Japanese New Year: Good Luck Food And Traditions

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Japanese New Year osechi

Japanese New Year (shogatsu or oshogatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan. It’s centered around food, family, preparing for the new year and leaving the prior year in the past. It’s incredibly important to clean, pay bills, tie up any loose ends and prepare the traditional good luck food in advance of the celebration, which lasts from January 1-3. However, my family gathers together just for a day on January 1.

A Quiet New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve, contrary to the champagne cork-popping parties elsewhere in the world, is a very quiet evening in Japan. It makes sense that after weeks of planning and cleaning, one might just want to collapse in front of the TV to watch Japanese entertainment shows featuring J-pop and other performances.

Toshikoshi soba is the traditional last meal of the year. Soba noodles are served warm with broth or dipping sauce that can be bought pre-made, if necessary. Slice some scallions and nori (seaweed) and call it a day. Toshikoshi  means “to kill off the year” and the long noodles symbolize longevity. It’s such a simple meal to prepare that I’m sure households across the country breathe a huge sigh of relief.

After the meal, some families venture out to hear Buddhist temple bells ring 108 times at midnight. Buddhists believe that man has 108 temptations to overcome before reaching nirvana. It’s thought that ringing the bells at the start of the New Year will help free our souls of these temptations in the coming year. It’s a purification or cleansing, of sorts.

The Story of Ozoni

Japanese New Year ozoni soup

My family eats ozoni  or zoni  for breakfast on New Year’s Day. Ozoni  is a soup filled with mochi  or gooey pounded rice cake. Last year, I made it with a chicken stock, sliced chicken breast, carrots, kamaboco (fish cake), daikon radish, mushrooms and mochi.

Preparations vary depending on where you are in Japan, but these are the basic ingredients. I always wondered how a soup with so many ingredients became auspicious. I’m thrilled that my friends over at Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi (where we recently stayed in Tokyo) shared these stories with me. I can only imagine how tasty their ozoni is and how gorgeous the osechi boxes they prepare are (see below about osechi).

The reason why ozoni is served in New Year is that rice was very rare and expensive in old days and making mochi (rice cake) out of rice was only done in New Year so people could eat it only once a year. Relatives gathered and pounded mochi together. When mochi is made, we make it into small pieces to use for ozoni as well as for other kinds of food. Cutting mochi into pieces is like sharing happiness with others. Other than mochi, locally taken vegetables and chicken are in ozoni. So, ozoni was very luxurious food in old times by eating all nutritious products which they could not eat in daily life.

Also:

In old days, as Japanese were farmers, we prepared offerings to God on New Year’s Day to show appreciation for the good harvest as well as wishing for the better future. Offerings included rice, different kinds of vegetables, and chicken that were all made and grown on their own farm. After the offering ceremony to the God was done, people used all those foods to make the ozoni. So, ozoni has many kinds of ingredients in it and it is a  sacred food which people eat in New Year.

I also read that ozoni started off as a very important meal of the samurai and eventually became known to common people who then offered it to God on New Year’s Eve, as the story above mentions. Either way, the soup is delicious and a healthy way to start off the day.

Osechi: A Variety Of Good Luck Food

Osechi  refers to traditional Japanese New Year food that dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185). Osechi is typically served on New Year’s Day in a beautiful lacquered box. Sometimes the box is sectioned or stackable but it’s immaculately presented every time. Here are examples of what is usually in the osechi box:

Kamaboco (fish cake): It’s a bright pink and white fish cake that I used to love as a kid. It’s shaped in a half-moon, symbolic of the rising sun.

Gobo (braised burdock root):  Means best wishes for a good harvest.

Tazukuri (dried sardines): These fish were once used to fertilize rice fields so they are also symbolic of a good harvest.

Kobumaki (kelp rolls): Kelp has the meaning of happiness in Japanese so it’s prepared on festive occasions.

Ise-Ebi ( spiny lobster): Because the lobster’s back is curled like that of an old person, eat lobster for a long life.

Kanzonoco (herring roe): Kazu means “number” and ko means “child” so load up on these for fertility.

Kuromame (black soy beans): Mame means health so eat these to ward off whatever is ailing you. Ours are served slightly sweet and my daughter loves them.

Kuri Kinton (sweet potato with chestnut): The golden color symbolizes wealth to come in the new year.

Datemaki (egg omelette): A sweet, yellow egg omelette for auspicious or sunny days ahead.

Osechi at Mitsuwa

All of this needs to be prepared prior to the New Year, considered a time of rest. Lucky for us, most Japanese markets in the U.S. have pre-made osechi boxes around New Year containing all of the must-eat foods. They are already on display at Mitsuwa Marketplace in San Diego (shown above). In Japan, it is also tradition to send special New Year postcards, guaranteed for delivery on January 1.

I had a blast researching other auspicious food from around the globe to eat during New Year celebrations. Read why you may want to pair pomegranates, lentils and more with your New Year’s Eve champagne on Taste by Four Seasons.

Ozoni Photo Credit: Flickr, kei55
Osechi Photo Credit: Flickr, Psychs

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