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Osechi: Traditional Japanese New Year’s Food

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/11 Food, Traditional Culture , , ,

“Shin-nen akemashite omedetou gozaimasu”, Happy New Year to everyone!
How did you spend your year end vacation? I guess, everyone is still in their vacation mode.

Did you eat osechi during “sanganichi” (三が日)? How was it? Did you know that each dish has its own meaning and significance? For people who are not familiar with osechi, let me give you a little background about it.

What is (o)sechi?

Osechi juubako - laid outAn inside look of osechi juubako (Photo by nAok0)

(O)sechi is a special variety of dishes prepared during “oomisoka”, a day before the New Year’s Day. It is eaten during “sanganichi”, which starts from the New Year’s day until 3rd of January, at home together with family members. It is believed that using fire is not appropriate during this time when the God of New Year is present. That is why meals to be eaten during sanganichi is prepared beforehand. One of the theories also is the intention to let housewives rest during these days. Since it will be consumed for the span of 3 days, the kind of dishes prepared are those that can last for few days.

Historical background of osechi

(O)sechi is a shortened version of the word “sechinichi”. Sechinichi is the day at every turning point of each season. In the old days, seasonal court banquet is held at the Imperial Court to celebrate the new season. It is believed that this is where the tradition of (o)sechi started. Later on at the end of Edo era, common people also started to adopt this practice and then, it spread through out the country and became a custom. Eventually, only on New Year’s Day, one of the sechinichi and the first big event of the year where Japanese express their wishes for the coming year as well, the custom of eating osechi has remained.

Why osechi is served in a multi-layered box?

Osachi juubakoA three-layer osechi juubako (Photo by midorisyu)

One of the distinctions of osechi is the way it is served. Dishes are placed in a multi-layered box, “juubako” in Japanese. Placing it in layers symbolizes the meaning of piling up prosperity. Aside from that, upper layers serve as a cover of the lower layers which helps in preserving the food longer and also saves up space. The design on the box also serves as a good presentation.

The box is basically composed of 4 layers. Starting from top, it is called 一の重 (ichi no juu), 二の重 (ni no juu), 三の重 (san no juu) and 与の重 (yo no juu). The fourth layer is in different kanji (与) instead of using the kanji character of four (四). This is because 四 has the same sound of the kanji character death, shi (死). Nowadays though, 3-layer juubako is more common.

Although the origin of eating osechi started way back in Heian era, using of juubako to store osechi dishes only began in Edo era. Before that, osechi was served not in a multi-layered box but in plates.

In the next post about osechi, I’ll discuss more about the meaning and significance of each dish.

The meaning behind packing osechi dishes in juubako
Osechi – iroha-japan
Osechi Ryouri – History

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A gaijin in Okayama who enjoys viewing cherry blossom in spring, fireworks in summer, eating grilled sanma (Pacific saury fish) in autumn and oden in winter.

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