December is called 師走 (Shiwasu), literally ‘even the master runs’. It is the hectic last month of the year when things are being finished before marking the new year, cleaning the house and work place, visiting business relations and neighbours to give respect and blessing to each other for a better new year, and prepare for the big welcome of the new year.
I mentioned earlier that Christmas is like the Valentine’s Day here. Christian population is of minority, and the mass culture is geared towards a combination of Shinto, the traditional Japanese religion that worships creator gods, and some forms of Buddhism. Their practices got blended into our daily life over the centuries, and especially since the separation of religion post the second world war (in which the religion and the religious leader were used as puppet or excuse for the military to take over the control of the nation’s agenda) it became less spiritual and more just superstitious custom.
Having said that, people are superstitious, and welcoming the new year a proper way is important for them. Within their means, they put on their best clothes to visit their guardian shrine in the neibourhood, and they cook up (or buy, more commonly these days) a set of new year’s meal.
New Year is the time for family to get together, along with the mid August when the ceremonies are held across nation to send off the spirits of those passed away through sending of lantern-lit boats down the water. In my family, this year everyone got together again (I was in France this time last year), with my older brother and his family living only an hour’s drive away.
Osechi or お節 is probably the best meal we find on the table throughout the year. Generally people eat plainly here, not like eating sushi and its fresh slices of fishes every day. We eat rice, noodle, with grill or simmer cooking, along with various forms of vinegared, pickled, miso-marinated or stock cooked vegetables. But New Year is a special time – everything in the meal set has its place. There are items that are traditionally associated with health, or wealth, or prosperity. There are food that are considered to encourage reproduction. Things that give you energy. Things that shine, and those that are in red and white, the most elegant ceremonial colours.
Traditionally the meals are prepared in the stackable boxes. They are opened as people seat at the table. Sake is served, often with small pieces of golden flakes dancing in it to add extra special feeling. Meals are consumed in a way that everyone gets to eat one piece of each item (ideally). We may also eat other things to fill up. Towards the end, the soup may be served, which include the mochi, or gummy plain grilled rice cake. Soup may be plain, or with white miso, or the red miso (brown one you may be familiar with from the restaurant), depending on the region. Rice cake may be plain rice, or red with prawn paste, or green with yomogi leaves.
With the help of side dishes, the stacked meal can last for more than one big new year breakfast. You drink a bit, take a nap, wake up in the late afternoon and maybe have more food. Next day you may eat a bit more again. The food is designed to last a few days. Many those traditional cooking comes from the days when fridge was not readily available – cooking makes sure they taste good, as well as safe to eat. Hardly is there a thing that is quickly cooked in this osechi set; many fishes are marinated in vinegar and wrapped in thin skin of raddish or something that blocks exposing the fish. It still allows texture of fresh fish, like sushi, but vinegar sour and is free of food poisoning bacteria. Other fishes are miso-marinated, another traditional food preserve. Meat can be preserved for long period of time using miso, too. So fishes are marinated, and sometimes grilled after that as well. Vegetables are cooked in beautiful round or square shapes, all symbolising something like flowers, grid of patterns, etc. Black beans are boiled and shiny, as if they are urushi-lacquered pebbles. There may be some more western or non-traditional cooking introduced, to add some excitement in eating the same meal every year. But fundamentally, they are all the same, through the generation. Some items may be region-specific, as they may have different myth and superstition that they live with.
And the side dishes…
My goodness, our (soon-to-be) 7-year-old little princess loves this thing. She’s a spoiled little thing 🙂
You already know what this is, if you read my post from yesterday.
Date-maki: Pretty rolled fried eggs, slightly sweet.
Marinated salmon, ikura eggs, and marinated daikon radish. This is so good!
Elegance in simplicity but abundance of celebration – red colour, chequered pattern, gold plate on ‘special occasion only’ lacquered soup bowl, and beautifully patterned paper that accentuate the chop sticks…
Oh, and did I mention the soup…
Happy New Year. May this year bring you and your family happiness, health, wealth, and prosperity. If you are a traveller like me, happy trails. May the next corner lead you to unexpected surprise, as it always does. Put your head down low, respect the locals, appreciate the kind and generous hospitality. Pay it forward whenever you can, and share the beauty of the world with our friends.