Japan, with its islands in the Far East, exerts an indescribable fascination in Europe. Is this due to the anime and manga that have been making generations dream for dozens of years or to those somatic features that are so fascinating? Of the temples silhouetted on the horizon with such distant architecture or of the sushi, with its taste and colours, that has colonised city after city? So why not also delve into theŌmisoka (大晦日), i.e. the Japanese New Year? From food to traditions, this day symbolising rebirth has a very interesting story to tell.

Japanese New Year: an article from a film

Before talking about this fascinating anniversary, I want to start with the film that, in part, inspired me to write this article, which I dedicate to all lovers of Japanese culture and in particular to those who have experienced a bereavement with the wish that in the New Year they will find the hope to live another life.

Trip to Japan

Trip to Japan"is a sentimental film directed by Élise Girard, starring Isabelle Huppert, August Diehl and Tsuyoshi Ihara, which will be released in Italy on 11 January 2024. A film of extreme delicacy, with a "non-plot" in that it does not have a story to tell full of events, but is rather an intimate journey through the emotions of a person who has experienced a sudden and devastating bereavement. Without the burden of having to fill time with dialogue, the 95 minutes are a '1:43 model' of a real process, where denial, depression, anger, bargaining and acceptance follow each other, taking the necessary space, even of silences. And they make everything more real, even finding oneself in an unknown place with distant customs. 'Less is more'This makes Journey to Japan a masterpiece.

Trip to Japan

Isabelle Huppert is perfect in her role as the successful writer Sidonie frozen by the loss of her husband: her gaunt body appears sculpted by suffering and light on this earth, but of rare beauty. Tsuyoshi Iharahis publisher, embodies the Japanese man clichéindecipherable, dedicated to work, of few words, but caring and able to listen. August Diehl She plays the part of her dead husband's ghost: often over the top, almost frenetic in her gestures and therefore in stark contrast to the immobility of the protagonist, who only moves fast in the trains that move her from one place to another.

Isabelle Huppert Tsuyoshi Ihara trip to Japan

A film not for everyone, but one that anyone who has experienced an important bereavement should see as they have the sensitivity to understand and recognise themselves in those scenes of rare beauty, where the two protagonists, from behind, first fill the screen and then suddenly become small in front of the immensity of the Japanese landscape, almost as if the film had become an expression of a Turner painting. Where man, before the power of nature, is small and powerless and can only surrender to its will.

Surrender, which in its figurative meaning well represents the bereaved who can only stop fighting an adverse fate and accept it if they want to live again.

Travel to Japan Isabelle huppert tsuyoshi ihara

Japanese New Year: traditions

Curiously one of the symbols of loyalty to Japanese nationalism is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, played everywhere during the Japanese New Year. The Japanese fell in love with this melody sung by German prisoners in Bandō during the First World War, and orchestras began playing it in 1925, but it did not become a tradition until after 1960, when it served as popular music to accompany reconstruction after the tragedies of the Second World War.

Hatsumōde 初詣

At midnight, many Japanese visit a shrine or temple for thehatsumōde 初詣or the first visit to the shrine/temple of the year. On this occasion one buys omamori お守り (amulets or lucky charms) new ones and return old ones that will be cremated. Outside of those working in retail or emergency services, there is no work from 29 December to 3 January. On these days, houses are cleaned, debts are paid, friends and relatives are visited and gifts are exchanged. The most important temples/shrines have long queues, but the Japanese are used to waiting on these occasions.

Buddhist temples ring 108 bell chimes (joyanokane じょやの鐘 ) as a symbol of Buddhism's 108 original sins to ward off the worldly temptations to which every Japanese person can succumb and erase the small sins committed in the old year.

Shinto shrines prepare theamazake - a traditional Japanese sweet drink made from fermented rice, low in alcohol or non-alcoholic - to be served to visitors. It is part of the family of traditional Japanese foods prepared with the mould koji 麹 (Aspergillus oryzae) such as miso, soy sauce and sake. L'amazake is similar to the dansul and the makgeolli of Korean cuisine.

Amazake Japanese New Year

Cup of amazake | Source Wikipedia | author: emily_harbour_in_july

Nengajō (年賀状)

During the Japanese New Year, people send postcards to close friends and relatives to give them news of themselves and wish them well. Post offices often hire part-time students to guarantee all deliveries on 1 January. If there has been a bereavement in the family during the year, they refrain from sending as a sign of respect. Despite the highly technological age, this custom survives even if younger people are abandoning it.

