While the New Year in the West often conjures resolutions—or even regrets—the Japanese New Year is rooted in Shinto traditions, not to mention delicious food.
Chewy, soft and sweet mochi. Crunchy sauteed lotus root. A fragrant, steaming hot bowl of dashi with deliciously slippery buckwheat noodles. These dishes are both symbolic and tactile reminders of the New Year celebration in Japan, the nation’s most important holiday.
Called Shōgatsu or Oshōgatsu, it takes place on January 1st due to Western influences, and it’s been celebrated since 1873 in the Meiji era. This time of year is surrounded by traditions, customs, and good food.
How is the New Year celebrated in Japan?
Oseibo, which is one of Japan’s two gift-giving seasons, takes place during the Japanese New Year. These gifts are given to colleagues, managers, teachers, doctors… Really, anyone to whom you want to show appreciation to for everything they’ve done for you that year. Fruit, desserts, coffee, tea, and other food items are commonly given. But, the tradition is becoming less common as more people opt to exchange Christmas gifts.
From the last week of the year to the first week of the New Year—from around late December to January 3—many companies shut down to give people time to spend with friends and family. In the last few weeks of December, many families observe, oosouji, which means “the big cleaning.” This is when homes, office spaces, and schools are meticulously cleaned. The tradition has roots in Shinto and Buddhist practices.
“The idea, very generally, is that daily life pollutes the environment and pollutes you—not just physically, but also metaphysically and spiritually,” explained Ayako Kano, professor of Japanese studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “Every once in a while, you need to clean it out and purify in order to welcome the deities of the new year.”
After cleaning, many people place kadomatsu, a decoration made from three cut bamboo pieces, pine sprigs to represent prosperity and longevity, in front of their homes. In Shinto traditions, this decoration welcomes Toshigami-sama, a deity who visits homes over the New Year, bringing good wealth and luck. Many homes also decorate with kagami mochi, which consists of two mochi rice cakes and a Japanese orange stacked on top of each other. Making mochi the traditional way—in a mortar with a large wooden mallet—is also a popular New Year’s tradition in Japan.
During the first few days of the New Year, many people take part in hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year, to pray for good luck and happiness. Buddhist and Shinto shrines get a lot of foot traffic during this period.
Food traditions of the Japanese New Year
A lot of the food eaten around this time of year is vegan-friendly, or can be. On New Year’s Eve, called Omisoka, many people eat toshikoshi soba, a bowl of hot buckwheat noodles served in dashi broth with scallions and fish cakes. The name of the dish roughly translates to “year-crossing noodles,” and the long, thin noodles symbolize longevity.
Traditional New Year’s food is called osechi ryori, which is packed in a three-tiered lacquered red and black box called a jubako. While ingredients such as fish cakes, roe, shrimp, bonito (fish flakes), and chicken make an appearance in osechi ryori, many dishes are easily made plant-based. Popular dishes include a stew called nishime, which you’ll find a recipe for below, plus tasty dishes like pounded burdock root, lotus root, candied chestnuts with sweet potatoes, sweet black soybeans, pickled turnips, and ozoni, a miso-based soup served with mochi.
3 vegan recipes for Japanese New Year
LIVEKINDLY reached out to food bloggers of Japanese heritage for their favorite Shogatsu recipes, and asked what makes the dish special to them.
“Nishime” is a type of nimono, or simmered dish, that’s served during the New Year and is considered a classic Japanese-style home-cooked meal. It’s made by simmering a variety of vegetables, and sometimes meat, in a broth. The stew typically includes lotus roots, carrot, tari, snow peas, dried shiitake mushrooms, and sliced konnyaku (a chewy cake made from konjac) and most of the ingredients are cut in decorative ways.
The broth, called dashi, is usually made with bonito (fish flakes), but Yumiko Maehashi, who runs the blog RecipeTin Eats with her daughter, says that it can easily be made vegan by using dried shiitake mushrooms or kombu.
“Each vegetable has a particular meaning and the dish contains one’s wish for a happy family together and their prosperity, which is perfect to be served at New Year,” she says. For example, the holes of the lotus root symbolize a clear future and taro represents fertility. Many of the ingredients in nishime are cut into decorative shapes, resulting in a visually appealing dish.
Get the recipe here.
Sauteed lotus root
The round, beige stem that is the lotus root may not be as visually striking as the graceful flowers that bloom on water, but slice into one and you’re met with a natural pattern that resembles one. Called renkon in Japan, lotus root has a neutral flavor and crunchy texture that it retains even when cooked or pickled.
“Lotus root is a symbolic vegetable to eat during the new year time. It is thought to bring good luck with the holes symbolizing good fortune (as you can clearly see through the holes), fertility and purity,” says Remy Morimoto Park, the recipe developer behind the blog Veggiekins, adding that many lotus dishes you’ll come across are plant-based by default. Her simple sauteed lotus root dish is “not only delicious, but also really visually stunning to serve at the table.”
Get the recipe here.
Soft, chewy, and versatile, mochi is a Japanese rice cake made from short-grain japonica glutinous rice that’s pounded into a paste, then molded into shapes, like a circle or a block. You can eat it on its own, or you can serve it in savory soups, roll it in kinako (sweet soy flour), or stuff it with anko (red bean paste). When it’s stuffed with sweet ingredients, mochi is called daifuku.
“My family likes to gather at my grandparents’ place and make mochi from scratch,” says Carloline Phelps, who runs the blog Pickled Plum. “While the men are outside pounding the rice with a giant pestle and mortar, the women sit comfortably on the tatami floors inside the house, shaping the dough into balls and laying them on clean sheets. Once all the rice has been pounded, the mochi is divided among everyone to take home and enjoy as they please.”
If you don’t have a mortar and pestle for mochi at home, you can use an immersion blender and a microwave, like Phelps does in her recipe.
Get the recipe here.