Happy New Year! It’s that time of year again for mochi-tsuki (making mochi). Here we’ve got Miyagino-beya and in that third video we see Enho’s lightning fast work pounding the mochi there… Kiwotsuke, ne.
This year I wanted to offer sumo fans a peek into some of the other New Years’ customs in Japan. These are the same customs that our favorite wrestlers adhere to, so this will provide a bit of context to some of the social media content that the heya share this time of year.
During my old English teaching days, this was a very quiet time of year when most shops were closed and Japanese spent time with family and visited temples and shrines. After getting married, we celebrated with my wife’s family at her aunt’s house…and I ate way too much. The atmosphere reminded me of Thanksgiving – without the Lions’ or Cowboys’ games on TV. Since there are specific dishes for specific days, I’ll break this down by New Years’ Eve and New Years’ Day.
New Years’ Eve
New Years’ Eve is usually spent cleaning. Think of大掃除 (Osouji) as “spring cleaning,” but done on New Years’ Eve to get the new year off on the right foot. We know that sumo wrestlers, particularly the lower rankers, regularly clean the stable. Osouji focuses on the periodic, difficult tasks rather than just the weekly or monthly routine. For example, we’ve got a chandelier in our living room which is a bear to clean and this is when we move the biggest, heaviest furniture to get underneath. The kids always laugh when we find beans that were thrown the previous February. Here, we see Asakayama-beya’s deep cleaning.
Companies also perform their osouji in preparation for the new year and do their annual deep cleaning. In the old days, the head of the company was thrown in the air (douage), similar to how the gyoji is tossed at the end of a tournament. This was to shake off the bad spirits and start off fresh. According to this article, in the sumo world oyakata were tossed but they switched to using lighter gyoji.
年越しそば (toshikoshi soba) is a special version of soba noodles eaten on New Years’ eve. The term itself uses the same “koshi” from the terms makekoshi and kachikoshi we are familiar with as sumo fans. As we see here from the pictures of Naruto-beya, it features tempura shrimp and kakiage. Kakiage, itself, is a mix of ingredients like vegetables, shrimp, scallops, etc., all mixed together with tempura batter and deep fried. As I mentioned on Twitter, our household swapped out the soba since we prefer udon. Toshikoshi udon may be a bit non-canon, or 邪道 (jyado), but it’s better in my humble opinion.
For a look at the soba version, here’s what Naruto-beya ate. It looks like their kakiage had broccoli, shrimp, carrots and onions.
New Years’ Day
Ozouni is a traditional soup eaten on New Years’ Day. Its main focus is generally the inclusion of mochi, Shodai’s daikon, carrots and chicken but there’s quite a bit of regional variation in the ingredients. In the Kanto region of Tokyo, you’re generally using a rectangular block of mochi and a soy-sauce base. In the Kansai region around Osaka, they usually use a round ball of mochi and include a white miso base to the soup. Jason (of Jason’s Sumo Channel), may be more familiar with a red-bean version in the Izumo region and Bruce may have come across oysters in his ozouni in western Japan. My wife is from Kanto, so we had a soy-base with a rectangular block of mochi, with no daikon because I’m not a big fan of its rather weak tachiai. I’m eager to try the miso version, to be honest.
Osechi is the biggest culinary tradition of this Oshogatsu New Year festival. It’s usually served in a three-tiered lacquer-ware set. While you may do fried turkey with sweet potato casserole and pecan (PEE-CAN) pie or cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, your Thanksgiving mix will vary. Osechi is similar in Japan where there are some very common ingredients but each family will often have their own variations.
Sushi, shrimp and other seafood is a central theme with various vegetables, pickles, nimono along side. We usually have a lot of the same components every year, like fish cake (kamaboko), black beans, grilled chicken with carrots, shiitake, and gobo. This year, though, instead of our usual sampling of shrimp and sushi, we had chirashi-zushi with octopus.
Toyonoshima’s delicious-looking osechi is pictured on the right.
*A little-known fact is that Andy’s middle name is Jado.