Girding Up for the Year Ahead

Happy New Year

Having been up at least until midnight and probably much later than that, January 1st for so many people in Japan is a day on which to take things very slowly.  There are too many opportunities to stay up late, very late.  Temples and shrines to visit, people to see, parties to go to, fireworks to see and no anxiety about getting home either.  In Tokyo and other big conurbations the trains run all night.  Then young and hardy types will do their best to see the first sunrise, which was at 06:51 in Tokyo.

The New Year is a time when families in Japan get together just as families do for Christmas in many parts of the world.  Even if they don’t really want to, they do get together, so that’s a common feature.

A family needs feeding.  Some wives and mothers will buy almost everything needed to feed the army of hungry mouths with festive foods.  Others, however, will lovingly prepare what is called Osechi.  Look on the Net and you will see a wonderful collection of what look like bento boxes neatly arranged with various colourful foods.  The boxes are quite often jubako, which if they are not too full can be stacked away until someone feels like eating.

These boxed festive foods are an absolute delight to the eye and contain a myriad of tastes.  Beautiful to look at and tasty too.  What more could be wished for?  Well, apart from being something to stimulate the taste buds, there is also meaning behind each offering.

This tastefully presented selection prepared by the designer Emi Kimata comprises the main components of Osechi arranged in a typically Japanese understated assemblage.

Working clockwise from the top left-hand corner, first there are black beans in a slightly syrupy dressing.  These are eaten in the hope of warding off evil and staying healthy during the coming year.  Their faculty for protection comes from being the colour of the beads of a Taoist amulet.

Matsumae-zuke is a salad-like combination with a sharp dressing of pieces of kelp—symbol of good luck and happiness—and dried squid—dried and will therefore keep for a long time to suggest longevity.

Next are pieces of kamaboko—white fish cured surimi with a semicircular section, suggestive of the first sunrise on New Year’s Day.  The feeling of renewal and anticipation is manifested by the first sunrise, while white is clean and pure and therefore sacred.  Some people use alternate slices of pink and white kamaboko as red—well, pink is nearly red—and white together are colours of celebration in Japan.

Dried sardines fill the bottom left-hand dish.  Because dried sardines and fish meal was used in Japan as a fertiliser, this fact is borrowed to suggest an increase of prosperity and yield.  It’s known as tazukuri, literally “rice paddy maker’.  Such fertilisers were used to dress cotton fields further west along the coast from the Noto Peninsula near Tottori where the Yumihama cotton ikat cloths were woven.

And finally, in the centre is kazunoko, herring roe.  Eggs in vast numbers symbolise offspring and prosperity.

Another Osechi arrangement by Emi Kimata

Osechi is therefore much more than just something to eat.  It’s something to know, too.

What will the people of Noto have been doing today?  Staying indoors I guess, as it is snowing heavily along the Japan Sea coast.  Just how much does the weather affect how we behave?  That’s something to consider later.

Peace, Health and Happiness in 2015
Bill Tingey

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