Postcards can be handwritten or hand-drawn, or purchased pre-printed in stationery stores. In the latter case, popular subjects or the Chinese New Year zodiac sign are chosen. These cards always have at least a small blank space to write a personal message.

Japanese New Year Cards

Takarabune (宝船)

The takarabune is the treasure ship led by the Seven Gods of Fortune during the first three days of the New Year to human ports. During the Japanese New Year, there is a custom of placing the picture of this ship under one's pillow to wish for happiness and longevity, but above all to have a lucky dream, a sign that the whole New Year will be lucky. In the case of an unwelcome dream, one can still throw the photo of the takarabune into the river to ward off misfortune in the New Year.

Takarabune Hiroshige Japanese New Year

Coloured woodcut (ukiyo-e) of Utagawa Hiroshige's Takarabune

Otoshidama

The otoshidama is the custom in which adult relatives give money to the children of their family during the Japanese New Year. In the case of several children, the tendency is to give the same amount so as not to offend anyone.

Hanetsuki (羽根突き) and Fukuwarai (福笑い)

Hanetsuki is a traditional game played with a rectangular paddle (hagoita) and a brightly coloured shuttlecock (hane). At one time, hanetsuki was played during the Japanese New Year by girls, but even today that this game is no longer so popular, in some areas it is common to buy decorative haigota to propitiate protection from mosquitoes in the New Year. This is because the game, which can be played in two ways, always aims to keep the shuttlecock in the air. In the first mode one person alone tries to keep it as high as possible for the longest time, while in the second mode two people keep hitting it during and back. Every time a player does not hit the shuttlecock he is stained on the face with Indian ink.

Japanese New Year games

The fukuwarai (福笑い) is a children's game popular during the Japanese New Year. The small blindfolded players stand around a table on which the face of a person without features is placed. These are in individual cutouts: one cutout for each eye, one cutout for the mouth, one cutout for the nose... and their correct placement is just a matter of luck, so it is said that whoever places the right cutout in the right place will have good luck throughout the New Year. When cutouts are placed in the wrong position, it is impossible for children not to laugh.

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Japanese New Year: what to eat?

Japanese cuisine is much more varied than we normally think, accustomed to associating it with sushi, sashimi and a few other traditional dishes. Exactly as in Italy with cotechino with lentils, there are also dishes to be eaten during the Japanese New Year. The preparation of osechi-ryōri, consumed on the first day of the New Yearis long and laborious and therefore for thelast night of the old year you prefer a dish that is quick and easy to prepare: the toshi-koshi soba.

Osechi-ryōri (お節料理 or おせち)

For osechi-ryōri means a lacquered wooden box (jubako) which contains various auspicious dishes neatly arranged. Osechi derives from the ancient O-sechi which was a significant season or period and New Year's Day was one of the 5 seasonal festivals in the Kyoto Imperial Court. In ancient times, it was considered taboo to cook the first 3 days of the year, so osechi were prepared on the last day of the old year. The first osechi were certainly not as elaborate and rich as today's: they were just boiled vegetables with soy sauce and sugar or mirin. Today, osechi-ryōri are served in boxes also with very elegant compartments and among the various types the most common foods are these:

