Food & Drink: Cold fish and mulled sake: Japanese new year lasts for days and is short on treats, says Simon Rees
Traditionally, Japanese families get together at the new year in much the same fashion as Westerners do at Christmas - with a flurry of greetings cards (hand-printed, delivered on the day), festive decorations (twisted straw-and-paper ornaments, or elegant constructions of bamboo, plum and pine), and a frenzied preparation of ceremonial food. The end result, though, is very different in mood, manner and (to Western taste buds) flavour.
The celebrations in Japan begin in December, with bonenkai or 'forget-the-year' parties (amnesia is induced by beer) and continue with a commercialised Christmas of sorts, which is not a public holiday. Events begin to warm up towards the end of the month, with decorations appearing over doorways, and red-and-white cabbages being planted auspiciously in tubs.
New Year's Eve is marked with 108 chimes on the temple bell, to drive out the sins of the old year, and with toshikoshi soba, a meal of noodles, to bring luck in the new.
The centrepiece of the festivities on New Year's Day (apart from visits to the temple or shrine to say prayers or have your fortune told) is a four-tier lacquer box containing the special cuisine, osechi- ryori. This is greeted with mixed feelings: it is all you get to eat for the first three days of the year (apart from soup), and the contents are chosen more for their ceremonial significance than for flavour or sustaining-power.
As each tray is lifted away and set out on the kotatsu (a low table with a heater underneath to keep your knees warm), the impression is of glossy, varnished surfaces. This look is imparted by the main cooking method of boiling down soy sauce and a sweet rice wine called mirin to a thick brown syrup, which gives everything a bland sweet/salt flavour that lingers in the mouth. The textures are odd: by turns chewy, crunchy, starchy, slimy and rubbery.
One dish, kobumaki, is made of dried herring wrapped in dried kelp and tied with dried gourd strips, the parcel then being simmered in soy until it soaks up a little moisture. Tender it is not, and you can spend hours picking the shreds out of your teeth. Kuromame, black beans cooked in syrup with a rusty nail, probably tastes better if you are low on iron. Sato-imo, a yam, and konnyaku, devil's tongue jelly, are slithery and bouncy by turns - a good chopstick technique is essential.
They are served with boiled vegetables and kuwai, arrowhead bulbs: the name of the latter, written with Chinese characters, means 'merciful mother-in-law', but woe betide the daughter- in-law who cannot cook this dish to her satisfaction.
The rest of the food in the jubako box is chosen for its colour - red and white (as in the Japanese flag) are both regarded as lucky - or for its symbolic significance, or both. Pink-and-white cakes made of pulverised shark, as bland as crab-sticks, have designs running through them of bamboo, pine and plum. Boiled black beans signify health, herring roe is for fertility, sardine fry in syrup is for a rich harvest, and so on.
Sea-bream, salmon and yellowtail are also regarded as auspicious, and grilled fillets of these are washed down with toso, a lukewarm, spiced sake that has a similar effect to mulled wine.
Most of the dishes will have begun to pall by Monday - some do not stay as fresh as they might - and people tend to pick at them. There is nothing in the way of a sit-down meal, and guests usually drift in and out, snacking in a desultory fashion and making polite conversation.
The atmosphere can be oppressive, with a feeling of restraint and compulsion that penetrates the genuine air of hospitality like a cold, hard floor through a thin cushion. In an old-fashioned house, with wood-and-paper walls and no central heating, the temperature can drop below zero, and the only thing to warm you up is the quilt of the kotatsu and a bowl of soup.
Ozoni, a soup with dumplings, is the one new year food that the Japanese really do seem to relish, although no one can agree on the proper composition of the broth or on the right way of cutting mochi, the glutinous rice dumplings that lurk beneath the surface: I was warned that they had choked many a reveller who went at them too enthusiastically.
To make mochi the proper way is a dangerous business. You form a dough from glutinous rice and pound it in a huge mortar with a mallet until you can pound no more. Relays of strong men wield the gigantic mallet, while the more nimble dart a hand in to reshape the mass before the next blow falls. The whole thing is quite without flavour and goes unbelievably slimy and gluey in the broth, but it is comfort food of a high order.
It is its lack of fixed mealtimes and solid nourishment that gives the Japanese new year its drifting, aimless quality: it can feel as if there is nothing to eat but monotonous, ritual food, nothing to drink but cloying, sweet rice wine, and nothing to do but watch endless comedy shows on television: you finish up lusting for cheese and pickles, a beer and a really good bad movie.
The whole affair peters out in family trivia and sticky lacquer-ware, and it can be a relief when, on 7 January, the decorations go on the bonfire and the year actually begins.
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