New Year is celebrated differently in plenty of countries but in Japan, the festivities are on a different level. I'll take you through what happens during this important Japanese holiday and Japanese New Year food that brings luck to help you get a good start for what's ahead.
Japanese New Year Food and Activities for Good Luck
Japanese New Year Traditions
Compared to Chinese New Year which is set based on the lunar calendar, Japan has been celebrating New Year on January 1 since 1873. And the fun doesn't stop on the first day of the year. The holiday fun stretches up to January 3 where most businesses are shut down and time is spent going back to their hometowns to meet the family.
Like many traditional Asian holidays, many activities done during this day come with a special meaning. Here's a quick guide on some of the most important Japanese New Year activities and traditions that you can practice on your own as you ring in the new year!
What to do for Japanese New Year
Bonenkai - Meaning "forget-the-year party", business owners and employees hold year-end parties to literally leave the worries of the past behind, before shutting their companies down during the last week of the year right up to the first week of the New Year.
Oosouji - Meaning "the big cleaning", the Japanese clean every corner of their homes, offices, and businesses to eliminate any dust and dirt from the previous year and welcome the new year with a clean and clutter-free emotional state.
Kadomatsu - This is a decoration made of pine and 3 bamboo stalks that are cut diagonally in different lengths and set up on both sides of your front doors to welcome spirits of harvest.
Omisoka - Similar to most countries, Japanese New Year's Eve is usually spent counting down to midnight with family while watching year-end music festivals on TV.
Joya no kane - Leading up to midnight, temple bells are rung 108 times: 107 times leading up to the midnight of January 1st, and once past midnight. In Buddhism, it is believed that the sound of the bells rids people of evil desires and purify their hearts just in time for the upcoming year.
You otoshio! (良いお年を) - A greeting that means "Have a nice year!" and is said throughout December 31st leading up to the new year.
Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu! (明けましておめでとうございます) - A greeting that means "Congratulations on the New Year" and is said when the clock strikes 12.
Ganjitsu, Hatsu Hinode - After staying up 'til midnight, the Japanese strive to wake up early to catch the first sunrise of the year called Hatsu Hinode. Shintoist practice this tradition and pray for good luck.
Hatsumode - During the 3-day New Year Celebrations, the Japanese use this time to visit temples and shrines to pray for a good year ahead. New omamori, or amulets providing luck and protection, are bought, while old ones are returned to be burned.
Otoshidama - Kids might be the happiest during this holiday because it is customary to give envelopes of money to children during New Year's Day. It is believed that money given to children also serves as an offering to Shinto deities called toshigami. The deities will then serve as protectors of the children who receive money.
Must-Try Japanese New Year Dishes
Traditional Japanese New Year recipes typically feature food items that symbolize luck and prosperity. Other dishes are also present on the table either for practicality or pure enjoyment. I'm sharing food ideas to help you have a good and filling start to the new year.
Japanese New Year Food Box: Osechi Ryori
One of the most popular Japanese New Year food is osechi ryori that come in multi-tiered lacquer boxes called jubako. Just like bento boxes, each jubako contains varying food items with special meaning. The jubako alone symbolizes continuous happiness and wealth, much like the seemingly infinite layers of food that you can enjoy in an osechi ryori.
Ozoni is a traditional Japanese soup made with mochi rice cakes. Because of the mochi's stretchy nature, it also symbolizes longevity. The ingredients vary per region. In the Kanto Region, the broth is flavored with dashi. In Kansai and eastern Shikoku, the soup stock is made with white miso. Red miso is used in the Fukui Prefecture. Additional ingredients like chicken, fish, and vegetables, not only for flavor, but also to attract luck for a bountiful harvest.
What's in an Osechi Ryori?
Datemaki: Sweet omelet rolls with fish paste that resemble ancient scrolls that bless families with education and knowledge.
Kuromame: Soft and sweet black soybeans that bring good health.
Kazunoko: Crunchy yellow herring roe marinated in dashi.
Kamaboko: Red and white-colored fish cakes that represent felicitations and new beginnings, respectively.
Tazukuri: Soy glazed anchovies that symbolize prosperity and abundance.
