Japanese New Year Food: Dishes Full of Symbolism

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New Year is the most important holiday in Japan. The tradition of celebrating the New Year on January 1st started in 1873, but Japanese New Year food has been around for longer. Read more to learn about the most common foods to eat in Japan on New Year’s Day!

What is Japanese New Year Food?

The food eaten around New Year, or shogatsu (正月) in Japan, is unique, with a history lasting around 1000 years! The most famous Japanese New Year dish is osechi-ryori. It’s a fancy meal with a history dating back to the Heian Period (794-1185). 

Osechi-ryori comes in a jyubako (lacquer box). Additional New Year’s foods include toshikoshi soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles), mochi (rice cakes), and datemaki (sweet rolled omelets), all of which have their meanings. 

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1. Toshi-Koshi Soba

A pair of chopsticks pulls noodles out of a bowl of toshi-koshi soba, a Japanese new year food, with tempura shrimp on top.
Families eat toshikoshi soba before the countdown, which is a significant part of New Year’s. Image via Shutterstock

Toshi-koshi soba (年越しそば) means ‘year-crossing soba.’ Soba noodles are a very healthy Japanese dish because their main ingredient is buckwheat. 

People typically eat it on December 31st to cross over into the following year. Because of this, many traditional Japanese soba restaurants will see their busiest day of the year on New Year’s Eve. Many restaurants offer particular types of soba, such as ‘kin (gold) soba’ with gold leaf on it! 

The length of the soba noodle represents longevity or long life. Some families considered it rude or bad luck to leave noodles behind before the beginning of the new year.

2. Kagami Mochi

A kagami mochi, a Japanese new year food, on a pedestal next to a set of Japanese new year decorations
Kagami mochi can be plain, but people can also decorate it with traditional Japanese elements like this one. Image via Shutterstock

Japan is a country of mochi, with hundreds of different variations. Mochi is a glutinous rice cake. Its shape comes from vigorously pounding down soaked rice until it becomes soft and stretchy. 

People also eat kagami mochi, or mirror mochi, for the New Year. Come New Year’s in Japan; it is widespread to see kagami mochi available in shops, displayed on walls, and in the windows of many Japanese homes. 

Kagami mochi comprises a sizeable circular mochi underneath a smaller mochi, which has a daidai or a bitter Japanese orange on top. This ornament-like mochi is on display until the first weekend in January. At that time, households will eat it together by breaking the mochi and putting it into ozoni soup, a Japanese soup made with mochi and often eaten on New Year’s. 

There are many theories as to how and why kagami mochi started. One is that the ‘mirror’ symbolizes the mirror of the highest deity in Shinto, Amaterasu. According to legend, she is the bringer of the sun. Another theory is that the two mochi represent yin and yang, the heart and its strength for the coming year. 

A bowl of ozoni, a Japanese new year soup, with grilled mochi, carrots, and other vegetables on a black background.
Ozoni is much like American gumbo. It may have common elements, but families each have different recipes. This one includes grilled mochi. Image via Shutterstock

3. Osechi Ryouri

Osechi ryouri (お節料理) is the name for the traditional Japanese New Year food in special lacquer boxes. There are many theories about the origins of osechi, and a few are especially simple. 

In the past, Generally speaking, the first three days of New Year are a time for rest.; Therefore, families should keep cooking to a minimum. This practice led to osechi ryouri, also called osechi. Osechi can be retained for a few days and eaten without preparation. When osechi first began, it was simple and made of only boiled foods, flavored with soy sauce and mirin. 

Nowadays, there is a multitude of types of osechi! Since its humble beginnings, it grew popular as each region brought its take on it, and modern conveniences came into play. We’ve highlighted some of the most common osechi ingredients below.

Several boxes of osechi, a Japanese new year food that comes in lacquer boxes, with many different seafoods and vegetables inside.
It may look like a lot, but Osechi-ryouri should last through all three days of New Year’s as most restaurants and shops are closed. Image via Shutterstock

Tataki Gobo (Pounded Burdock Root)

A bowl of simmered burdock root, also known as tataki gobo.
Tataki gobo is a pickled dish often included in osechi dishes. Image via Shutterstock

Burdock root is a famous root vegetable in Japan and is eaten in various dishes all year round. It is very healthy, full of antioxidants, and contains that lovely umami (savoriness) too. Eating burdock root for New Year symbolizes stability and strength, as the burdock root grows firmly out of the ground.

Kuri Kinton (Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Candied Chestnuts)

A bowl of kuri kinton which consists of mashed sweet potatoes and candied chestnuts.
Kuri kinton represents fortune and wealth. Image via Shutterstock

This sweet potato mash is a striking color that contrasts beautifully with the red and black lacquer boxes. When combined with chestnuts, the side dish resembles gold coins. By eating kuri kinton around New Year, Japanese people believe they may be prosperous in money or have good luck for the coming year.

Kazunoko (Herring Roe)

A picture of yellow herring roe, or kazunoko.
Kazunoko is herring roe marinated in dashi broth. Image via Shutterstock

Eating kazunoko during New Year in Japan is said to symbolize children and grandchildren. In Japan, having children is still a sign of a successful life. Eating herring eggs is believed to bring prosperity and good fortune to the family and even more family members. The herring roe is golden yellow and marinated in soy sauce and dashi (Japanese soup stock).

Kuromame (Sweet Black Soy Beans)

A bowl of large, shiny black beans, also known as kuromame.
Sweet black soybeans originated in Kansai. Image via Shutterstock

The sweet black soybeans are instantly recognizable in any jyubako, with their distinctive shape and dark color. This is because black soybeans were traditionally cooked with iron so that the chemical in the beans would react with the metal and turn even blacker! These days, you can buy special colorants. According to legend, by eating sweet, slightly savory black soybeans, one will be healthy for the year ahead.

Let us know what your favorite osechi-ryouri is in the comments below! Have you tried any yourself or spotted anything while out and about?

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