My dad enjoys watching NHK TV. So when he comes over, we often watch “Itadakimasu: Dining with the Chef,” which I record and save.
Last night we watched the osechi ryori segment with Chef Tatsuo Saito. Yum! Yes, I am still jonesing on Oshogatsu. It’s such a meaningful and joyful tradition that we want it to last as long as possible. The many Shinnenkai celebrations taking place throughout January and February attest to that.
Briefly, Shinnenkai is the Japanese tradition of welcoming in the new year, usually celebrated with co-workers and friends in businesses or community organizations and institutions. It is an opportunity to wish each other good luck and share goals or promises for the new year.
In late December, I emailed an informal “survey” to friends to see how they felt about or celebrated Oshogatsu. As a child, I remembered going to various homes of family friends and relatives, and that each family put their own personal touch on the traditions they upheld and the osechi ryori they prepared. I was interested and curious about these practices. I asked two questions:
1. What is the food highlight of Oshogatsu for you?
2. What is the sentimental or activity highlight of your Oshogatsu celebration?
I was very intrigued by the variety of responses. It broadened my knowledge and appreciation for the holiday; and I felt closer to many of those who provided personal memories in their responses.
There were a couple of people for whom Oshogatsu was not/never a family tradition. For some, it had been a major and large family tradition; but neither the meaning of the holiday nor the recipes had been passed down to the next generation, so it was no longer practiced.
However, one element everyone had in common was a general celebration of New Year’s Day as a special time to be with family and close friends.
Most who responded carried on the tradition. Mike Okamura fondly remembers visiting both sets of grandparents’ homes to enjoy yummy food; and playing with cousins, seeing the entire family, watching football on TV, and eating all day. “The younger generation always say we will learn to make the foods from my mom … but in the end she always does it.” It also happens to be his mom’s birthday!
A little less than half who responded did the actual cooking, and instead went to a relative or friend’s home for Oshogatsu. Some families grew up with large gatherings. Kathy Masaoka remembers her mom cooking for hours and inviting 100 people who came throughout the day while she and her sister Judy refilled platters. Like others, she did not learn how to prepare the dishes from her mother, and it wasn’t written down.
My cousin Mallory reminded me of the days her mom, Mary (Songbird of Manzanar), and dad, Shi Nomura, would cook for days for our 100-200 relatives at their Kerry Street house. Later when my family moved to a large house, we would alternate celebrating our huge family holidays. All of us were nostalgic for those days filled with eating and laughter and loved ones now gone.
My dad is the last surviving uncle on both sides of my family. Now that most of our aunts and uncles are gone and siblings have moved away, Mallory, who now lives in Half Moon Bay, said they have created a “new tradition.” They fly Auntie Mary up, but have about 40-60 local friends over for a buffet at a set time, rather than the customary open house. Their food is not the traditional osechi ryori and includes tako cilantro and chap chae.
Susie Ling and Roy Nakano also now serve a more multicultural table. After 20 years of tradition, they saw that the Yonsei were not enjoying the dried fish, kanten, kamaboko and various roots (“the expensive stuff”). They did a little downsizing, and still did not find anyone ready to take over. They now have a broadened list of guests who bring foods ranging from Swedish salmon to adobo; and they make Korean BBQ.
Brian Yamamoto, 442nd activist and dentist, now lives in Alaska, where the traditional Oshogatsu foods are not available. So his family celebrates with sushi and sashimi.
There are still plenty of people who prepare osechi ryori. For Kay Ochi, Oshogatsu is about keeping up the tradition passed on to her by her parents. Since both parents as well as all but one of her Nisei aunts and uncles are gone, it is a way of remembering them. She prepares ozoni, kinpira gobo, sekihan, inari sushi, kanten. “It’s not like my mom’s, but making the dishes and sharing it with family and friends feel like an affirmation of my culture.”
Nancy Uyemura wrote about New Year’s celebrations at her studio, where the highlight was “the tai (fish) that was carefully curved with bamboo skewers as it was cooked to form it so it looked like it was alive and jumping (for omedetai) and the Mt. Fuji that was made from kuri kinton (sweet lima bean paste with chestnut).” As an artist, she also sees it as the time for painting the last painting of the year and the first painting of the year.
Naoko-Anna Okada shared her very traditionally Japanese approach to this time of the year. “We finish the previous year with cleaning, and soba noodle. (The) new year day with new food, new chopsticks, nice clothes, then going to temple to pray for a healthy, happy new year.” Her osechi ryori features many traditional fish dishes, including marinated fish, grilled fish, oven-baked whole cod, dried anchovies in sweet soy caramel, herring egg, and “square chicken cake,” as well as the dishes mentioned elsewhere. “I cook everything except kamaboko,” she wrote.
The food most associated with Oshogatsu, or that was mentioned most often as the food highlight, was ozoni and toasted mochi. Gwen Muranaka’s family still makes fresh mochi; and Ren Hanami and Ernie Fukumoto participate in mochitsukis every year. Many families had their own ozoni recipe. Kathy’s mom made it with clams, mizuna, daikon and kamaboko with a bit of lemon peel; her one favorite dish she learned from her mom.
Most people could not decide upon one food highlight; they loved the whole array of delicious osechi ryori foods! Of course, my own family members highlighted my grandmother/dad’s chicken gohan.
Oshogatsu is the time of year to connect and reconnect. Jayson Yamaguchi, whose friends and family are in Japan, will call as many friends as possible on the phone to say “Happy New Year.” “This is one occasion I miss my mother a lot, she was the best cook.” He participates in the Oshogatsu celebration at Weller Court, and can get osechi ryori foods at the Japanese markets or restaurants.
Oshogatsu, however we practice it, brings family and loved ones together to enjoy delicious home-cooked Japanese food, share fond memories, honor our loved ones, and bring in a wonderful new year together.
I am still receiving responses to my survey. If you would like to share your responses to my Oshogatsu questions, please feel welcome to email them to me. Thank you.
Miya Iwataki has been an advocate for communities of color for many years, from the JACS Asian Involvement Office in Little Tokyo in the ’70s, through the JA redress/reparations struggle with NCRR while working for Rep. Mervyn Dymally, to statewide health rights advocacy. She also worked in public media at KCET-TV, then KPFK Pacifica Radio as host for weekly radio program, “East Wind.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.