Kadomatsu (門松) Front door welcoming bamboo decoration
Shimenawa (しめ縄) Rice straw ornament with mikan /tangerine or other regional citrus fruit used to decorate the house, especially the entry.
Kagami Mochi (鏡餅) A ‘mochi display’ to welcome the god of the year to the home.
Otoso (お屠蘇) Sake with Chinese medicinal herbs, shared by all family members to toast in a healthy year.
Osechi-ryōri are traditional Japanese New Year foods. The tradition started in the Heian Period (794-1185). Osechi are easily recognizable by their special boxes called jūbako (重箱), which resemble bentō boxes. Like bentō boxes, jūbako are often kept stacked before and after use.
The term osechi originally referred to o-sechi, a season or significant period. New Year’s Day was one of the five seasonal festivals (節句 sekku) in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. This custom of celebrating particular days was introduced from China into Japan.
Originally, during the first three days of the New Year, it was a taboo to use a hearth and cook meals, except when cooking zōni. Osechi was made by the close of the previous year, as women did not cook in the New Year.
In the earliest days, osechi consisted only of nimono, boiled vegetables with soy sauce and sugar or mirin. Over the generations, the variety of food included in osechi has increased. Today, osechi may refer to anything prepared especially for the New Year, and some foreign dishes have been adopted as “Westernized osechi” (西洋お節 seiyō-osechi) or as “Chinese-style osechi” (中華風お節 chūkafū osechi). While osechi was traditionally prepared at home, it is also sold ready-made in specialty stores, grocery stores, and even convenience stores.
Especially in households where osechi is still homemade, toshi-koshi soba (年越し蕎麦) is eaten on New Year’s Eve. Its name literally means “year-crossing soba.” Although there may be some symbolism attributed to it (i.e., long life, health and energy in the upcoming year), this tradition may be regarded as largely pragmatic: the traditional wife, busy cooking several days’ worth of food for everyone, would likely prefer to make something simple for immediate consumption. It is considered bad luck by many Japanese to leave any toshi-koshi soba uneaten.
The dishes that make up osechi, each have a special meaning celebrating the New Year.
Daidai (橙) Japanese bitter orange. Daidai means “from generation to generation” when written in different kanji as 代々. Like kazunoko below, it symbolizes a wish for children in the New Year.
Datemaki (伊達巻 ) Sweet rolled omelette, mixed with fish paste or mashed shrimp, quite sweet, sponge-like texture have a ribbed outer surface mimicking the shining sun, a wish for sunny days ahead. They symbolize a wish for many auspicious days. On auspicious days (hare-no-hi 晴れの日) Japanese people traditionally wear fine clothing as a part of enjoying themselves. One of the meanings associated with the second kanji includes “fassionability,” derived from the illustrious dress of the samurai from Date Han.
Ebi (エビ) Grilled with salt or cooked with sweet soy sauce, the shape of the shrimp is similar to that of an older person and represents longevity.
Ikura (イクラ) Seasoned salmon roe. In addition to being an auspicious shade of red, the eggs represent fertility.
Kamaboko (蒲鉾) A dense cake of fish paste. Traditionally, slices of quintessential pink and white (for red and white) kamaboko are alternated in rows or arranged in a pattern. The color and shape are reminiscent of Japan’s rising sun, and have a celebratory, festive meaning.
Kazunoko (数の子) Herring roe. Kazu means “number” and ko means “child.” It symbolizes a wish to be gifted with numerous children in the New Year.
Kikuka Kabu (菊花蕪) This is a whole baby turnip cut to look like a chrysanthemum flower that’s then pickled in vinegar, salt and sugar with some chili pepper in the middle. The chrysanthemum is the symbol of the emperor and is used to mark joyous occasions.
Another red-and-white food you’ll find is called namasu* – typically daikon and carrots pickled in vinegar.
Kimpira (きんぴら) For vegetables, look for gobo (burdock root), often dressed with sesame. Carrots, shiitake mushrooms and occasionally pea pods are added too.
Kombu (昆布) Thick seaweed, is associated with the word yorokobu, meaning “joy.” Kombu rolled tightly and bound shut with a ribbon of gourd strip, kampyo. Gobo Kombumaki (昆布巻), burdock root wrapped in kombu, tied with kanpyo and simmered in dashi. Burdock is a very long root that symbolizes the Japanese ideal of a life, long and stable.
Konnyaku (コンニャク) Devil’s-tongue starch/ yam jelly simmered in a sweet and spicy sauce.
Kuro-mame (黒豆) Black beans simmered with sugar and soy sauce are soft and quite sweet. Aside from being full of nutrients, this dish also symbolizes mame also meaning “health,” a wish for health in the New Year.
Kuri Kinton (栗金飩) Sweetened and mashed Japanese sweet potatoes with sweet chestnuts. The characters for kinton literally mean “group of gold”, so with the golden color of this sweet, it represents a wish for wealth and financial success in the New Year. Sweet potatoes and chestnuts are the base of kuri kinton, which can look something like yellow mashed potatoes.
Kohaku-namasu* (紅白なます) Lliterally “red-white vegetables”, made of daikon and carrot cut into thin strips and pickled in sweetened vinegar with yuzu (lime) flavor.
Nimono (煮物) Boiled dish, fresh baby taro and carrots carved like plum blossoms, and shiitake mushrooms simmered in katsuo/kombu dashi. The shape of the carrots in this dish is symbolic in that every plum flower bears one fruit, making this another wish for fertility.
Nishiki Tamago (錦卵) The egg is separated before cooking, yellow symbolizing gold, and white symbolizing silver.
Renkon no Nitsuke (レンコンの煮付け) Lotus root cut like chrysanthemums then fried and simmered in a sweet soy sauce. The many holes in it allow us to look through to the year ahead.
Tai (鯛) Red sea-bream, is associated with the Japanese word medetai, symbolizing an auspicious event.
Tazukuri (田作り) Dried sardines cooked in sweet soy sauce. The literal meaning of the kanji intazukuri is “rice paddy maker,” as the fish were used historically to fertilize rice fields. The symbolism is of an abundant harvest. Rich in calcium, and yes, you can eat the head.
Chawan mushi (茶碗蒸し) Chawanmushi, literally “tea cup steam” or “steamed in a tea bowl” is an egg custard dish that uses the seeds of ginkgo. Unlike many other custards, it is usually eaten as an appetizer. The custard consists of an egg mixture flavored with soy sauce, dashi, and mirin, with numerous ingredients such as shiitake mushrooms, kamaboko, yuri-ne (lily root) and boiled shrimp placed into a tea-cup-like container.
Ozoni (お雑煮) Mochi simmered in miso or sumashi / clear broth (in eastern Japan), the taste and ingredients vary by region.
No oshogatsu /New Year meal would be complete without o-zoni, a ubiquitous soup with rice cake that has about as many variations as there are regions in Japan. Everything from the stock, to the seasoning to the stuff that’s inside varies, but one common thread is that it always has a piece of mochi (sticky rice cake) inside.
[Source/Photos: Variety of internet sites]