Japanese New Year Food: Dishes Full of Symbolism

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In Japan, New Year is way more important than Christmas and is seen as one of, if not the most important times of the year. The tradition of celebrating the New Year on January 1st started in 1873, but Japanese New Year food has been around for way longer. Read more to learn about the most common foods to eat in Japan on New Years Day!

What is Japanese New Year Food?

The food eaten around New Year, or sho-gatsu (正月) in Japan is very particular, having been perfected over around 1000 years! A particular type of Japanese New Year food is osechi-ryori (a boxed meal set) which started being eaten in the Heian Period (794-1185). 

Aside from osechi-ryori, which is served in a jyubako (lacquer box), are foods such as toshikoshi soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles), mochi (rice cakes) and datemaki (sweet rolled omelettes), all of which have their own 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.
Toshi-koshi soba is usually eaten just before families start the countdown and is a great part of New Years. Image via Shutterstock

Toshi-koshi soba (年越しそば) literally means ‘year-crossing soba.’ Soba noodles are a very healthy type of Japanese noodle, made from buckwheat and designed to be eaten quickly. 

Toshi-koshi soba is typically eaten on December 31, to cross-over into the next year, so many traditional Japanese soba restaurants will see their busiest day of the year on New Years Eve. Many restaurants offer special types of soba such as ‘kin (gold) soba’ which is soba with gold leaf on it! 

The length of the soba noodle is said to represent longevity or a long life, and it is even considered rude or bad luck to leave any noodles behind. 

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 it can also be decorated to with traditional Japanese elements like this one. Image via Shutterstock

Japan is a country of mochi, with hundreds of different variations. At its most basic, mochi is a squishy rice cake, made by pounding down soaked rice until it becomes glutinous and stretchy. 

For New Year specifically, kagami mochi, or mirror mochi, is eaten. Come New Years in Japan, it is very common to see kagami-mochi being sold in shops and displayed on walls and in the windows of many Japanese homes. 

Kagami mochi comprises of a large circular mochi underneath a smaller mochi, which has a daidai or a Japanese bitter orange on top. This ornament-like mochi is displayed until the 1st weekend in January, when 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 Years.. 

There are many theories as to how and why kagami mochi started. One is that the ‘mirror’ symbolises the mirror of the highest deity in Shintoism, Amaretatsu, which brought back the sun according to Japanese myth. Another is that the two mochi represent yin and yang, or 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 found in special multi-tiered lacquer boxes. 

There are many theories as to the origins of osechi, but the most widely claimed is simple. 

In the past in Japan, the first three days of New Year were seen as a time for rest, and thus no heat should be lit, and preparation and cooking should be kept to a minimum. This led to osechi-ryouri, also simply called osechi. Osechi is food that can be kept for a few days and eaten cold, with no prior preparation. When osechi first began, it was very simple and made of only boiled foods, flavored with soy sauce and mirin. 

Nowadays, there are a multitude of types of osechi! Since its humble beginnings, it has been added to more and more as each region brings their own take on it and modern conveniences come 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 Years as most restaurants and shops are closed. Image via Shutterstock

Tataki Gobo (Pounded Burdock Root)

Burdock Root is a very popular root vegetable in Japan and is eaten in various dishes all year round. It is very healthy, being full of antioxidants, and contains that precious umami (savoriness) too. 

Eating Burdock Root for New Year is said to symbolize stability and strength, as the burdock root comes firmly out of the ground.

Kuri Kinton (Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Candied Chestnuts)

This golden sweet potato mash is a striking color in the red and black lacquer boxes in which it is often served. The potato is pureed, and then candied chestnuts are mixed in, giving the appearance of gold coins. By eating Kuri Kinton around New Year, Japanese people believe they may be prosperous in money or have good luck for the year to come.

Kazunoko (Herring Roe)

Eating kazunoko during New Year in Japan is said to symbolize children and grandchildren. In Japan, having children is still often considered to be a sign of a successful life, and eating the herring eggs is believed to bring prosperity and good fortune for the family and even more family members. 

The herring roe is a golden yellow color and is marinated in soy sauce and dashi (Japanese soup stock).

Kuromame (Sweet Black Soy Beans)

The sweet black soy beans are instantly recognizable in any jyubako, with their distinctive shape and dark color. 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 just buy special colorants. 

It is said that by eating the 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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