Friday, December 27, 2013

Memories of Japan: Year-End Customs

Today is Friday, December 27, 2013.

Celebrating the new year (Oshōgatsu) in Japan is so important that it requires several days to prepare for, and several days to celebrate.  Yesterday I wrote about cleaning and putting out the decorations.  Today, I want to talk about other year-end customs in Japan.

Wrapping Up Unfinished Business

In Japan, although the fiscal year doesn't end until March 31, it's important to wrap up as much unfinished business as possible before the calendar year ends, so Japanese individuals and businesses try to get all their contract obligations met and their debts paid by December 31, all of which causes heavier-than-usual traffic in the streets of the big cities.  As well, businesses use the last few days of the old calendar year to reflect on the year's mistakes and plan for a prosperous new year.  


Winter Solstice 

Women taking yuzu-yu bath in a public bath.  (Most public baths are separated by sex nowadays.)

Yuzu-yu in an ofuro bathtub at home.
At the winter solstice, the Japanese take a yuzu bath (yuzu-yu).  Yuzu are a Japanese citrus fruit, sometimes called "Japanese grapefruit."  They are very sour or tart, and very fragrant, slightly smaller than a billiard ball.  They are smaller than mikan (mandarin oranges) and their skin is a brighter yellow, rather than orange.  By tradition, bathing in water with yuzu floating in it will chase away evil spirits, maintain your health, and help prevent catching colds for a whole year.  I can't say whether it really works, but it's a nice custom.  Here are a couple of pictures of people at a public bath taking a yuzu-yu bath, and a picture of a few yuzu in a private o-furo bathtub.  In the picture you can see the drain and the round heating element that heats the water by convection.  (More on the Japanese-style bath in a future blog post.)

Yuzu ( ユズ ) are the small yellow fruit.  Mikan (Mandarin oranges) are bigger and more orange.

New Year Foods

Dry soba buckwheat noodles
Another thing that people do - well, women do - during the last few days of the new year is prepare special New Year foods that can be saved and eaten later.  It's a lot of work, but when it's done, the women can relax totally in the new year, which is a good thing, as they rarely get to relax. 

One of the foods that is eaten on New Year's Eve (Ōmisoka) is long, thin buckwheat noodles (soba).  This dish is called toshikoshi soba (passing of the old year noodles).  These days a lot of people keep soba restaurants busy on New Year's Eve instead of making them at home, but the noodles have to be eaten before midnight, or bad luck will ensue.  

If soba is served cold, the noodles are dipped in sauce.
Like a lot of traditional recipes the world over, there are many variations.   Soba can be eaten hot or cold, but when they are served cold, they can be prepared ahead of time.  Noodles are usually eaten with toppings, such as lightly blanched spinach leaves, and kamaboko, a steamed fish cake that you can easily replace here in the United States with mock crab meat (made from Alaskan pollack, a white fish), and chopped green onions.  Sometimes a little bit of nori (dried seaweed pressed into flat sheets that you can cut into little pieces with kitchen scissors) is sprinkled on top.  (You could use dried seaweed flakes such as dulce, which are easy to get at health food stores.) 

Toshikoshi soba served warm
Japanese people also like to eat a raw egg on top, which sounds gross to us, but it's actually not bad.  When dishes are eaten with raw egg, it's called "moon watching."  The problem is that here in the United States, we have a salmonella problem that they didn't have in Japan when I was there.  According to an article dated 2011, 20% of the eggs in Japan now test positive for salmonella, so I think their practice of eating raw egg on things will soon be a thing of the past.  My advice: skip the raw egg.  Too risky.

Buckwheat noodles shouldn't be too thin; get thicker ones or you will have a lot of breakage. When you boil the buckwheat noodles, remember that you don't need to bring them to a rolling boil.   Just simmer them a bit, then when they are soft, drain them and plunge them into cold water and rinse them well to make sure the starchy stuff comes off.


