How to Celebrate Japanese New Year with Sake and Great Japanese Food

Enjoy a Special Meal to Celebrate a New, Wonderful Year

You might not know how much pomp and circumstance takes place in a Japanese home on New Year’s morning.

Mom is bustling around the kitchen putting final touches to her O-sechi Ryori or special (very special) New Year’s Day (Oshogatsu) feast of sweet black beans, lovely O-zoni soup, Kamaboko, seki-han red rice and much more.

She uses long chop sticks to gently pack the soft tamago yaki squares in next to the delicately braised chicken or ham in the bright red Urushi lacquered boxes.

Urushi lacquer is one of Japan’s proudest traditional art forms and you can learn a bit about why Urushi lacquer is so special here:

Kayoko tells me to keep tradition Despite the Changes

Watch out if you try to take a tempting sweet bean or little taste of konbu seaweed wrap because her stink-eye look (“stink-eye” for all your non-Pidjin English speakers means “scary look” :) will tell you to wait until everyone is seated around the low and splendidly laid out table, chopsticks have been raised and the resounding “Itadakimasu” or “I receive” is proclaimed.

Keeping with the “I receive” theme of the biggest family meal of the year, there is one other tradition we never missed during the 20 New Year’s mornings I was married into a wonderfully amazing Japanese family. O-toso as pictured here is the simple, yet ornate sake set passed down through generations to share sweet sake on the morning of January 1.

Three sakazuki dishes of increasing size are passed around the table and each is taken in three sips, the first being quick, the second increasing in size and the final, larger, to finish up the sake in the dish. The dish is passed to the next family member and the person who just received now pours a bit of sake into the dish for their neighbor. The sweet, cool splash of sake is said to wash away and finish off the past year and receive energy and hope for the coming one. That was exactly how it felt during this celebration each year. What wonderful memories!

My friend Kojiro Yamanaka says his O-TOSO set has been passed down for two generations and one day he hopes to pass this down to his daughter when she marries so that one day she may give this to her children.
Here is his message in Japanese Culture & Style

The sake pot is called Cho-shi and the three little dishes are called Sakazuki.

As I write this I feel my mother-in-law Kayoko Shiraishi looking down from heaven and wishing I maintained this tradition with her grandchildren. Excuses come up in my mind about no-longer being married to her son after the cruelty and sadness of divorce. I don’t feel as much obliged to keep tradition with my children since I so utterly miss and pine for the wonderful family life I had with them. But…..for Kayoko, as a traditional Japanese mother, wife and woman, those troubles we go through in life must seem petty, impermanent and meaningless from her view up top. All that drama must look pretty idiotic when you can see how everything, all of it, works together in the end.

The psyche of O-toso is to let the past experience be just that…a past experience that makes us stronger for tomorrow. That is why I wish I could have a little O-toso set in my room to remind me to keep and cherish the lessons I’ve learned, grow from them but yet let all the strife flow away.

Funny how three dishes are required! I am sure there is some deep meaning, but from my point of view, whoever developed this got it perfectly correct. Three strikes of sweet sake shared among family before a beautifully set and lovingly arranged array of delight? Well, that will definitely help strike out the pain and regret that so silently builds in our soul over the span of an hour, a day, a year or a lifetime. “Let it Go and Look Forward!” Kayoko insists.

Okay, so it’s decided. Instead of trying to wrestle the family O-toso set from my ex, I think I will pick one up for the Jarmans and start the tradition for my new life not only out for respect for Kayoko, but because I’ve learned hope never dies and there is always much sweetness awaiting us each and every morning.


Former Deep Japan Writer

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