Tonight, at midnight, you’ll probably be kissing and toasting and cheering, calling a cab because your feet hurt, having a fight with your long distance boyfriend over the phone. But in Japan, many families visit a temple at midnight and New Year’s Day is the real important celebration.
“In America, after New Year’s Eve, it’s pretty sad, it’s done. Pretty much party’s over, right? But in Japan that’s the beginning of the party,” says Taichi Kitamura, chef/owner of Seattle’s Sushi Kappo Tamura. “So after New Year’s Eve it’s like Thanksgiving and Christmas come together for Japanese. Often we have three days off.”
New Year’s Day, and the few days following, are spent with family, at home. And instead of cooking most people buy pre-made osechi-ryori, a special, beautiful, intricate meal made up of dozens of small items served in lacquer boxes.
“We put herring roe in [our] osechi box. Herring roe, of course, is thousands of tiny, golden eggs which symbolizes a lot of babies, fertility.”
There will also be baby anchovies.
“Anchovies are considered the best fertilizer. Although, it is food so if you want good harvest in Fall you eat the anchovies to symbolize good, fertile soil.”
Many of the foods are symbolic.
“Golden chestnuts and golden yam. Gold symbolizes money. If you eat that you’ll rake in a lot of cash this year.”
There is all manner of local seafood and beautiful, carefully carved vegetables.
“Carrots are carved into plum flower shape. Plums are very long living trees so it symbolizes longevity. It also means welcoming the Spring. Aesthetically it is very pleasing.”
Taichi says the home cook can spend a week preparing the meal. His crew has been prepping for a month, and pre-orders sold out weeks ago. His osechi boxes cost $300 but they’re meant to serve a family.
“You don’t eat whole turkey except for Thanksgiving. It’s kind of like that. They only eat this for the New Year. Actually, they eat it for three days in a row and then after eating the food for three days, they don’t really want to see it for the rest of the year. But because they don’t eat it for the rest of the year, they look forward to it at the end of the year.”
He says his osechi boxes are bought by curious foodies, Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans.
“I find it interesting, Japanese-Americans are as or more excited about osechi than Japanese from Japan. In a way they’re more traditional than Japanese from Japan. Like Bainbridge Island, the whole village gets together and does mochi pounding and stuff. You don’t see that in Japan anymore. I think your identity becomes very important.”
Many other cultures have their own New Year’s Eve traditions, of course. In Spain it’s traditional to eat eat twelve grapes at midnight, one for every stroke of the clock. The grapes are said to symbolize each month of the new year and bring good luck. In Ecuador, locals will burn a scarecrow. The scarecrow represents negativity from the passing year. In Ireland bread is thrown against doors and walls to chase out the spirits and bad luck from the closing year.