If you’ve taken an interest in the culinary delights Japan has to offer (and who hasn’t?), the new year holiday season is an especially wonderful time to be here.
Called oshougatsu (お正月) in Japanese, the period from December 31st until about January 3rd is significant and meaningful. The new year is a time of cleansing and renewal, of being with family, taking stock of the year gone by, and of contemplating the year to come.
Family feasting for oshogatsu (New Year) by Rick Cogley
As with many important and long-lasting Japanese traditions, oshougatsu boasts its own range of customary foods. Called osechi ryouri (お節料理), these dishes are an essential element of transitioning into a new year. Many have strong, symbolic meanings.
Not all Japanese people are familiar with these definitions. Often related to a play on words and a fascinating window into traditional thinking, the symbolic connections are auspicious. Most have to do with luck, prosperity, fertility, or health.
New Year's kagami mochi from Flickr cc by Banzai Hiroaki
In stores, for example, you may see kagami mochi, two flattened globes of mochi (pounded rice) topped by a small orange fruit called daidai (橙). In Japanese, daidai (代々) also refers to something that continues generation after generation, connoting long-lasting fertility. People buy kagami mochi for their homes and work. They place them wherever they wish to invite toshigami (年神), or New Year deities, to come and bring good fortune.
Tai (sea bream) ready to be made into osechi ryouri by Nathan Hosken
Tai (鯛), or sea bream, is a fish that often features in Japanese celebratory occasions. This bright red fish takes a prominent place during oshougatsu. Since it shares a sound with the word medetai (目出度い, "happy"), it also carries the meaning of happiness or joyousness.
Black Beans for a good new year from Flickr by Malicamera
Another food-related play on words concerns black beans, or kuromame (黒豆). These share a pair of syllables with a phrase meaning to work hard, mame ni hataraku (まめに働く). Eating the beans will help you hang in there during the upcoming year.
Sweetened chestnuts from Flickr cc by koizumi
Other dishes are symbolic because of the properties of the foods themselves. Crunchy lotus root, or renkon (蓮根), offers a peek into the future through its many holes. Kurikinton (栗きんとん), sweetened chestnuts stewed until sticky and yellow, resemble nuggets of gold, bringing wealth and prosperity.
Osechi in beautiful boxes from Flickr cc by David Z.
Osechi come served in beautiful lacquer boxes called juubako (重箱) that hold small portions of various foods. The boxes stack neatly when in storage and for use. Stacking the boxes also connotes happiness and blessings heaped upon each other.
When prepared at home, people most often make osechi during the last days of the year. Oshougatsu is a time of rest, and traditionally people spend as little of it in the kitchen as possible.
These days, many prefer to buy osechi in portions large enough to serve the whole family. Heavily preserved using salt and soy sauce, store-bought osechi is eaten through the first three days of January. It needs to be pre-ordered and is home-delivered on the last day of the year.
We have created a list of places where you can try osechi in Tokyo and Kyoto. Grocery and convenience stores often sell osechi dishes to take home and eat.
(Adult: ¥3000 / Under 11: ¥1500 / Under 6 years: free) Available: January 1st ～ 3rd, 2016, 11:00 ～ 15:00. Hanagoyomi is offering 28 kinds of traditional osechi. Dishes include kazunoko (herring roe), kurikinton (sweet chestnut puree), kuromame (sweet black soybeans), datemaki (sweet rolled omelette). They are prepared 10 days in advance by Japanese chefs. This restaurant is conveniently located 3 minutes away from Tokyo Station.
(Lunch – Adult: ¥3000 / Under 12: ¥1500 / Under 6 years: free. Dinner – Adult: ¥4500 / Under 12: ¥2000 / Under 6 years: free) Available: January 1st ～ 3rd, 2016. Lunch: 11:00 ～ 16:30, Dinner: 17:30 ～ 22:00. Here, you will be able to try traditional and orthodox osechi. A mochi-tsuki (rice pounding) performance is held at 11:30 and 13:30 each day.
(Lunch – Adult: ¥4800 / Under 12: ¥2900 / Under 6 years: ¥1900. Dinner – Adult: ¥6300 / Under 12: ¥3200 / Under 6: ¥2100) Available: January 1st～ 3rd, 2016. Lunch: 11:30 ～ 14:00, Dinner: 17:30 ～ 20:30. Enjoy osechi and panoramic views of the Tokyo Bay area. You can try a large variety of dishes and experience live teppanyaki and tempura cooking demonstrations. A shishigashira (shishi lion) will also perform during the meal. Listen to live koto and shakuhachi performances and taste furumaizake (rice wine) at the hotel lobby during lunch time.
(Lunch – Adult: ¥3900 / Under 13: ¥1950 / Under 6 years: free. Dinner – Adult: ¥5800 / Under 13: ¥2900 / Under 6 years: free) Available: December 31st, 2015 ～ January 3rd, 2016. Lunch: 11:30 ～ 15:00 (31st Dec, 11:30 ～ 14:30), Dinner: 17:00 ～ 22:00. Whole sea bream, zenzai and prosciutto as well as sushi prepared by chefs in the open kitchen is offered as well as osechi.