Twice I’ve experienced New Year in Japan. It is one of the most important festivals of the year, and the celebration extends over 3 days (1-3 January) public holiday. Like most celebrations it involves prior preparation, the most important of which are “spring” cleaning the home, and preparing the food. With few exceptions the food served for New Year, particularly New Year’s Day, is prepared in advance to be served cold, and tends to be preserved in salt, vinegar, or mirin (a sweet rice wine used in cooking). As a family in Britain, and with a Japanese husband we incorporate some aspects into our own New Year’s preparations and celebrations, but not all of them*.
I spent New Year in Japan with my now in-laws, on both occasions, over 20 years ago. It’s an experience I haven’t forgotten: from observing my father-in-law wielding a vacuum cleaner, to the cold, and the cold food.
Cleaning complete, New Year’s eve was spent relaxing with family, watching a long-running annual singing competition on TV, playing Uno at the kotatsu (a low heated square table covered by a quilt – warm feet and legs, cold back). At around 11.30pm the traditional New Years eve soba** noodles were served. Apparently these can be served warm in a soup, but my mother-in-law served them cold both occasions I was visiting. Cold noodles are great in the hot summers, but sit chill in the stomach that time of year and night. Anyway, the noodles represent long life, and in my husbands family at least, all need to be finished before midnight. Once midnight rolled around we all retired to bed. Hardier souls would be attending the local, or even a not so local, larger Shinto shrine for the midnight bells, but we saved that trip for the morning.
New Year’s Day breakfast (osechi, お節料理) is an experience. Everything on your plate represents something desired for the coming year. You can take a look at a few examples of the breakfast here, here and here. On both occasions I was served black beans; cold sweet omelette; the red and white fish cake; small tiny fish; herring roe; shredded daikon; and mochi (more about this later). I’ve found it to be an acquired taste – especially the herring roe which squeaks against my teeth. It isn’t possible just to wash it all down with your drink. This would normally be green tea containing a sour plum, however (in keeping with the WofW dietary restrictions*** as observed by Japanese LDS in Japan) my now husband and I had our sour plums in hot water.
Breakfast over, we all headed out to the nearby Shinto shrine, to pay our respects, and to purchase a sightless Daruma. Tradition has it, that on setting a goal, you paint in the first eye, and on completing your goal you paint in the second eye. I’m not a goal or New Year’s resolution setter however, so I’ve only ever given these as gifts. I haven’t used one.
The remaining meals throughout the day were also served cold. I did enjoy eating lotus root (renkon) as part of a cold casserole (also containing carrot, onion and chicken). An interesting blend of east and west.
Making mochi (mochitsuki, 餅つき), a type of rice cake, is a traditional Japanese New Year activity, done the traditional way. You can see a video here. My second New Year in Japan, students in the laboratory where I was visiting for 4 months had hired the required equipment, and we all got to have a go at making the mochi, and then eating it wrapped in sheets of nori. Mochi is extremely chewy, made with a special sticky mochi rice****. It takes a lot of chewing, and can pose a hazard to vulnerable people, who can choke on it.
Another important part of New Year is sending cards to friends and family. New Year cards are very important, and the Japanese Post Office will aim to deliver them over the three days holiday. New Year cards can take the form of post cards, and vary from the cute to the more traditional, and include those with the one of the twelve animals for the coming year. 2015 is the Year of the Ram.
Happy New Year folks!
- Do you have particular New Year traditional activities or foods?
- How do you celebrate the New Year?
*It can sometimes feel like half the holiday is spent cleaning.
** I’m not a huge fan of soba noodles, and generally prefer the thick udon noodles, but soba it is for New Year’s Eve.
*** Mirin gets the go-ahead, whilst green tea would appear to be out.
****My first stint as a visiting student I mistakenly bought mochi rice my first time in the supermarket, and can attest to just how sticky it is.
Images from Canon.