Every year my mother would make a bowl of Japanese New Year’s Eve noodles for my American father and me. “Just this one tradition,” she would entreat; she didn’t like American New Year, and longed for Japanese-style festivities. One year, I found one of my noodles tied in a knot, which she assured me was a sign of good fortune. I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t even really like noodles.
It was not until I was in my 20s that I experienced a full winter holiday in Japan. On New Year’s Eve, my family went to visit friends in Handa, my mother’s home town about 350km west of Tokyo. We counted down the hours with sake and sushi and then, close to midnight, went to the local shrine.
In the film that makes up my memory of that night nearly 30 years ago, people laugh and shout and eat and slurp with unrestrained joy; it was dark and cold but we had entered a new year together and everything felt possible, as though we mountaineers were at the peak of a mountain we had once again scaled. I was handed a small mound of noodles flecked with gold. I balked. I had never been fed gold before. “It’ll make you rich,” someone urged. So I ate the noodles with the gold, ingesting in food form the cultural wish that I be fed, wealthy and hale as the year rolled on.
I had no flakes of gold, so dotted the noodles with a little