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 essential to clean, pay bills, tie up any loose ends, and prepare the traditional good luck Japanese New Year food in advance of the celebration, which lasts from January 1-3. My family gathers together just for a day on January 1 to eat everything we’re supposed to for a prosperous year ahead.
(However, in 2020, things look a little bit different as I try to purchase or assemble an osechi box for our little family of three.)
A Quiet New Year’s Eve with Soba for Dinner
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 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 all of the efforts taken to clean and prepare for the coming year.
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.
Why Ozoni Is Eaten for Breakfast on New Year’s Day
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 chicken stock, sliced chicken breast, carrots, kamaboko (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 and now I know.
Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi (where we stay in Tokyo) shared the origins of ozoni with me. (I can only imagine how tasty their ozoni is and how gorgeous the osechi boxes they prepare are.) The story goes like this.
Rice was rare and expensive in the old days and people made mochi out of rice only once a year on New Year’s Day. Relatives gathered and pounded mochi together.
The mochi was then cut into small pieces and used in ozoni as well as in other dishes. Cutting mochi into pieces is like sharing happiness with others.
At the same time, Japanese farmers prepared offerings to God on New Year’s Day to show appreciation for good harvests and wish for a prosperous year ahead. Offerings included rice, different kinds of vegetables, and chicken sourced from their farms.
After the offering ceremony was finished, they used the mochi and food leftover from offerings to make ozoni.
The bottom line is that ozoni was a very luxurious and sacred food historically because it contained nutritious ingredients that many people could not eat daily otherwise.
I also read that ozoni started 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.
Regardless of origin, the soup is delicious and a healthy way to start off New Year’s 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:
Kamaboko (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): This symbolizes 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 means happiness in Japanese so these are prepared on festive occasions.
Ise-Ebi ( spiny lobster): Because the lobster’s back is curled like that of an old person, one eats 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.
Rest on New Year’s Day
All of these Japanese New Year food items need to be prepared prior to New Year’s Day. The first day of the year is, thankfully, considered a time of rest.
Lucky for us, most Japanese markets in the United States sell pre-made osechi boxes containing all of the auspicious foods. You may need to pre-order but we’ve had good luck walking into markets on December 30 or 31 to pick up a box when need be.
It is also a tradition to send special New Year postcards in Japan, guaranteed for delivery on January 1.