In the most recent catalogue of Mitsukoshi (upscale Japanese department store) I came across Osechi-ryori sold for an amazing price of JPY 315,000. No this is neither a typo in the price, nor is the content or the actual volume of goodies presented very extraordinary. This Osechi-ryori is made for about 5 to 6 people and has been already sold out early December as the sticker shows. Some might wonder what is the big deal about it: From my perspective it simply presents another side of Japan. On one side in the media there are a lot of discussions ongoing about economic downturn and the challenges local business is facing with strong price competition. This substantially higher priced Osechi-ryori seems to me an example of a different Japan I have not come across.
So what is then actually Osechi-ryori (御節料理): It is traditional Japanese New Year food, which originated in the Heian Period (794-1185). In the past, during first three days of the New Year it had been a taboo to cook meals, apart from the New Year’s Soba called zoni. So instead of having women busy in the kitchen during the New Year celebration, Osechi was prepared close to the year-end. These dishes were typically prepared with lots of sugar, or then a lot of vinegar added for preservation. Osechi-ryori contains a huge variety of dishes, each one representing a symbolic wish for things like long life, wealth, fertility, and happiness (more detailed information found on Wikipedia).
Actually the Japanese had not always celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1. Only after switching to the Western calendar, from 1873 onwards the date of the Japanese New Year (正月, Oshogatsu) was no more based on the Chinese lunar calendar. I strongly belive Oshogatsu is the biggest family event in Japan. Just combine Western celebration like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas together and then you get a sense for Oshogatsu. Most people return to their hometowns to spend the year-end with their family. In Japan year-end is the time to do nothing, but dose off in your kotatsu while watching TV. I am sure for children Oshogatsu is a special time too. From what I have heard from many grown ups, their memory of Oshogatsu is the period as a child, when you can stuff yourself full with sweets, all bought with the money given in little envelopes by relatives and acquaintances.
Although this gorgeous Osechi-ryori is now no more available for purchase, make sure that you order yours in time or you will be without marvelous food for the New Years day. And don’t forget the special money for the kids, because while you have a chance to enjoy all this good food and relax in front of the TV, all the children around you are looking forward to eating sweets until they are getting sick.
Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (シビル伊藤)