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New Year and Osechi Ryori

December 22, 2016

No other holiday in Japan carries as much importance as the New Year. Since ancient times, this has been seen as a time of completion and renewal, the ending of one annual cycle and the start of a new one. Observances were originally held at the Lunar New Year, but since 1873, the official New Year has followed the Western Gregorian calendar.

Even today, this is still the one period when the country really shuts down, with most businesses and public offices closed for at least two or three days. But rather than lusty partying, as in other parts of the world, New Year in Japan is more a time for quiet family gatherings, traditional customs and solemn rituals. Needless to say, food plays a vital part in the proceedings.

In the lead-up to the holidays, homes and work places are thoroughly swept and cleaned. Special pine decorations known as kadomatsu may be placed outside the front door, and a special cake of mochi (pounded sticky rice) is placed in a prominent position in the main room. Some say that originally, the rounded two-tier shape of the mochi was modeled on that of a traditional mirror. This may explain the name: kagami, literally "mirror," mochi.

Ringing out the old year

On New Year’s Eve, it is customary to eat soba noodles. Although soba can be eaten at a restaurant, many people like to buy freshly made noodles to cook at home on New Year's Eve. Known as toshikoshi (“crossing the year”) soba, this dish symbolizes the wish for a life that is long, like the noodles. And as soba is easily cut with chopsticks, the dish can also be interpreted as signifying a break with the hardships of the old year.

In the dying minutes of the old year, the bell at many a Buddhist temple will be tolled 108 times, once for each of our earthly attachments. This frees the faithful to start a new year with a clean sheet. Many people stay up all night to greet the auspicious first sunrise of the year. And on New Year’s Day or soon after, just about everybody visits a Shinto shrine to pray for good fortune and good health in the year ahead.

Before setting out on New Year's Day, though, there are a few important rituals to be observed. In traditional households, everyone is treated to a sip of otoso, a thick liqueur made from mirin (sweet rice liquor) in which aromatic spices have been steeped. This is reputed to impart health throughout the year ahead.

Nenga-hagaki (New Year postcards) are read, to see who has sent greetings on this most important day. And a small, decorated envelope containing cash is handed to any child in the household. Known as otoshidama, this gift will vary in value depending on the child’s age, but the envelope may contain 10,000 yen or more.

Auspicious eating

Over the centuries, an elaborate ceremonial cuisine has developed to celebrate New Year. Known as osechi ryori, it comprises numerous dishes that are considered auspicious due to their appearance or color, and which are credited with imparting good health, fertility and long life.

A strict observance of custom would allow no cooking to be done during the holiday period (apart from the heating of soup), and so traditionally everything would be prepared in advance. In the days before refrigeration, that meant the food had to be sufficiently seasoned -- usually with salt, soy sauce or sugar -- that it would last for three days.

These delicacies are packed into special "jubako" bento boxes that are usually stacked up in tiers of two or three. These days chicken and meat are often included, but in the past osechi ryori was predominantly composed of seafood.

What's in a name?

Of the dozen or more foods, there are three that have particular significance and are often served together. Known collectively as iwaizakana sanshu, they are kuro-mame (sweet simmered black beans); tazukuri (small dried sardines cooked in soy sauce); and kazunoko (crunchy yellow herring roe). In each case, the names are homonyms: “mame” connotes hard work and health; “tazukuri” suggests fertile rice paddies with abundant harvests; and “kazunoko” literally means “numerous offspring,” and signifies continued prosperity for the family.

The jubako boxes often include prawns or shrimp: Not only are they an auspicious red hue, their long whiskers and bent backs symbolize the wish to live to a ripe old age. Another highly significant fish is tai (red sea bream), not only for its color but because the name has come to be associated with the word “medetai,” meaning celebration.

Kobu-maki (rolls of simmered konbu seaweed) are commonly part of the osechi mix, as the name suggests the word “yorokobu,” meaning happiness or delight. A type of citrus known as daidai is also considered lucky, as the name is a homonym for “many generations,” implying prosperity for one’s descendants.

Another favorite osechi dish is date-maki (plump egg roll made with fish paste), which is thought to evoke kimono finery. Kohaku namasu (shredded carrot and daikon seasoned with sweet rice vinegar) reflects the celebratory colors of red and white. And kuri-kinton (simmered chestnut) is loved both for its sweetness and its rich gold color, symbolizing wealth and good fortune.

Although the key elements of osechi ryori are the same across the country, the precise composition of each jubako will vary according to individual taste and household budget. These days, to avoid the arduous work of cooking each dish at home, many people prefer to order ready-made osechi ryori from restaurants or caterers.

Ceremonial soup

However, there is one dish that is still mostly prepared at home: the ceremonial soup known as zoni (often also called ozoni). Here too, the exact recipe will vary from area to area, and even from one household to the next. But there is a single essential ingredient: small pieces of mochi.

In eastern Japan, zoni is made with a clear broth seasoned with soy sauce. In Kyoto and the Kansai region, white miso is used. People along the Japan Sea coast of Hokuriku often prefer red miso, while further to the west red azuki beans are added to the soup.

In Kanto and Tohoku, the mochi is usually grilled in squares before being added to the soup, whereas in western Japan, the mochi is formed into small balls that are boiled. There are also regional preferences when it comes to adding fish or chicken, colorful vegetables, as well as yakumi seasonings such as yuzu peel, mitsuba herb or chili flakes.

Healthy, tasty and packed with depths of significance, this is a soup intended to provide warmth and nourishment through the chill of winter and through the year ahead.

Text: Robbie Swinnerton