Celebrate: Bonenkai

Despite my longing for the colors of autumn, winter is upon us. Like clockwork, the calendar switched to December 1st and the temperature here dropped to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s cold for Kyushu! But it gets me in the holiday spirit, as did my bonenkai today.

What’s a bonenkai? In case you missed my post last year, here’s a little bit of a recap. Bonenkai are “end of the year” parties, mostly held by companies, schools, or civic organizations (known as moai) but there’s no reason why friends can’t have a bonenkai as well. (I had mine today with my good friends and language conversation partners.) The actual kanji characters for the word bonenkai translate to “forget year gathering”. For many, this is an opportunity to imbibe a significant amount of liquor in hopes of putting out to pasture the memories of the outgoing year.

Bonenkai range from simple to more complicated, pricey affairs. A basic bonenkai usually takes place at a restaurant and either involves a pre-set menu or takes advantage of the restaurant’s tabehodai (all-you-can-eat) or nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) specials. For certain groups, like schools or companies, a special hall or hotel space may be rented out and the gathering could involve speeches, games and end-of-year reviews.

The cost of bonenkai season can add up quickly. Let’s say you get invited to a bonenkai with your friends where the payment required from all participants is ¥3000. Now imagine you’ve subsequently been invited to bonenkais at your school, your neighborhood organization, your kids’ PTA, a different group of friends … etc etc. It can leave a sizable hole in your wallet!

My bonenkai today was just three of us, but we had arranged a special course meal at a well-regarded fish specialist in Kumamoto City. We indulged in ise-ebi, massive shrimp that are caught around the nearby islands of Amakusa – we were treated to it in both raw and later cooked form. We also scarfed down sashimi, chawan mushi (egg custard), pumpkin salad, fish in a syrupy soy and sake sauce, rice, pickles and a tasty black sesame seed custard. More than enough to satisfy me and a special end of the year treat for all of us.

Last year, December was such a busy month that my friends and I missed getting together for our bonenkai. Instead, we celebrated in January … when the restaurants were a lot less crowded! No matter when you meet, it’s a good excuse to get together with friends or coworkers and reflect on the year (or welcome a new one).


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