Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Years in Japan

It is New Year’s Day here in Japan and it is a beautiful day, sunny and about 10 degrees Celsius which is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. 

We celebrated a traditional family New Year and now are just relaxing – and constantly eating LOL!

Yesterday was what we call “Omisoka”.

This is the day of New Year’s Eve. Since the New Year is the biggest event in Japan, people celebrate the Eve as well. People work so hard to prepare the New Year around one or two weeks such as cleaning (like spring cleaning in here) and shopping. 

The reason people do the cleaning in the middle of winter is to get rid of the dirt and old of the passing year and to welcome the New Year with a fresh and serene mind. Everyone tries to finish up all the work of the year, pay off debts and just overall close out the year as much as possible.

Mama spent the morning making the last of the New Year’s special dishes called Osechi-ryori.

"Osechi ryori" is what most people in Japan eat at the beginning of the New Year. Regardless of how Japanese restaurants you go to anywhere in the world, osechi isn't something you'll ever find on a Japanese menu. Its time and place are the first few days in January, in the Japanese home.

Osechi ryori was originally a way for housewives (and their families) to survive the first several days of the New Year, when stores throughout Japan were closed. The foods that make up osechi can be prepared in advance and then sit out in a cool area for a few days without spoiling. Most often everything is placed in compartmentalized lacquer boxes called jubako that are stacked in layers.

Today most osechi is purchased - either at department stores or at local supermarkets. Prices start at under Y10,000 (for portions that will feed a few people for at least three days), but it's also possible to spend literally a hundred times that amount (the equivalent of US $10,000). The high-end osechi food is made by famous chefs (or more likely, famous restaurants), and - typical of Japanese custom - is limited in production. High-priced department stores like Takashimaya start taking orders for osechi in late October, and often the most popular varieties sell out within a few days.

Mama took two layers of her jubako to a local shop a few days prior and then sent Papa to pick it up about 10:00 AM.  She took a third layer and filled it with special dishes she made – she even made kuromame for the first time in her 80 years (with no recipe) and they are delicious!

Many of the food items represent prosperity, good fortune and health. The basic components are the same, but regional differences are reflected in the sweetness or saltiness of the flavoring and the use of local ingredients.

One thing to keep in mind when looking at osechi is that presentation is very important. There is a pleasing balance of colors. What may be harder to notice, though, is the efficiency with which each layer is packed. The more elaborate osechi will have vegetables arranged in ornate designs, representing seasonal shapes such as pine cones and plum flowers.

Osechi-ryori components:

Kazunoko (herring roe) - tiny yellow fish eggs. Like the tobiko you often find at sushi restaurants, kazunoko have a bite or crunch to them, however, the eggs are not loose. They are marinated in a broth of dashi, sake and soy sauce.

Kuromame (black beans) are soft and quite sweet, although you may notice a bit of soy sauce flavoring.

Gomame (also known as tazukuri) are small sardines that have been dried and then finished in a sweet sauce of sugar, mirin, soy sauce and sake. These are rich in calcium and yes, you can eat the head.

Kombumaki are nothing more than the umami-rich kombu rolled tightly and bound shut with a ribbon of gourd strip (kampyo). Often kombumaki are stuffed with salmon. This is also cooked slowly in dashi, mirin, sugar, and soy sauce.

Datemaki looks like the tamago-yaki (egg custard) you often find in a bento box, but here it's made with a fish paste and has a sponge-like texture. It's quite sweet.
Sweet potatoes and chestnuts are the base of kurikinton, which can look something like yellow mashed potatoes.

Kamaboko, a dense cake of fish paste, is red (or pink) and white (traditional New Year's colors). You can often find thin slices of this on your soba.

Another red-and-white food you'll find is called namasu - typically daikon and carrots pickled in vinegar.
For vegetables, look for gobo (burdock root), often dressed with sesame. Also lotus root, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and pea pods.

Konnyaku (devil's-tongue starch) and fu (wheat gluten) will also be sprinkled throughout the stacked boxes.

For seafood, shrimp (representing long life) and sea bream (for auspicious fortune) are most typical.

My brother Jun and his wife Akemi came over about 2:30 and we sat down to our Omisoka feast!

There was the osechi-ryori, a huge pot of Oden and a number of other assorted dishes – all pretty much made by Mama herself in the morning.

After a relaxed afternoon and un-ending food and drink, Jun and Akemi left – since Jun has to work at 4:00 AM New Year’s Day.

We then sat and watched NHK’s Kōhaku Uta Gassen or Red and White Singing Competition – which is a New Year’s tradition here.  A men (white team) against the women (red team) singing competition of famous singers from all genres of Japanese music which ends and declares a winner about a half-hour before the New Year so people can get to the shrines.  This year, the white team won again for the 6th year running.

We then bundled up and Mama, Papa and I walked the half block to the neighborhood shrine to say our prayers for the New Year.

The shrine queue went pretty quickly and once at the shrine, we rang the bell, threw in an offering and said a quick prayer before moving on to get the free miso dengaku and a cup of the icy cold daru sake and/or piping hot amazake.  We all just went with the hot amazake – so yummy and warm!!

Once we got home, Papa made the toshi-koshi noodles – to bridge the old year into the new and to help invite prosperity for the coming year. Toshikoshi-soba is traditionally a bowl of hot brown buckwheat noodles in broth but people often use any favorite noodle like ramen or udon as well. 

The noodle is a homophone for a word that means “being close” and therefore signifies the approach of the New Year.

A lot of people eat Toshikoshi-soba at night and stay up till midnight to listen to the 108 chimes of a nearby temple bell. The 108 chimes called Joya-no-kane, rings out the old year and rings in the New Year. It is supposed to release people from the 108 worldly sins.


This is the celebration of the New Year and is the most important holiday in Japan. Entrances are decorated with a Shimekezari in the days before the New Year. A Shimekazari is a twisted straw rope with fern leaves, an orange and other items of good omen. Family gather to their hometown and spend the time together. People celebrate the New Year with sweet sake called Toso, a soup called Ozoni and Osechi-ryori during the holiday.


A common New Year decoration that means literally mirror rice cake, is a traditional Japanese New Year decoration. It usually consists of two round mochi (rice cakes), the smaller placed atop the larger, and a daidai (a Japanese bitter orange) with an attached leaf on top.

In addition, it may have a sheet of konbu and a skewer of dried persimmons under the mochi. It sits on a stand called a sanpō, over a sheet called a shihōbeni, which is supposed to ward off fires from the house for the following years. Sheets of paper called gohei, folded into lightning shapes similar to those seen on sumo wrestler's belts are also attached.


This is the first sunrise of the year. Before sunrise on January 1, people often drive to the coast or climb a mountain so that they can see the first sunrise of the New Year


The shrines all over Japan are packed with people from the New Year’s Day to January 3rd.  People go to shrine to pray for safety, happiness and long lives of the family. A lot of people are dressed up with their Kimono and buy a good luck talisman called Omamori. It is kept as a protection from illness, accidents and disasters.