Crash Course: Osechi

New Year’s Day arrives in less than two weeks and I am just now coming to terms with that. What is it about December that makes it seem as if there are 15-20 fewer days in this month than all the others?

Last year, I felt I had everything together by the time Christmas rolled around. This year, I feel as if we are rocketing at warp speed into 2016, whether I am ready for it or not.

While Christmas preparations are finally coming together (my daughter is four, so we can’t keep glossing over the holiday!), I turned my attention to New Year’s yesterday and finally ordered our osechi ryori. What is osechi ryori (or simply osechi)? It’s the wonderfully prepared food for those of us who have no desire to cook on January 1st. Or 2nd. Or maybe even the 3rd. 🙂

Osechi (5)
Our osechi box from last year

I may sound like I am kidding, but the origin of osechi was designed to give housewives (because, you know, men can’t cook 😉 ) a way to make it through the first two to three days of the New Year, when all of the shops would be closed. Osechi food is generally made to last, so you’ll find lots of pickled or salted foods, or other food that can sit out for a few days without spoiling. While the situation isn’t as dire these modern days (major cities always have shops and restaurants open around the holiday, though the hours may be limited), the tradition of osechi remains.

Osechi foods are full of meaning. Most of the items offer the diner prosperity, health/well-being or good fortune. While osechi boxes can differ in their offerings, you’ll often find these items within:

  • Kuromame (black beans)

Osechi (1)

These sweet black beans were a hit with my daughter last year. They represent good health and hard work.

  • Tazukuri (sardines)

Osechi (4)

These tiny fish have been dried and then cooked in a syrupy sauce of sake, sugar, shoyu (soy sauce) and rice wine. Tazukuri are said to represent a bountiful harvest or catch.

  • Kazunoko (yellow fish roe)

Osechi (3)

I’m not usually a fan of fish roe, and these were no exception. And at the risk of expanding my family at a rapid rate, I avoided this delicacy known for encouraging fertility. 😉 It’s also said to represent abundant harvest as well.

  • Ebi (shrimp)

Osechi (2)

These sizable shrimp allegedly look like the elderly, with their long whiskers and curved backs. Eating them promotes longevity, so chow down! As shrimp also molt, it is said that they symbolize a renewal of life.

If you’re ambitious, you can make your own osechi feast to feed your family when they come to celebrate the New Year. If you’re like 99% of the population, however, you’ll order your osechi and pick it up or have it delivered the day before the holidays begin. The easiest place to order osechi is from your local grocery store or a department store. They’ll have either large displays or special pamphlets showcasing the various osechi sets on offer. Osechi can range from just around ¥7000 to upwards of ¥100,000 ($1000).. The high-end boxes will come from famous or Micehlin-starred restaurants while the low-end boxes may feed only one or two people. We generally spend ¥10,00 (about $90) for a box that feeds three people for 2-3 days.

Have you ever ordered or tasted osechi? What did you think?

9 thoughts on “Crash Course: Osechi

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  1. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a coworker’s place for my first New Year’s in Japan, and we did everything from sitting around a kotatsu and eating mikan to dusting off an old deck of karuta cards to play with, to of course, eating osechi! I can’t say I was a fan… in fact, even though I usually like bamboo roots, I couldn’t touch them for a while after eating the pickled(?) ones I had that day! I’m having trouble finding the right English words to say くせがある. Too much くせ for me.

    Living alone and having combini meals as a regular part of my diet, I’m actually looking forward to having some free time to spend in the kitchen over the New Year break! ^o^

    1. Wow, that sounds like a New Year’s ripped straight from the culture books! Pretty cool experience, though I agree with you on osechi. I think the IDEA of osechi always sounds so good … and then when we’re sitting there staring at our 15th pickled object in revulsion, I seem to question why I “HAD” to do it. 😛

      1. I will probably borrow the phrase “ripped straight from the culture books” from you in the future, because that’s such an apt way of describing it. : )

        Have your fun with your obligatory osechi this year too, I’ll stick with “been there, done that” instead!

  2. The first time I experienced Osechi was when my now husband invited me to his hometown over New Year. My now mother-in-law makes Osechi by herself and most of the dishes (all if I liked fish with eyes or roe..) tasted wonderful! Especially her sweet eggs..

    1. My first osechi experience was also at someone’s home, when parents of friends of ours invited us to their home in Kumamoto for the New Year’s feast. I loved all the food that day, but I also don’t remember as many pickled items on her table as I do in the actual osechi box!

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