February 17, 2014
by Miyuki Nakanishi and Mayuka Yamada
In Japan, people do special things to have a good New Year holiday. This involves not only visiting temples or shrines, but also eating special foods with the hope of good luck. Of course, everyone has heard of the famous osechi ryori, which is always eaten around the New Year throughout Japan. But outside of osechi, what other kinds of food traditions are there? Well, the answer to that question depends on each region. The New Year’s food of Kyoto is original is certain ways, so the focus of this article is to share some of those Kyoto New Year’s food traditions.
New Year’s Eve in Japan
Omisoka (December 31st) is the last day of the year. Some of Japanese stay at home with their family on this day and wait for the new year while watching TV. Others visit a local temple and ring the temple bell to remove their human desires in order to welcome the new year with a clear heart. Along with these activities, it is customary for people to eat Toshikoshi Soba (New Year’s Eve Buckwheat Noodles) on New Year’s Eve in Japan.
What is Toshikosi Soba?
The Japanese term ‘toshikoshi’ means ‘year crossing’ in English. Soba is a kind of noodles made of a mixture of buckwheat flour and normal wheat flour. It is very popular in Japan and people eat it in various ways. For example, it can be served cold or hot. Also, people usually eat it with soup, but there are other ways. It is also common to eat soba with a slurping noise. The long soba noodles eaten on New Year’s Eve represents people’s hope for longevity. They also pray for the health of their families for the next year by eating soba on the 31st.
There are a few common varients kinds of soba this time of year. Kakesoba consists of noodles in a soup. It’s the simplest one. Other is Nishinsoba, which is from Kyoto and it is very famous, not to mention delicious.
Nishinshoba is a bowl of soba in a hot broth, which has a dried herring added to it. It was born in Kyoto in the 19th century. Originally, Kyoto people often ate dried herrings as a side dish. In addition there was a custom to eat sea tangles boiled with herrings on every 1st of the month. So, Kyoto people have a strong connection with herrings because they didn’t have a chance to get fresh fish. Central Kyoto does not border any oceans. That’s why they started to make fish dried, so they could transport it from the ocean without it going bad. This is how the dried herring in soba became a signature Kyoto dish.
New Year’s Day Food: Zoni
In Japan, people spend New Year holidays practicing traditional customs and eating special food to celebrate the New Year. For example, they decorate their gate with special pine branches called kadomatsu, see the first rising sun (hatsu-hinode), and visit shrines and temples to pray for good luck, safety, and health. The most famous New Year foods are the colorful dishes called osechi (made to wish for the health and happiness of the family) and zoni.
Zoni is always eaten during the first three days of the New Year, and especially on New Year’s Day. It is a warm soup made with pounded rice cakes, vegetables, meats, seafood and tofu. In the Muromachi period (1336~1573), zoni was eaten as an auspicious food in celebration by upper-class people like nobles and the samurai class. It is said that it spread throughout the common people in the middle of Edo period (1603~1868).
Depending on regions and homes, the ingredients and shape of rice cakes and preparation methods are different. For example, in East Japan zoni is made with square rice cakes and a clear soup, while in West Japan it is made with round rice cakes and miso soup. Some people say this is because the samurai class ruled in East Japan and the tradition of imperial culture influenced in West Japan. Other people say that round rice cakes mean “getting along with people” and “peace.” In the Edo period, however, the population of Edo (Tokyo) was very large and so square rice cakes were used to make things simpler.
New Year’s Food of Kyoto: Shiro-miso zoni
New Year’s famous foods in Kyoto are Kyoto-style zoni and Obukucha tea. The main characteristic of Kyoto-style zoni is that it is made with shiro-miso (sweeter miso than general miso) soup and rice cakes boiled in seaweed-stock. The taste is sweet and delicious. The ingredients are, depending on the home and restaurant in question, generally round rice cakes, daikon (Japanese white radish), kintoki ninjin (red carrots), sato-imo (taro), and dried bonito flakes.
What makes zoni special is that the ingredients each have a symbolic meaning. For example, in Japan a ‘round’ shape symbolizes a situation in which things don’t become rough and can be at peace with people. Therefore people hope not to fight, but instead to keep a friendly, good relationship with others. Therefore they use round rice cakes and round sliced daikon. Another meaning for daikon is ‘taking root in ground’.
Also, the head of the family and the first son eat a kashira-imo (or head potato), a fist-sized symbolizing the smart head that leads the family. It is big, it can take three days to eat it. Some homes put some secondary taro corms into zoni to pray for perpetuation of one’s descendants.
Other Kyoto New Years Food Customs
In addition, there are a few other original customs of Kyoto. For example, people drink obukucha, which is a tea consisting of a small pickled plum and kombu kelp added to a cup of sencha tea. Also, people break the kagami-mochi (large, round rice cakes offered to the Gods during the New Year time) into small pieces and add it to clear soup zoni with mibuna (a green Kyoto vegetable) on January 4th.
In addition, there is yet another unique New Years custom in Kyoto. People bring back fire called okerabi, from the famous Yasaka-Jinja shrine on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, and make zoni and obukucha tea by using the fire to spend the year in good health. Zoni and obukucha tea are a necessary food to spend the year peacefully.
Where can we get Kyoto-style Zoni and Obukucha tea?
Some Japanese restaurants and cafés in Kyoto offer Kyoto-style zoni from November to April. The time of offering, along with the ingredients and tastes vary according to the restaurant. Please try to eat zoni in the many restaurants and find your favorite one. As for obukucha tea, you can buy it in a tea shop or at some temples. Alternatively, we can make obukucha tea ourselves, just by adding a pickled plum and kombu kelp to sencha tea.
As you can see, New Year’s Day in Kyoto offers an opportunity to experience many different traditional Japanese food customs that have been passed down for generations, such as nishinsoba, shiro-miso zoni and more. If you have a chance, please spend the New Year’s in the traditional city of Kyoto.