Salmon Kombu: Rolls of salmon wrapped in kelp and tied with a gourd to represent youth; a popular choice for kids!
Satoimo Potatoes: Potatoes simmered in dashi and soy sauce to symbolize fertility.
Tataki gobo: Pounded burdock roots seasoned with sesame that represent family ties and strength
Kuri Klinton: Golden-colored candied chestnuts and sweet mashed potatoes that resemble coins to attract wealth and fortune.
Namasu: Pickled and shredded daikon and carrots to signify deepening family bonds
Su Renkon: Pickled lotus root with holes that are believed to aid families to predict and avoid future problems.
Buri no Teriyaki: Japanese yellowtail/amberjack sashimi glazed with teriyaki to attract success
Ebi no Umani: Simmered shrimp that resemble the backs of old people, hence representing wisdom and longevity.
New Year Japanese Noodle Soup: Toshikoshi Soba
Noodles have always been a staple in Asian holidays due to its auspicious nature. For New Year, toshikoshi soba (which translates to year-crossing noodles) is eaten during New Year's Eve to symbolize one's wish for a continued long life for the new year ahead. Apart from that, soba also symbolizes strength and resilience because buckwheat is known to survive harsh weather conditions. It is bad luck to leave toshikoshi soba uneaten so make sure to finish it down to the last sip!
Toshikoshi soba is made with essential Japanese cooking ingredients like soba noodles, sake, mirin, soy sauce, and dashi, then topped with tempura, nori, togarashi, egg, or green onions. It's a very simple dish to make so you can sit back and enjoy the holidays after preparing so much for osechi ryori and other New Year food! Scroll down for one of our favorite New Year Japanese Soba recipes from Just One Cookbook!
Sukiyaki is a hot pot dish made with meat, vegetables, and other ingredients that are cooked and simmered in a sweet and savory broth made of sugar, mirin, and soy sauce. It may not be a traditional New Year dish but it's typically on the dinner table during New Year's Eve for the whole family to share and enjoy together. Check out our Kanto-Style Sukiyaki recipe here!
Sushi and Sashimi
Both are also not traditional Japanese New Year dishes and are not included in osechi ryori but are still eaten as a celebratory food for special occasions, New Year included! Many Japanese-Americans ring in the new year with nigiri sushi on their tables.
The 3-day Japanese New Year holiday isn't just for rest. It's a time where family comes together to rest, recharge, and gather as much luck for the long year ahead through traditional Japanese New Year Food and activities. Wherever you may be welcoming the new year, leave your worries behind and may good food bring you a prosperous future. For all your Asian holiday grocery needs, shop at Karman Foods!
You otoshio! Have a nice year!
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30 Minute Japanese New Year Toshikoshi Soba
Cross into a prosperous new year with this 30-minute Toshikoshi Soba. This easy-to-make traditional Japanese dish features buckwheat soba noodles in a savory broth made with sake, mirin, soy sauce, and dashi. Known to bring luck, it symbolizes longevity, strength, and resilience for what's ahead.
7 oz dried soba noodles (buckwheat noodles)
3 cups water
1 piece kombu (dried kelp)
1 cup katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) (skip for vegetarian/vegan)
1 Tbsp sake
2 Tbsp Kikkoman Manjo Aji Mirin
¼ tsp kosher or sea salt
2 Tbsp dried wakame seaweed
4 slices kamaboko (fish cake) (skip for vegetarian/vegan)
1 green onion/scallion, thinly sliced
Shichimi togarashi for extra spice
For the broth
Cook the soba noodles according to package instructions and rinse under cold water once cooked.
Simmer your dash broth or if making homemade broth, bring the kombu and water to a boil over medium-low heat. Discard the kombu once boiling.
Add the katsuoboshi and simmer. Turn off heat and let the katsuoboshi sink to the bottom of the saucepan. Let broth rest for 10 minutes.
Strain the katsuoboshi and place the dash in the saucepan.
Add sake, mirin, soy sauce, and salt.
Simmer then remove from heat once boiled.
Pour the broth over the cooked soba noodles and top with kamaboko, wake seaweed, and green onions. Add a dash of togarashi for extra spice.