The turn of the year is a particularly important time in Japan, brimming with customs and rituals. It is a family-oriented, religious festival, a far cry from the dance floors, champagne glasses and glitzy party dresses often associated with this time of year. The Japanese have been celebrating New Year on 1 January since the country switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1873. Prior to that, the change of year was celebrated on the first day of the lunar calendar, generally in February, and heralded the return of spring, as is the case in other Asian countries such as China, Korea and Vietnam.
New Year, new beginnings
O-shogatsu, or Japanese New Year, symbolises new beginnings. The Japanese start preparing for the festivities from mid-December onwards, shaking their tatami mats, cleaning the house from top to bottom and repairing or replacing broken objects. It is also a time to conclude ongoing business, and in particular to settle one’s debts, so as to leave the old year behind and give the best possible welcome to the new one, hoping it will be prosperous and happy. Once the cleaning is done, people decorate their doorsteps with a pair of kadomatsu arrangements. These pine and bamboo branches can easily withstand the harsh winter cold and hence are symbols of health and long life. They also shelter the New Year god, who will come and stay for a few days to share the festivities with mortals. On the evening of 31 December, people customarily eat toshi-koshi soba, literally ‘New Year noodles’. The long buckwheat noodles symbolise long life, while the broth is a good way to warm up before heading to the temple to hear the bells ring 108 times. If the New Year’s Eve soup seems a little simple, it is because the main festive meal is eaten the following morning, on 1 January, after seeing in the first sunrise of the year (hatsuhinode).
O-sechi ryōri, a symbol of happiness
Sitting cross-legged, chopsticks in hand1, each member of the family helps themselves to the cold buffet called o-sechi ryōri, “the cuisine of the great banquets, in reference to the meals traditionally served at the grand annual celebrations of the imperial court”2. This is a set of specific dishes following a tradition dating back to the Heian period (794-1185 CE). Formerly served during the festivities that accompanied each new season, these dishes are associated with the New Year meal, which marked the year’s most important change of season, the return to spring, when everything comes back to life. They are cooked in advance and, owing to the considerable amounts of vinegar, salt or sugar used, which act as natural preservatives, they keep for several days without refrigeration. The rich and varied assortment is presented in jūbako, pretty lacquered stackable boxes, each divided into compartments.
The many varied dishes are mainly prepared with root vegetables, fish, seaweed and seafood. The food is presented in small servings, carefully arranged to create an attractive display. The shape, colour or even the name of each dish symbolises a particular connection with the wishes made for the year ahead.