How to ring in the Japanese New Year

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Ask most people about their New Year’s Eve plans, and they’ll rattle off a short list of bars or parties to attend where they’ll count down the last few seconds of 2016 and clink champagne flutes as the ball drops in Times Square. For the Japanese, the celebration entails something entirely different. People gather at home with their families during oshougatsu to enjoy traditional Japanese New Year’s dishes and watch NHK’s “Kōhaku Uta Gassen,” the annual red-and-white-themed song contest on television.

In Japan, oshougatsu is the most important time of year. Preparations begin well in advance, and many businesses close shop from December 29 through January 3 in observance of the holiday. Growing up in Los Angeles, my Japanese mother would assign us a long, dreaded list of chores for what felt like a mad dash to clean the house from top to bottom before the New Year. Once our household duties were completed, we accompanied her to the Japanese markets to shop for the ingredients needed to make special holiday foods: a glutinous rice cake soup called ozōni and the more elaborate osechi ryōri.

At Shibumi in Downtown LA, Chef David Schlosser makes his Japanese New Year’s ozōni using chicken stock, mochi and seasonal vegetables from Chino Farms. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In accordance with custom, little to no cooking occurs during oshougatsu. Osechi ryōri is prepared ahead of time and is intended to last one’s family into the first week of the new year. Women sometimes spend days preparing each of the separate components of the meal: kuromame (sweet black beans for health); tazukuri (candied dried sardines for an abundant harvest); kazunoko (herring roe for fertility); and kuri kinton (sweet potatoes with chestnuts for wealth), among other items displayed in beautiful lacquered boxes or on ceramic platters for the New Year’s Day feast. Each item bears symbolic meaning. The more varied the assortment, the more likely one is to have an auspicious year. With more Japanese women entering the workforce than ever before, more families are ordering osechi ryōri sets from department stores, supermarkets and restaurants.

In California, local markets like Nijiya, Mitsuwa and Marukai are carrying on the Japanese New Year tradition by stocking osechi ryōri sets and other oshougatsu specialty items to mark the yearly festivities. At Shibumi in Downtown LA, Chef David Schlosser is serving foods traditionally eaten this time of year in Japan. After training at Urasawa, Ginza Sushiko and l’Orangerie, he studied kaiseki in Kyoto at the three Michelin-starred Kitcho Arashiyama Honten before returning to LA to open his own kappo, or counter-style, restaurant.

Before the clock strikes midnight on December 31, Japanese around the world ring in the New Year with bowls of toshikoshi soba to ensure longevity and health for the coming year.(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Since no New Year’s Eve menu is complete without a bowl of toshikoshi soba — eating these noodles ensures good health and longevity in the new year — Chef Schlosser busies himself with the task of rolling out buckwheat noodles by hand. He serves them with a special dipping sauce, freshly grated wasabi and pickled ginger blossoms. The soba is traditionally eaten before midnight on New Year’s Eve as the Buddhist temple bells in Japan are rung 108 times to purge celebrants of their worldly vices. Schlosser also offers diners ozōni on his menu, a special mochi soup usually served on New Year’s Day. The preparation styles vary throughout Japan, but it’s required eating for every Japanese family to start the new year off properly. Chef Schlosser makes his version with grilled mochi, a clear chicken broth and seasonal vegetables he sources from Chino Farms in Rancho Santa Fe, California.

From right to left: Makoto, Mayumi and grandmother Kazumi with Matsuo Chino. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

At Chino Farms, Tom Chino leads three generations of family members and friends in the annual mochitsuki. The day-long mochi-making celebration takes place every December 28, when the sticky glutinous rice cakes are made by hand for the oshougatsu feast. This year, Chino Farms imported 200 pounds of mochigome (glutinous rice) from Japan. The rice is first steamed in wooden trays and then transferred to a large granite mortar where it gets pounded into a sticky mass. As each person takes turns swinging the large wooden mallets to flatten the rice, the enthusiastic crowd keeps pace by shouting loud, rhythmic expressions of what the Japanese refer to as “kiai.” Loosely translated, kiai describes the intensity of one’s spirit. When a child takes up the giant wooden mallet for the first time, each swing instills a sense of pride and determination. It’s how traditions endure as successive generations are woven into a family’s cultural fabric.

Once pounded, the glutinous mass is transferred to a floured surface, where eager hands begin the task of forming it into large kagami mochi (pictured below) for the oshougatsu deities and smaller rounds to be eaten for the holiday. Some mochi are set aside to make New Year’s ozōni; others are topped with grated daikon and ponzu and eaten while still warm. My mother likes hers toasted until the mochi puffs and turns golden. Then she lightly douses it with soy sauce and wraps it in nori, an experience similar to eating a chewy rice cracker. The Chinos also make daifuku from theirs, a popular Japanese confection made by filling soft, snowy white mochi with sweet red bean paste. I like mine dusted in sweetened kinako (roasted soybean powder) and drizzled with syrupy kuromitsu, which is made from unrefined Okinawan brown sugar.

Large rounds are also shaped into two sizes of kagami mochi, or “mirror mochi.” In accordance with Shinto tradition, the kagami mochi are stacked and displayed in one’s home during oshougatsu to usher in the blessings of one’s ancestors and an abundant harvest. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Before I left for college, New Year’s Eve was always spent at home with family. We’d start the evening around a boiling pot of shabu-shabu before retiring to the den to watch the “Kōhaku Uta Gassen” on television. Even as I outgrew the performances and my parents complained about yet another J-pop band taking the stage at the year’s show, we watched on because it is a part of who we are and is a connection to where we have come from. Looking back, I’m only too aware that so many customs are lost over time, especially since I’m half-Japanese and half-Chinese-American.

But I also know traditions don’t have to be lost. “Who knows if any of this matters or if anyone will continue this when I’m gone,” Tom Chino said to me during the mochitsuki. “Of course it does,” I answered. “Because any time I don’t follow through with my family’s oshougatsu traditions, I have a nagging sense that I’m not starting my year properly. I can’t start my year till I do. It never feels that way if I miss a New Year’s Eve party.”

The 83-year-old Kazumi, grandmother and matriarch of Chino Farms, was graciously making her rounds to welcome each and every guest to the mochitsuki while Tom’s son, Makoto, and cousin Matsuo prepared piping hot bowls of shabu-shabu for their guests. As my two-year-old niece Remy took her first bite of mochi, there was not a sliver of doubt in my mind that the oshougatsu tradition would go on.

Makoto and Matsuo Chino prepare Japanese shabu-shabu for their guests. Thinly sliced beef, vegetables and fresh mochi are dipped into the boiling hot pot, making it the perfect dish for an oshougatsu celebration. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Osechi ryori photo (top) by Hiro – Kokoro☆Photo.