The History and Traditions of New Year’s Cuisine

Culture Avatar photo Ari Gorney

G'Day Japan! / Culture / The History and Traditions of New Year’s Cuisine

あけましておめでとうございます (Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu)。

今年もよろしくお願いします (Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu)。

Happy New Year! We look forward for you to join us again this year and reading through our content. The year 2021 has arrived, and the New Year in Japan one of the most anticipated holidays to look forward to. Many Japanese mark the arrival of the New Year with traditions rich in history such as 門松 (kadomatsu, a bamboo-pine arrangement placed at the entrance of the home), お年玉 (otoshidama, giving money to children), 初詣 (hatsumōde, first trip to a shrine or temple in the New Year) and of course celebrating with おせち料理 (oseochi-ryōri, traditional Japanese New Year food). Foods and feasts are an important part of any holiday; however none are as essential and symbolic to a new year as Japanese traditional Osechi-ryori or Osechi (おせち) for short.

Oshougatsu(お正月), which means New Years in Japanese, is the oldest known holiday celebrated in Japan, recognized from as early as the 6th century. With such a long history, the exact origins are unknown, however it is believed to have been introduced along with Buddhism, beginning with originally Buddhist traditions, and has evolved to also include Shinto rites and rituals. Of course, with a holiday which is rich with history like New Years, there is a bountiful amount of food associated with it, and the history behind it.

The tradition of having Osechi on New Year in Japan began during the Heian Period (794-1185). Osechi are like bento meals, however as New Years is such a special and important time of the year, there is a level of care taken towards it which puts your standard Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to shame. These more elaborate special boxes called jūbako (重箱). The term Osechi was derived from o-sechi, meaning a season or significant period. In Japan, New Year’s Day was considered one of the five seasonal festivals in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. In olden times, during the first three days of the New Year, it was unthinkable to use a hearth and cook meals. Osechi was prepared days ahead of the New Year as women were not allowed to cook.

The traditional Osechi dishes, served in elegant three or four-layered laquer jubako boxes, are placed at the center of the table on New Year’s Eve and remain there until the 1st of January. The food is shared with family and friends. Each item of Osechi represents a particular wish for the next year.

Here is some example of osechi and their meanings:

  1. Ebi(エビ)Longevity
    • The ebi or shrimp with its back bent and antennae, resembling a long beard, symbolizes old age. This represents a wish for a long life for the year ahead. The tinge of red is also said to drive evil spirits away.
  2. Kuri-kinton (栗きんとん) – Wealth
    • Kuri-kinton or sweet chestnuts, are used to make a sweet dumpling made of chestnuts. Its colour, a yellowish-gold, signifies a wish for wealth and a prosperous New Year.
  3. Datemaki (伊達巻) – Scholarship
    • Datemaki is similar to tamago yaki (Japanese rolled omelette), only it’s sweet. It’s mixed with hanpen, a traditional fish cake ingredient that makes the omelette fluffier than the tamago yaki. History tells us that important documents and paintings were usually rolled, and because datemaki resembles scrolls, the dish aptly represents a wish for learning.
  4. Kobu-maki (昆布巻き) – Happiness
    • A kelp or kobu covering signifies different things. “Kobu” is also referred to as “yorokobu,” which means joy and happiness. Kobu  can also mean many offspring when written as “子生,” a kanji character that represents childbirth.
  5. Tazukuri (田作り) – Bountiful harvest
    • Tazukuri (田作り) is a very popular dish for Osechi Ryori and it is made of roasted baby sardines coated in a sweet soy sauce glaze. Baby sardines play an important role in Japanese cuisine. We eat Tazukuri on New Year’s Day as it symbolizes a bountiful harvest. Tazukuri (田作り) literally translates as “making (作り) rice paddy (田)” as sardines were once used as fertilizers for rice fields.
  6. Renkon (蓮根)– Purity and a happy future
    • Crunchy, delicate flavored, lotus root, or we call renkon in Japanese, is an edible rhizome (root) of the lotus plant. Lotus root represents a happy future without obstacles. Why? Well, look through the holes in the renkon — you can clearly see the other side without any interference.

As you can see in the photos, this is just a small sample of the incredible amount of different foods and dishes that can be found in a Osechi, and with such care taken for each element of the jubako, it truly makes a special holiday even more special. It is common to sit around the kotatsu (炬燵) wooden table frame covered by a futon that is heated while watching NHK Kōhaku Uta Gassen (NHK紅白歌合戦), an annual song contest. The setting is perfect to enjoy Osechi with the family. While watching the song contest Japanese must eat Toshikoshi Soba (年越し蕎麦). It’s auspicious to eat hot noodle soup because the long, thin noodles symbolize longevity. Along with Osechi, the Japanese also eat rice cakes called Mochi (餅), a mochi soup called Ozoni (お雑煮) and drink sweet medicinal sake Otoso (お屠蘇). Otoso  is spiced sake which includes spices such as cinnamon, ginger and sanshou (Japanese pepper). Drinking Toso with family on New Year’s day is believed to be able to chase away sickness in the coming year. It will also bring happiness and peace in the coming year.

Oesechi Ryori is more than just a meal, it’s an integral part of the Japanese New Year traditions. The act of sharing these celebratory dishes is also a way of ringing in the New Year by sharing intentions of health, prosperity, and happiness with family. If you are in Japan during Shogatsu, why not try osechi ryori for yourself?