Osechi Ryori: History, Meanings, and How to Prepare

Osechi Ryori: History, Meanings, and How to Prepare

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Osechi ryori
Picture: さるとびサスケ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Osechi ryori is Japan's traditional New Year's cuisine. How did this tradition begin, and what do all the different foods symbolize?

New Year’s Day is one of the biggest holidays in Japan, as well as one of the oldest. The first few days of the new year mark some of the most important days on the calendar. And like many important holidays, food plays a big role in the celebration. Today, we’ll take a look at osechi ryori, Japan’s traditional New Year’s cuisine. How did this tradition begin, and what do all the different foods symbolize?

The History of Osechi Ryori and New Year’s in Japan

The custom of New Year's osechi spread first amongst the aristocrats of the Imperial Court of Kyoto during the Heian Period (794-1185). Share on X

Oshougatsu, or New Year’s, is the oldest known holiday celebrated in Japan. [1] While the exact origins are unknown, many believe it was introduced with Buddhism, evolving to include aspects of Shintoism.

However, even before that, Japan had a custom called sekku [2], which we can trace back to the Yayoi Period. During sekku celebrations, people offered food from their harvest to the gods as an expression of gratitude and appreciation. Afterwards, they prepared those offerings into special meals, which they would then eat in the hopes of receiving their blessings. Many believe this custom was the beginning of osechi ryori.

In fact, the word ‘o-sechi‘ (お節) itself derives from ‘sekku‘ (節句), which means ‘season’ or ‘significant period’. [3] After a while, the original sekku celebrations began to incorporate more customs from China, including seasonal celebrations and festivals. One of these was New Year’s day, which marked a significant seasonal period. Eventually, New Year’s Day became the only holiday on which people enjoyed these feasts.

The custom of New Year’s osechi spread first amongst the aristocrats of the Imperial Court of Kyoto during the Heian Period (794-1185). [4] During the Edo Period (1603­–1868), the tradition spread among the common people. As more people took part in the festivities, they developed ways to make preparation more convenient. Around the end of the Edo Period (1868-1912), people began storing their prepared dishes in stacked boxes. This made it easier to serve guests, and it also took up less space.

Picture: よっちゃん必撮仕事人 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

How to Prepare and Serve Osechi Ryori

The first three days of the New Year were the most important days of the celebration period. In order to avoid cooking during that time, people prepared osechi ryori in advance and stored them in special boxes, or jubako, and set them in the center of the table on New Year’s Eve. On January first, everyone would gather and share the meals over the course of the next three days.

Jubako are similar to bento boxes, and have anywhere from three to nine tiers (the average size has 2-5 tiers). Unlike regular bento boxes, jubako are lacquered and intricately designed. Even the jubako itself has a symbolic meaning. One should also eat the food inside with a special pair of chopsticks. [5]

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The word jubako translates to ‘stacked boxes’. Stacking the boxes atop one another represents the wish for the family to ‘pile up their blessings’. The order in which one stacks and eats the food is also important. [6] One should eat the dishes in the top tier first, which contains light dishes such as appetizers and snacks. As you work your way down, you’ll find the main dishes in the lower layers. Traditionally, one should also leave the bottom layer empty, where you would symbolically receive the blessings of the food.

Traditional Osechi Ryori

Because the custom of eating osechi predates refrigeration, traditional osechi dishes had to be foods that one could preserve or leave at room temperature for several days. Osechi staples include nimono (simmered vegetables) and tsukemono (pickled foods). Each osechi dish also represents a specific blessing, or one’s wishes for the next year. They are considered auspicious based on aspects such as the color, name, or even the shape. [7]

Here are some common osechi foods, and what they symbolize. [8]

Osechi Foods and What They Symbolize

Picture: kouta / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Osechi Ryori: Fruit, Vegetables, Nuts, and Beans

Kuri-kinton: A golden chestnut mash. The yellow color represents wealth and abundance. 

Kuromame: Black beans. Black represents protection from evil, and because they wrinkle when you boil them, they also represent long life.

Gobo: Burdock root, a sturdy vegetable with strong roots growing deep in the ground, represents health, strength, and strong family bonds.