Here's the recipe for buckwheat noodles, from 

6 cups dashi (See recipe below)
3 tablespoons mirin (rice wine; buy this in the Asian food section)
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup soy sauce  (My advice: use Kikkoman and you may prefer the Lite variety)

9 to 10 ounces soba noodles, cooked according to package directions (then plunged into cold water and rinsed well)
Shredded nori (seaweed - see my remarks above)
Additional toppings as desired: chopped green onion, lightly blanched spinach, mock crab - see above)

1. Mix the dashi, mirin, and sugar together in a 2-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and let the mixture simmer for 3 minutes. Add the soy sauce and slowly heat the sauce through, stirring, making sure that it doesn’t boil.

2. Place the noodles in bowls and pour the hot broth over the noodles. Top with shredded nori and additional toppings as desired.   (You can make the sauce and then chill it, then pour it over cold noodles, or you can put the noodles in the sauce and chill the whole shebang in your fridge.) 

3.  If you serve the noodles cold, they don't have to be swimming in sauce.  You can use soba noodle dipping sauce, which will be stronger than the soup broth you use for hot soba noodles, but remember that you can always weaken it with water.

Here's a simple recipe for dashi from

Ingredients:   3 1/4 cups water and  2/3 oz. katsuobushi (dried bonito fish flakes)
Preparation:  Put water in a deep pot and heat on medium heat. Just before the water boils, add katsuobushi flakes. When the water boils, skim off any foam that rises to the surface. Turn off the heat. Let it set until katsuobushi flakes sink. Place a paper towel in a colander and strain the stock through it.  Makes about 3 cups  For several bowls of noodles, double this recipe.

*** *** *** *** ***
Chirashizushi.  For a great recipe (scroll down) go to
this web site. This is made before New Year's Eve but meant
to be eaten on New Year's Day.  If you put it in the fridge,
just sprinkle it with a little water and warm it up.
There are a few other types of foods that women make (altogether called osechi ryōri), such as rice with tiny vegetables that is coated with a light vinegar mixture and served at room temperature (chirashizushi).  I was always surprised at how well these New Year foods kept without spoiling for two or three days.  I loved watching my mother-in-law cool down the rice with a paper fan.

Traditional New Year foods (osechi ryōri) served in lacquered boxes


New Year Postcards

Typical New Year card for 2014
The character in gold is for "horse'
because 2014 is the Year of the Horse.
Before the new year comes in, you also have to write new year postcards, called nengajō (年賀状).  These postcards are dropped off at the post office before December 31 and delivered on January 1.  (No other mail is delivered that day, only nengajō.)  Since these are delivered on or after New Year's Day, I'm going to describe them in a later post. 


Mochi and Kagami Mochi Decorations

Plain mochi (sweet rice cakes)
Pounding the mochi
Another thing done on New Year's Eve is pounding the rice for mochi, a slightly sweet, sticky rice treat. Since it's traditional for the Japanese to eat rice cake (mochi) during New Year's holidays, mochitsuki (pounding of steamed rice to make mochi) is done at the end of the year. Traditionally, steamed rice is put into a wooden or stone mortar (usu) and pounded with a wooden mallet (kine) until the rice becomes sticky.  Then it is cut into small pieces and shaped into rounds. Prepackaged mochi rice cakes are commonly sold at supermarkets nowadays, so it's not as common these days to pound rice the old-fashioned way at home. Some people use automatic mochi-pounding machines to make mochi at home. 

Here are two different kagami mochi displays.

A couple of cakes of mochi are always used to make a kagami mochi decoration for good fortune. The smaller rice cake is placed on top of the larger one,with a daidai (Japanese bitter orange) that has an attached leaf, plus, optionally, a sheet of kombu (seaweed) and a skewer of dried persimmons under the mochi.  The arrangement sits on a stand called a sanpō over a sheet called a shihōbeni.  This is supposed to ward off fires from starting.  Sheets of paper called gohei folded into lightning shapes similar to those seen on sumo wrestler's belts are also attached.  The kagami mochi can be placed in a Shintō altar or in the tokonoma of the house.  If the family is Buddhist, a three-layered kagami mochi can be used in the household Buddhist altar, called butsudan.


