omisoka – new year’s eve meal (toshi-koshi soba)

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in japan, the last day of year is called “omisoka” – new year’s eve. usually people spend the time preparing our traditional new year’s meal (“osechi ryouri“) and cleaning the entire house (“osouji”, meaning literally “big cleaning”).

when i was growing up, my mom was in charge of cooking and my dad was in charge of cleaning. he and i would tackle the house inside and outside, including some spots that don’t get usually cleaned — behind furniture, etc. the big cleaning is supposed to purify everything so that everyone can make a fresh start for the coming year. it’s also said that we clean because toshigami (the god of the upcoming year) will visit every house to bless us.

my mom makes at least twenty dishes for the new year’s meal, osechi-ryouri. most of them are vegetable and fish dishes, which require a lot of prep work. i would be in charge of prep work and testing :) all the dishes are made before new year’s and served cold so there won’t be so much work preparing meals on the actual holiday.

in the evening, we’d all sit down to watch “ko-haku uta-gassen” (“red vs white” song battle tv show) on NHK. this is a very popular yearly event where stars sing the most popular songs from that year (with some older and traditional songs too). by that point, you’d think we’ll be too tired to stay awake until midnight listening to people sing. but surprisingly, it’s really fun. the house is incredibly clean and smells like the osechi ryouri dishes – thanks to our hard work. everyone is pretty happy… and hungry :D

a year never ends without eating toshi-koshi soba (“year-bridging” buckwheat noodle soup). you can eat it hot or cold. in my parents’ house usually we eat it hot with sansai.

it is thought that we eat soba because:

  1. soba noodles are thin and long. so you live long, humbly .
  2. soba noodles are easily cut. so you can say good-bye to bad luck and unfortunate events that might have occured during that year.
  3. soba noodles are made of buckwheat, which helps clean your digestive system. clean body for the new year!
  4. my mom says the main reason is #3. i’d like to add a new theory:

  5. because it’s tasty.

we eat soba and we talk about how healthy we’ve been and wish the same for the coming year.

jyoya no kane (new year’s bells) begin ringing around 10:40 pm, continuing past midnight. all the bells in Buddhist temples throughout japan are rung 108 times to anounce the passing of the old year. they ring really slowly, so it takes an hour and a half. everyone goes to their local temple to say prayers on new year’s day.
when i was living in japan, i would go back to my parent’s house in wakayama for the new year’s holiday (dec 28 ~ jan 3) and we would visit kokawa temple.

one time when i was living in kyoto for college, my parents visited me there for new year’s eve. this was back in 1993, and on that night kyoto was packed with even more people than usual to celebrating the city’s 1200-year anniversary (kyoto was established as Japan’s capital under the name “Heian-kyo” in the year 794). my parents and i went to chion-in temple to see the famous bell-ringing. as expected, it was extremely crowded. we got carried along involuntarily by the wave of people trying to go forward. the sound of the bell echoed low in my body. it’s probably still echoing inside now.

you can listen to the different sound of the jyoya no kane on this website. just click on the red boxes with a speaker.

i hope you all have a happy new year!

Author: yuka

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