be taken away in such a short space of time, and I have never felt physical heartache in the way that I have in the past couple of months. The aching that you feel after someone that you love is something that I do not wish on anyone. While trying to get through my newfound ‘adulthood’ as it seemed my childhood heroes and loved ones were slowly slipping away, I was stumbling through my neighbourhood and some golden jewels in a plastic box caught my eye. Even in South London, kinkan had found me. The fragrant, enticing smell brought back all of my memories of the garden, and then my anxiety fuelled cooking in December. While I have still not become the kinkan that I want to be, I know that no matter how bitter life’s moments may seem, no matter how many tough seeds I will have to spit out or come across, the sweetness of the rest of the fruit, and the almost sacred aftertaste that remains go hand in hand with those experiences, and that is ultimately what makes it the kinkan, and what the summation of our time on this earth inevitably becomes.
Emma Cattell has had the privilege of living across the world, from major cities like Tokyo, London, and New York, to a tiny town in Scotland. Her experience as a Japanese and British person in such varied environments has made adapting to changing geographies and people an essential part of her life. As a result, she has a deep interest in exploring what connects people and how culture, heritage and personal relationships influence human perspectives and world-views.