More than Christmas, New Years are important to Japanese. Traditionally, Christmas in Japan is a commercial holiday, not a religious one. For the lack of turkey in Japan, they have developed a “tradition” to eat oven-roasted whole chicken for Christmas, thinking, that must be what people eat in Western countries.
For the first five to seven days after the new year’s day, most of the people are off. In the olden days, all the businesses were closed during the first two to three days. On the first or second day, literary, every citizen of the Japan visit shrines to pray, a ritual known as Hatsu-mode.
At home, people celebrate the arrival of the new year with a traditional meal called Osechi.
One of the ideas of Osechi, supposedly is to relieve mothers from daily cooking and chores, at least during the first three days or so after the new year. Everyone is supposed to eat the same Osechi every meal for a couple of days. But the fact is that mothers never got a day off, even during the new years or with Osechi. They work so hard before new years to make Osechi, and after the new year day.
Though it varies from region to region, a typical Osechi has at least ten to twenty dishes, all beautiful arranged in square lacquer wear box called Jyu•bako, typically two or three stacked on top of each other.
Each dish in Osechi has its own meaning. The color red and white signifies good luck. Shrimp is a sign of longevity because its shape resembles the old Japanese folks’ back being curled up. Black beans rhyme with working hard. Small fish represents fertility. And the yellow is the color of gold, property.
I don’ know why and black beans were, at least for me, the main focus in Osechi. It took three days to cook it from scratch. The first day, my mom soaked the beans in water. Thr second day was cooking.First, cook with soy sauce and sugar for five to six hours over low heat. Then let it sit and cool down for a few hours, start cooking again for another two or so. Let is sit overnight, and on the third day, if the beans are soft, then it was done, if not, cook until they are soft. The last part is very important because if you cook too long, the beans will become too hard.
Most Japanese mothers start preparing for Osechi at least two to three days before the new years, which means they need to start shopping for ingredients as early as the day after Christmas.
I remember started seeing Osechi ingredients in the supermarket after mid-December.
After Christmas, all mothers in Japan are busy getting ready for the new years. Their first job is to clear all the Christmas decorations from the house, clean up and store them back into the storage. Then, they need to start planning for the new years. There are decorations for the front door, a mochi display and shime•nawa, sacred rope decoration for the gods, then, cooking schedule for the Osechi which included one giant ingredients list, shopping, prepping and cooking schedule.
Shopping usually calls for multiple days of visiting multiple stores, as Osechi calls for vegetables, fish, meats, dried goods and eggs and soy sauce, vinegar, dried bonito, kombu kelp, mirin, sake, in addition to some special ingredients used just for Osechi.
Osechi, I suppose is an equivalent of Thanksgiving Dinner in the US, multiply it by ten times. It happens once a year for all the family to gather around the table, enjoying the gifts and blessing from nature, by cooking, creating and eating special dishes made. It’s a unique tradition and important occasion. They say in Japan that the depth of a relationship is measured by how many meals you shared with that person and every time I hear this saying, I think of Osechi.
Every year, I watched my mom shop, prep and cooked each dish. Cooking over twenty or so dishes by herself was an enormous task. I remember my sister helping mom peeling and cutting some vegetables. I can’t remember if I ever did. The sound of a knife hitting the cutting board rhythmically. The aroma of vegetables simmered in soy sauce filled the house, as I sat wand watched the year-end tv shows on TV, highlighting all the news from the year. It was incredible to see her creating all those dishes in such a tiny kitchen space large enough to hold two people, then store everything in a fridge. All, this while she continued to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner in addition to all the cleaning and other house chores she had to perform before the arrival of the new year.
That is why December is called “Shiwasu”, meaning that everyone is so busy that even the teachers (because school is off) are busy running around. Finishing the year properly is just as important as starting the year correctly. Japanese believe that without a proper preparation, there will be no good fortune. I think our ancestors learned this great customer from China.
So, I am grateful for my mom for cooking all the Osechi. I am grateful for China and its people to pass on the great tradition to Japanese. I am grateful for my dad for his hard work to allow us to celebrate each new year in peace, visiting shrines. I am grateful for the nature to provide so many wonderful seasonal offerings in such multiple colors. I am always grateful I was born there and grew up eating the Japanese traditions.