Every year, until his passing, my grandfather would spend days preparing the most wondrous Japanese Feast to ring in the New Year. It was always one of the most memorable days of the year.
The New Year, in Japan known as oshogatsu, is considered the most important annual holiday, celebrated as such for centuries. Festivities usually run from January 1st through the 3rd (though before 1873, the New Year was celebrated using the Chinese Lunar Calendar). Preparations however, begin in the last few days of the previous year. In addition to the very special feast on the first, many in Japan visit shrines during the holiday, exchange nengajo postcards, and children receive gifts of money, packaged in special envelopes.
The traditional eats, called osechi ryori, is artistically presented in multi-layered lacquered Jubako boxes. Each food holds special significance historically or symbolically. For instance fish cakes – kamabuko - are prepared in red and white, colours that reference both the new year and the rising sun. Prawns represent longevity; sweet black beans – kuromame - are eaten for health, herring row – kazunoko – with their many eggs, for fertility. And it’s said a sweet chestnuts and mashed yam dish – kurikinton - brings happiness.
Reverence for the natural world and its inherent beauty is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, and the New Year is a time to celebrate all that the coming seasons will offer. This importance is echoed in the food’s presentation, which typically includes vegetables arranged in ornate designs to reference the seasons (think plum flowers, chrysanthemums and pinecones).
Many of these traditional foods are sweetened, pickled or fried so that they can keep for a few days without refrigeration (these delicacies precede the modern conveniences of today’s kitchen). The idea too, is to prepare enough food that leftovers will keep you out of the kitchen and with family for the duration of the holiday.