  • Daidai (だいだい)Japanese bitter orange. It is used on this occasion because written in kanji (代々) it also reads 'from generation to generation'.
  • Datemaki (だてまき)A sweet chicken egg omelette on which fish or shrimp paste is spread and then rolled and cut to form sushi-like rolls.
  • Kamaboko (かまぼこ): grilled fish cake cut into red and white slices inspired by the flag of Japan.
  • Kazunoko (かずのこ): herring eggs. The egg in itself has a strong symbolic meaning referring to birth and is reinforced by the word itself: kazu, 'number' and kochild'. It is eaten to wish for many children.
  • Konbu (昆布): type of seaweed. It is eaten as it is part of the word yorokobu meaning 'joy'.
  • Kuro-mame (くろまめ)black soya. It is eaten as mame also means 'health' to wish for a healthy New Year.
  • Kōhaku-namasu (紅白なます)a preparation of daikon and carrot cut into thin strips and marinated in vinegar with sugar and yuzu.
  • Tai (たい): red sea bream. It is eaten as it is part of the word medetai meaning 'auspicious event'.
  • Tazukuri (田作り): dried sardines cooked in soy sauce. It is eaten as the word tazukuri literally means 'producer of rice fields' to wish a new year full of prosperity and abundance.
  • Zōni (雑煮): a soup of mochi rice cakes served in a clear broth (eastern Japan) or in a miso broth (western Japan).
  • Ebi (海老, えび)Shrimp skewers brushed with soy sauce and sake. They are eaten as symbols of a long life.
  • Nishiki tamago (錦卵/二色玉子)egg maki. The egg is separated, the white symbolises silver and the yolk symbolises gold. Both are beaten separately and then composed like sushi rolls, with the yellow part on the outside. They are eaten as symbols of wealth and luck.
  • Zenzai (ぜんざい)is a sweet soup served hot with red beans and steamed glutinous rice cakes (mochi) or balls of glutinous rice flour and water (shiratama dango).
Osechi Japanese New Year

Toshi-koshi soba (年越し蕎麦)

Since osechi would not actually be the boxes full of auspicious dishes, but rather all foods that are specially prepared for a seasonal occasion, even the toshi-koshi soba is in fact an osechi. However, being something completely different from the above-mentioned dishes, it deserves to be mentioned separately. It is a dish of buckwheat noodles (soba) boiled in a broth prepared with dashi, soy sauce and mirin (kakejiru)then seasoned with fresh spring onion and served hot. In some areas, the recipe is completed with tempura, often of shrimp. These long, tender noodles have a special double meaning: on the one hand they symbolise long life, on the other hand their ability to break apart easily symbolises the ability of those who eat them to leave the problems of the old year behind. Moreover, the name of these noodles toshi-koshi soba literally means 'soba to pass into the new year' as toshi 年 means 'year' and koshi 越し means 'to cross, to pass'. In addition to soba, the following are also used for this dish udona type of thicker shaped noodle prepared from wheat flour.

Japanese New Year udon

Pictured is a dish very similar to the toshi-koshi udon I ate in May in London with Akiyoshi ❤️

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Chiara Bassi book sommelier illustrated manual

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Japanese New Year: what to drink?

The traditional drink for this occasion is sake.

O-toso 屠蘇 (spiced medicinal sake)

O-toso 屠蘇or simply tosois a spiced medicinal sake traditionally drunk during Japanese New Year celebrations and in particular in combination with the osechi-ryōri. The tradition of drinking toso during the New Year began in China during the Tang Empire (618-907 A.D.) and was adopted by Japanese aristocrats during the Heian Period (平安時代 794-1185 A.D.). The ceremony of the toso came to the people many years later, when doctors began to distribute it. Curiously, even today some pharmacies have maintained the custom of giving o-toso as a gift at the end of the year. The tradition of drinking this beverage is now limited to some areas of western Japan and Kansai, while in other areas people drink simple sake.

Among the spices that toso contains are rhubarb, ginger, cinnamon and Japanese pepper. This drink is a symbol of good health as it literally means 'to slaughter (屠) evil spirits (蘇)' and is drunk to ward off the evils of the previous year and to aspire to a long life.

As you can see from the photo below, there are 3 small cups of different sizes in which to drink the toso, which is passed around so that everyone takes a sip. In China, the first cup went to the youngest, thus wishing him to grow up quickly, and the last cup to the oldest, thus wishing him to grow old more slowly. In Japan, however, this custom has not been maintained and the first cup is reserved for the head of the family.

Saké toso Japanese New Year

I dedicate this article to Akiyoshi Tsuda, TAPS Inc.'s Japanese wine importer, with whom I have worked for more than six years now. A person deeply similar to me, with whom I share many passions and whom I love. And now I am off to the gym to work off my Italian New Year's Eve sins in advance at one of my favourite Japanese restaurants in Milan: Sushi Kobbo.

Akiyoshi Tsuda Chiara Bassi

This photo was taken during a holiday in London last May, around the time of my birthday. I hope that in 2024 we will finally meet at his place for my first 'Trip to Japan'. After all, I'm also a successful writer like Sidonie, right? ☺️

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