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New Year's Lore

It was the middle of the night, literally; I was sound asleep recovering from the hassles of the New Year. My shoulder began to shake strongly, and I woke up fearing an earthquake. I saw two enormous sticks holding something dark at the end, and pointing at my mouth, and wondered whether I was experiencing a vivid dream. Then I heard the wife’s command: “Open your mouth! It is Oshogatsu, and we forgot to eat this. We want to stick together…always.” I muttered: “Oh, darn! Does it really matter?” In came a piece of roast mochi wrapped in a sliver of seaweed, and dripping with shoyu. I nearly choked, but her sigh of relief followed: “Kotoshimo dozo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu!” The morning after, with the brain still groggy, I had to put up with a personal homily on the importance of mochi at New Year’s…if one wants marriages to hang together forever. “Preach not to the converted,” said I, “maybe you should have a New Year’s Eve Party and serve burnt mochi to some of your gaijin friends.”

In Japanese lore, every New Year is fundamental. Life starts clean and pure, as if nothing had ever preceded it. The fun begins on koto no hajimaru (also koto no hajime) day, (“when things start”) usually December 13. Every family member gets into the spirit of susuharai, an infuriating period of house cleaning. No disorder, not even a speck of dirt is tolerated. Time has to be found, too, for the exasperating safari to several specialty stores. You must know and get exactly what you need for the coming charismatic family communion with tradition.For days, the kitchen will look as if three typhoons had hit it in succession; but why worry; it will be immaculate on New Year’s Day.

Kadomatsu (

Another urgent chore demanding time is creating the kadomatsu—the pine and bamboo arrangement—and twisting the shimenawa rope to decorate it. That lovely, magical combination will please the toshigami, the Holy Guardian of the New Year, and protect the abode against impudent demons of any ilk. (The kadomatsu lore is so enchanting and detailed that I have saved it for another chapter.) Then, you’ll still have to address by hand the hundred or so New Year’s nengajo, the greeting cards you’ll be sending to your friends. You might want to include your first haiku of the year, but you must get the cards there on time.

The new year has to be met with a serene conscience; a trimmed garden; a mended roof; no debts; a clean body bathed in scalding water scented with citron peel; and a new dress. Now, clean, purified and well protected, you are ready to prepare osechi ryori, the traditional, auspicious meal. But since traditions vary from Hokkaido to the Ogasawaras, a treasured dish in your ryori carte du jour may be “most uncouth” for some inakappe, a rustic from the hinterlands. Anyhow, almost everybody agrees that eating toshikoshi soba—buckwheat noodles—on New Year’s Eve is a must, because it will prolong life.

Osechi Ryori (

Line one in osechi ryori’s menu reads: ozoni, soup made with miso, vegetables, and chunks of mochi. Next come: kombumaki, bows of boiled kelp; fragrant oden; colorful kamaboko; kinpira gobo, burdock spiced with goma and togarashi, the hotter the better; edamame beans in the pod; slices of carrot and of lotus root; turnips and ginger pickles; daikon flowerets; wasabi, and sweetened kuromame. Following the above come sashimi; kazunoko—fish roe; salmon; sweetened dry sardines or anchovies with walnuts; boiled shrimp or lobster; tai, sea bream; ika (squid); tako (octopus) and pickled fish, duly assisted by pork ribs; teriyaki beef and chicken; fried chicken; boiled quail eggs; omelet oblongs; egg logs; mixed vegetable and fruit salads; mandarin oranges; and sekihan—red rice with beans… Oh, excuse me: a family I know well adds fluffy, spicy tamales, and hot Jalapeño salsa and tortilla chips; while another prefers “California roll”!

—“Does anyone need gohan?”

Don’t get up. We aren’t done yet; here are kurikinton, a type of marron glace; or maybe chestnuts in syrup; manju, yokan, kanten; kasutera… and coconut mochi, sneaked in by some Hawaiian Nisei. Now for namban desserts: fruit pie, cookies; pound cake, and the currently obligatory chocolate tort; these last ones are little indiscretions, which the toshigami may ignore. Ah, yes! Mochitsuki—rice pounding—happened earlier, so have a bite of mochi, and prevent disturbing apparitions like the one which haunted me.

All that gigantic fare goes down better with otoso, the red sweet sake spiced with cinnamon and herbs, served in the traditional three lacquered cups. No otoso? OK, tea, coffee, soda, and even California red will do.

(“Toshi-gami sama, mata oyurushi kudasai, neh?”—O holy Spirit of the New Year, forgive our indiscretions!)

To avoid breaking a dish, which would be a bad omen, you use jubako—lacquer trays. And since each type of food has its own hallowed meaning, you can’t risk breaking a taboo by bypassing a single goodie.

Otoshidama (

In that lavish, gargantuan milieu, gift exchanging fits perfectly. Adults take good care of each other and their helpers. But for the kids the occasion wouldn’t be real fun without otoshidama, lucky money…the more the luckier, please…!

Much has been written about oshogatsu but The Five Sacred Festivals of Ancient Japan, is probably the easiest book to learn more about its traditions. Its author, Swiss businessman U.A. Casal, went to Japan in 1912, stayed there for fifty years, and became a prized expert on Japanese lore, arts, and culture. Casal’s writing is highly enjoyable, though at times a tad academic. You can also learn a lot from Kodansha’s JAPAN, An Illustrated Encyclopedia; from We Japanese; and from Kunio Ekiguchi’s Japanese Crafts and Customs. The Internet has about 14,000 entries on the topic, too. Maybe, we at the ESGJC Center should write our own book of traditional customs and regional recipes for Oshogatsu, outshine Casal, and generate funds for the Social Hall.

A caveat: when ready to trash your Christmas cards, please save the special nengajo you received from Japan; one may win you the time-honored New Year’s lottery. (Fat chance!) But really, old nengajo already rank highly in the sacred hall of expensive “collectibles.” And, so:

Kotoshi mo dozo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu!!!! And “Happy hatsu-yume”

* This article was originally published in the East San Gabriel Valley’s Japanese Community Center’s “Newsette” in December 2007.

© 2007 Edward Moreno

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