Kinkan: Small, golden tangerines that represents treasure and fortune.

Namasu: Pickled carrots and daikon, which symbolize strong family bonds.

Kuwai: A rare vegetable, similar to an underwater turnip. It also represents long life, as it is in the shape of a turtle.

Umeboshi: Sour, pickled plums represent longevity, as the plums are often wrinkled. The plum tree itself also has a rather long lifespan.

Yurine: The edible bulb of the lily plant, which represents longevity, fertility, and health.

Satoimo: Japanese sweet potato. It also represents fertility, as many potatoes grow from a single plant.

Konnyaku: Konjac root.

Renkon: Lotus root represents an easy future with no obstacles, as the holes allow one to ‘see into the future’.

Nishime: A boiled dish combining many different ingredients. Represents harmony within the family.

Osechi Ryori: Fish and Meat

Kamaboko: A type of red and white fish cake that represents purity and warding off evil.

Datemaki: Sweet fish cake omelet. Its appearance is similar to a scroll, and represents scholarship and learning.

Tazukuri: Dried sardines which symbolize abundance, as sardines were once used as crop fertilizer.

Kazunoko: Herring roe. The name is a play on words representing fertility (‘kazu’ means number and ‘ko’ means child).

Yawata-maki:  A burdock dish wrapped with meat or fish symbolizing longtime happiness.

Kinshi tamago: A yellow and white shredded egg dish that symbolizes wealth and abundance.

Kobumaki: Kobu is a type of kelp, and also a homonym for happiness. The Chinese characters for the word also represents childbirth.

Buri: A fish rich in nutrients, which symbolizes health and a successful career.

Ebi: Shrimp, which represents longevity.

Tokobushi: Small, round abalone that represents fortune and wealth.

Bodara:  Dried codfish. A play on the Japanese word has the meaning of ‘eating well’. IIt represents abundance in food throughout the year

Sudako: Vinegar octopus, boiled until red, which symbolizes luck and celebration.

Chikuzen-ni: A boiled dish including several auspicious ingredients and chicken.

Awabi: Abalone. As it also has a long life span, it represents longevity.

Other popular osechi ryori foods include long, thin noodles, which symbolize longevity, and mochi (rice cakes). That’s because mochi also means ‘to hold/have’ in Japanese, which many view as auspicious and symbolic of obtaining good fortune.

Blessings aren’t limited to solid foods. There are also several auspicious beverages. Otoso is a spiced, sweet sake which includes cinnamon, ginger, and sanshou (Japanese pepper). Many people also drink this in the hopes of preventing illness and inviting peace and happiness.

Modern Osechi Ryori

Thanks to refrigeration, we no longer have to limit ourselves to preserved and pickled dishes. Many modern osechi dishes also include meat and sushi. Popular modern additions include snow crab, which represents luck and strength, as well as roast beef.

As people no longer have to prepare dishes in advance, it’s also easier to buy pre-prepared jubako at department stores and convenience stores. However, pre-prepared osechi tends to be expensive and can cost around 10,000 yen (about $100) or more.

You can even try your hand at cooking your own osechi dishes! Just One Cookbook offers plenty of recipes. [9]

Osechi ryori is more than just food. It’s an indispensable part of Japan’s New Year’s celebration, both traditional and modern. Whether celebrating alone or with others, everyone could use some luck. This year, why not ring in the new year with some delicious, auspicious, lucky dishes?

What to read next

Sources

[1]おせち料理の歴史と由来は. Belluna Gourmet

[2] 節句. Wikipedia

[3] おせち料理の歴史. Osechi Ryori 

[4] 御節料理. Wikipedia

[5] おせち料理の歴史は弥生時代?|現代までの変遷や入れる食材の種類・意味も解説. Kamaboko

[6] おせちの詰め方を解説!二段重・三段重の食材や盛り付けルールを紹介. Belluna Gourmet

[7] おせち料理の由来と歴史を知ろう. Gurusuguri

[8] 「重箱」の意味・いわれ. Japan Post

[9] Osechi Ryori (Japanese New Year’s Food) おせち料理. Just One Cookbook

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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