One of the most important holidays celebrated in Japan is Oshogatsu, meaning “new year” in Japanese. A number of festive customs characterize Oshogatsu celebrations, including the preparation and eating of traditional new year foods called osechi-ryori.
Osechi-ryori are typically presented in ornate boxes called jubako. Each osechi dish has a special celebratory meaning. For example, kamaboko, or fish cakes, are placed in alternating rows of white and red, resembling the rising sun. Ebi are prawns cooked in sake and soy sauce; with their long beards and bent waists, prawns symbolize a wish for a long life. Kuri kinton, or puréed sweet potatoes kneaded with sugar, is an auspicious dish believed to bring wealth because the sweet potatoes look gold in color.
Another food-oriented new year custom is the making of rice cakes, or mochi. Although mochi is now commonly sold and eaten year-round, it is traditionally a Japanese new year food, made in a ceremony called mochitsuki. Boiled sticky rice is put into a wooden, bucket-like container and patted with water by one person while another person hits it with a large wooden mallet. Pounding the rice eventually forms it into a rice cake.
The mochi is then made into a decorative item called kagami mochi (sometimes called okasane), formed from two round mochi cakes with a Japanese orange (daidai) placed on top. The name daidai is auspicious because it also sounds like the Japanese phrase meaning “generation to generation,” evoking long life and the continuity of the generations. The mochi itself symbolizes the past year and the year to come; thus, kagami mochi signifies the continuity of the family over the years.
Similarly, soba (buckwheat) noodles, with their strands that seem to go on forever, are also eaten for good luck and longevity. One must finish one’s bowl before midnight however, or face a year of bad luck!
JANM’s Oshogatsu Family Festival, happening on Sunday, January 4, 2015, adapts many of the customs associated with Japanese new year festivals. Featured activities include a special osechi-ryori tasting for members only, a soba noodle sampling, and a mochitsuki ceremony by Kodama Taiko that’s open to all. Bring the whole family and ring in the Year of the Sheep, JANM style!