Gift Giving

There is a year-end gift-giving tradition that is not necessarily associated with New Year's Day (oseibō), and since there is a similar gift-giving custom in midsummer (o-chūgen) I'm going to describe these in a separate post.  


Bōnenkai Parties

There is one more tradition kept alive by university students and office workers: the bōnenkai, or, literally, "forget-the-old-year" parties.  (Married women who don't work outside the home don't participate in these and I suspect that married women who do work in offices don't attend these.)  This is basically a drinking party.  It's very close to the type of New Year's Eve party we have in the west, except it is never held in a private home, and it is never held on New Year's Eve.

Bōnenkai parties are not held on any particular day of the year, but generally speaking they occur during the last two weeks in December, and they are never held on New Year's Eve or  in January. This custom apparently got started in the 15th century as a gathering to express thanks.  They were known as nōkai (achieved a great thing party) at the time.  By the 18th century, the custom had come to be known as bōnenkai.  These parties are almost the only time when the rules of the traditional boss/employee relationship can be relaxed and everyone can have a good time. Everyone generally contributes a set amount of money, perhaps 5,000 yen (a little under 50 dollars).  If this seems like an exorbitant amount, it is, but remember that the employees are expecting this expense and they save up for it.  The highest level bosses generally only stay for a short time, then go home to their wives.  The younger employees, however, extend the party by bar-hopping together, and the youngest employees are often made to pay for drinks for the older ones.  Basically, what happens next is they try to drink each other under the table.  These days, apparently, some companies are opting to hold their bōnenkai on their business premises after hours to save money, but I suspect that the young people still go bar-hopping afterwards. 


New Year's Eve

As you can see by the score, last year's "battle" was won
by the white team, the men.
New Year's Eve is spent quietly with family in a clean house with plenty of food prepared ahead of time.  Families watch the "Red and White Song Contest" on the NHK station on TV.  The show is called Kōhaku Uta Gassen. (Gassen actually means "battle.") This always reminded me of Americans watching New Year's Rockin' Eve, but with a twist.  The year's most popular singers in various music genres are invited to perform.  Women (soloists or groups) perform on the "red team" and men are assigned to the "white team."  (In Japan, there are no mixed vocal groups as there are in the West. Groups are either all female or all male.)  Artists regard an invitation to sing on this program as a highlight of their career, because virtually the whole country is watching the program on New Year's Eve.  Singers generally sing their biggest hit of the year.  

When the show was first performed on radio in 1951, there were fewer singers and the whole show was done in an hour.  Now it goes on for at least four hours, and just as we do for the Golden Globe Awards or any other awards show in the west, people watch carefully to see what their favorite performers are wearing, and how they style their hair.  

It used to be that the live studio audience plus the judges chose the winners, but as you can imagine, people in the TV audience can now vote by cellphone or through their digital TV.  Of 63 contests so far, the white team has one 34 times and the red team has won 29 times. 

Buddhist Temple Bells
Temple bells are huge.  They are rung with a large
wooden battering ram suspended on ropes that allow
the ram to be swung to hit the bell.  The sound is out of this world.
Some people do go to a Buddhist temple on New Year's Eve, where the temple bells are rung 108 times.  This is another custom that I'm going to talk more about in another blog post.  


How to say Happy New Year

Last, but not least, it's important to know that saying Happy New Year is a little complicated, because it depends on when you say it.  

A formal way to say Happy New Year in December (the last time you see someone before New Year's Eve) is  Yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai.   よいお年をお迎えください。A little less formally, you can shorten it to Yoi otoshi o.  Another, more Western way to say it is simply Shin-nen omedetō gozaimasu.  新年おめでとうございます。

In addition, the last time you see a client, colleague, friend or relative before New Year's Day, you should also use the following expressions:  Kotoshi wa iroiro osewa ni narimashita. 今年はいろいろおせわになりました。 (Thank you for your help this year.)  Rainen mo, yoroshiku onegai shimasu.  来年も、よろしくおねがいします。(Please give me your favor next year, as well.)   The last business letter or email of the old year often contains these expressions.  I will post the expressions for New Year's Day later.  :-)

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