Starting Afresh

New Year decoration at the Osaki home.
It’s 5th January 2015—well, it was when I started writing this.  Most people in Japan returned to work on 5th January after the New Year holidays.  In the UK, too, this was the first day back at work for some people after a break of almost two weeks.  For me also it was the day to stop simply shuffling papers and time to start putting my desk in order.

I had thought of tackling another subject but that will have to wait.  Why is that?  Well, a very kind person living on the Noto Peninsula has sent some photographs of a wonderful spread of New Year food.

I have already introduced Osechi as prepared by Emi Kimata.  A really elegant arrangement. This time, however, it is Noto-style Osechi.  It was prepared by Etsuko Osaki, who for the past 15 years has been making traditional dishes using fresh produce obtained from the Morning Market in Wajima.

But that is not all.  She is the wife of Shiro Osaki, who heads one of the principal lacquer workshops in Wajima.  Its history is long and reputation second to none, so Etsuko is kept busy in a front-of-house role looking after customers for the made-to-order pieces of finely finished and decorated lacquerware produced under the Osaki Syoemon banner.

The stacking jubako boxes ready to be filled.
These days many housewives go to a department store and order Osechi, which comes already boxed up in stacking boxes made of plastic.  Plastic!  It would be unthinkable for a maker of fine lacquerware.  A good set of stacking boxes or jubako used for New Year Osechi food are as precious as a fine piece of porcelain in the West.  Like such a treasured piece, these finely finished lacquered stacking boxes are handed down from one generation to the next as a family heirloom.

Kagami mochi appropriately displayed in an alcove.
Etsuko began her preparations for the New Year on 28th December by first making rice cakes.  These are made by pulverising cooked glutinous rice into a stiff paste, which is then formed into cakes.  As a food embodying the spirit of rice, these kagami mochi are seen as giving strength and with other decorations are placed on house alters and at other strategic or important places around the house and workshop.

Kagami mochi toward the back along with cut bean-filled mochi for eating.
There are some regional differences in the way these rice cakes are displayed.  Nevertheless, what is perhaps common is the fact that they are not simply a piece of decoration.  Instead they perform a function by being indicative of the hopes and wishes of the people.

In the same way that Christmas decorations should be taken down by 12th Night, New Year decorations in Japan should traditionally be removed by 15th January, although more recently it is by 7th.

Incidentally, 7th January marks another food festival in Japan—the day on which to eat nanakusa-gayu.  This simple Seven-Herb Rice Gruel is served for breakfast in the hope of having good health and prosperity in the year ahead.  The plain, restrained and delicate flavour of this gruel is one of those “healthy” dishes that the palate is likely to welcome after the indulgences of the New Year.

The swelling, opulent form of the kagami mochi inevitably hints at a desire for prosperity in the New Year, too.  Their form, however, is too reminiscent of a stomach before seppuku, that it is thought wrong to cut up a kagami mochi with a knife.  They should therefore be broken up by hand or with a wooden mallet, so that the pieces can be used in soups or even grilled.  Because humidity levels in some parts of Japan are low, the surface of a kagami mochi will soon dry and crack.  Even where the humidity is a little higher, temperatures are usually low enough for the rice cakes to dry out rather than show any real sign of going past their use-by date.

The food in place, the guests are awaited.
The Osaki jubako is as splendid as the food placed in it.  The wooden carcass of each one is coated with many layers of true, natural lacquer before it is decorated.  Each box is water tight and inevitably has four internal corners.  This gives rise to a saying, which in essence means anyone who picks away at any remains of food in the corner of a jubako box with a tooth pick, is just nit-picking.

So, delight in this display of wholesome foods from Noto.  The food will have all been eaten by now and the jubako will be back in their box for safe keeping until the end of this year, when they will again take centre stage.

My thanks to Etsuko Osaki for allowing me to use the photographs.

From left to right: mushrooms, tofu, konnyaku, carrot, lotus root and young fern shoots.

Parcels of kombu.
Top left: dried sardines with pieces of burdock below.  Pink and white cured surimi of fish and finally two pieces of layered omelette sliced ready to be picked out with chopsticks.

Prawns, soused lotus root with chilli rings, and cooked tofu.
The jubako closed up in their own box.
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