There are many special dishes in Japan that are eaten to celebrate seasonal moments, such as the end of the year and the New Year, and to wish for the health and happiness of family members. If you are spending the turn of the year in Japan, why not try these special "gyoji-shoku" (observance meals)?
1. Toshikoshi Soba
"Toshikoshi soba" (passing-the-year soba) refers to the practice of eating soba (buckwheat noodles) on New Year's Eve as a meal to close the year. There are various theories about the origin of toshikoshi soba, including one that they started to be eaten to wish for "lasting health and luck in the family" because they are long and thin, and another that they are meant to "let go of the hardship from the year" because they break more easily than other types of noodles.
There is a variety of toppings such as tempura and simmered herring
Once the New Year arrives, the Japanese enjoy celebratory dishes called "osechi." Usually, multicolored dishes that represent various wishes for the year's harvest and happiness are served in stacks of jyubako boxes in order to "stack up the happiness".
The contents differ by region, but some popular ones include kazunoko (salted herring roe), which represents a wish for lasting prosperity in the family because of the many eggs, and kohaku-namasu made by pickling thin strips of carrot and daikon in yuzu citrus juice and sweet vinegar. Kohaku-namasu is a dish with the lucky colors of red and white. Packaged osechi meals can be purchased at department stores and supermarkets.
Ozoni is a soup dish eaten on the first three days of the year to pray for a safe year. The content varies greatly across the country, but the most common main ingredient is mochi (sticky rice cake), cut and cooked differently depending on the region. Some regions use round mochi and others square mochi, while some grill them and others simmer them. Other ingredients that are added to the soup also vary greatly and include items like daikon radish, carrots, chicken, and salmon roe. The most popular types of soup are miso or sumashi (dashi seasoned with salt and/or soy sauce). Ozoni is sometimes served at hatsumode locations, when people go to shrines and temples for the first time of the New Year, as well as at restaurants near shrines and temples.
4. Nanakusa Gayu
The next item is "nanakusa gayu," which is eaten on January 7, at the end of the period for celebrating the New Year. Rice is simmered with seven types of Japanese herbs and flavored with salt and other seasoning.
Although the "haru no nanakusa" (seven spring herbs) used differ by region, the most commonly used herbs are seri (Japanese parsley), nazuna (shepherd's purse), gogyo (Jersey cudweed), hakobera (fivestripe wrasse), hotokenoza (henbit), suzuna (turnip), and suzushiro (daikon). Because these herbs are the first to sprout in the early spring, they are thought to dispel evil and are eaten to pray for a year of perfect health. The nanakusa gayu's subtle and nutrition-rich flavors are also meant to calm the stomach, which may be overworked from the New Year festivities. This dish is also sometimes served at hatsumode locations, and may be found at Japanese restaurants as a limited-time menu item.
Haru no nanakusa is rich in nutrients such as vitamins.
"Oshiruko" is a dish that consists of mochi and an (red bean paste), made by simmering azuki beans with sugar. There are variations by region in the amount of liquid in the dish, and the type of an (whether the skin of the beans is kept or not).
In Japan, the mochi that is offered to the gods during the New Year's period is called "kagamimochi" (mirror mochi) and there is a tradition of "kagamibiraki" (mirror opening), in which the kagamimochi is eaten when that period is over to wish for perfect health for the year (kagamibiraki takes place on either January 11 or 15, depending on the region.)
It is said that because the kagamimochi has dried out and become hard, it came to be eaten in oshiruko, in which it can soften through simmering, but today, oshiruko is a standard menu item that is served using regular mochi in Japanese sweets restaurants throughout the year.
In addition to the locations mentioned in the descriptions, the dishes introduced above can often be eaten in traditional ryokan inns during the New Year period, so be sure to ask the hotel you are planning to stay at!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.