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“O-misoka”- the Last Day of the Year in Japanese-


What Do the Japanese Eat on the New Year's Eve?


In Japanese, "O-misoka" is the last day of the year. In the past, it was customary for family members who were away from home for work or other reasons to return home and spend New Year's Eve together, welcoming the New Year in peace.


However, in recent years (before the COVID19), more and more young people have been taking advantage of their New Year's vacations to go on domestic or overseas trips or to participate in countdown events or concerts at theme parks such as Disneyland and Sea in Tokyo and Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. Many people gather at the Scramble Crossing in Shibuya, and the crowd (or commotion) becomes so large that the police are dispatched, and it becomes a hot topic. In this article, I would like to introduce "O-misoka," New Year's Eve, a day that Japanese people are very particular about.


Table of Contents

1. What is "O-misoka" for the Japanese? Meaning and Origin of the Name

2. How to Spend New Year's Eve and "Joya-no-Kane" (New Year's Eve Bell Ringing)

3. Wishes Expressed in "Toshi-koshi Soba" on New Year's Eve

4." New Year's Eve dishes" with a strong local flavor

5. Summary


1.What is “O-misoka”? Meaning and Origin of the Name

As the Japanese expression "Yuku Toshi and Kuru Toshi" means "Year of the Rising and the Year of the Falling," O-misoka is the day that marks the end of the year in Japan. O-misoka is the day when we prepare to welcome the god of fertility, Toshigami, who will bring us good fortune and abundant harvest of rice in the new year.


"Misoka" in "O-misoka" refers to the last day of the month. In other words, "O-misoka" with the "O=big" in front of "misoka" means December 31, the very last day of the year. The night of New Year's Eve is positioned as the end of the year and the beginning of the year. For this reason, since ancient times, people in Japan have not gone to bed on the night of New Year's Eve but have welcomed the New Year's deities and offered hospitality to pray for good fortune and a good harvest in the new year.


Nowadays, the original meaning of the New Year's Eve ritual has become less important. Still, customs such as "not sleeping until the date changes (to confirm the year of the coming and the year of the going)" and "going out to pay a New Year's visit at midnight" remain.

(The photo shows Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine, crowded with worshippers on New Year's Eve before the COVID19.)




2.How to Spend New Year's Eve and "Joya-no-Kane" (New Year's Eve Bell Ringing)

Although Japanese people have become less religious and "O-misoka" means more about marking the end of the year, they still carry on customs such as cleaning the house and ringing the bell on New Year's Eve.


Cleaning is essential to welcome the new year with a refreshed mind by removing the dirt and bad luck accumulated. It is not advisable to postpone cleaning until the last day of the year, New Year's Eve, but to start cleaning in mid-December and finish with a simple sweeping on New Year's Eve. New Year's Eve is a day to get everything ready for the New Year, not a day to get busy.


Many Japanese people go to temples on New Year's Eve to ring the “Joya-no-Kane (New Year's Eve Bell). The word "Joya" means the change of old and new and Kane means a bell. The "New Year's Eve Bell tolling" originated in the Song Dynasty in China. It was introduced to Japan in the Kamakura period (1185-1333). From the Muromachi to Edo period (1603-1868), it spread to temples all over Japan, becoming a traditional event on New Year's Eve.


The number of times to ring the New Year's Eve bell is 108. Usually, 107 bells are tolled on New Year's Eve, and the last one is dinged after the new year. The sound of the bell, which the Japanese believe in having the power to remove one's doubts and pains, has a deep and soothing sound that makes the listener feel relaxed.

3. Wishes expressed in “Toshi-koshi Soba" on New Year's Eve

"Toshi-koshi Soba," a traditional buckwheat noodle eaten on "O-misoka," appeared around the Edo period (1603-1868) to bring good luck to people who wish for long and healthy life. "Toshi "means "year," and "Koshi" means "(go) beyond." It is similar to the Chinese custom of eating "longevity noodles" on one's birthday to pray for long life.


Other wishes associated with this soba are to "cut off misfortunes and hardships" because soba (noodles) are thin and easy to cut and to "collect money and increase money luck." After all, kneaded soba dough was used by goldsmiths to collect spilled gold dust.


The ingredients used in Toshi-koshi soba vary from region to region and even from family to family. Tempura soba with ingredients that bring good luck, such as shrimp for longevity and fried tofu for good luck, are popular. Nishin(herring)-soba in Kyoto and Oroshi-soba (soba topped with grated daikon) in Fukui are also famous.


Some people prefer warm (soup) soba, while others opt for cold soba. In some regions, people eat udon instead of soba. In Kagawa Prefecture, known for Sanuki-style udon, locals eat "Shippoku Udon" with many winter vegetables instead of soba. In Okinawa Prefecture, people eat Okinawan soba with unique soup and noodles. In the younger generation, more and more people eat ramen rather.



4. "New Year's Eve dishes" with a strong local flavor


In addition to Toshi-koshi soba, other dishes are eaten on New Year's Eve, called "Toshi-tori Ryori(New Year's Eve dishes)." Toshi-tori Ryori is a dish eaten when the year ends and the new year begins. There is a variety of "Toshi-tori Ryori" all over Japan.


Among them, Miyazaki Prefecture still retains the tradition of the gorgeous "Toshi-tori Zen(New Year's Eve feast)." People stay up all night to celebrate and visit shrines and temples. On New Year's Day, they eat the leftover of Toshi-tori Zen and Zo-ni(Soup with rice cakes) and quietly observe the beginning of the year.


While many regions enjoy Osechi on New Year's Day, in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Nagano, and Niigata prefectures, there is still a custom of eating "Toshi-mukae Zen" (New Year Welcoming feast) on New Year's Eve. New Year's Eve dishes have been passed down from generation to generation in each region with rich local flavor and respect.

(Photo: Miyazaki Prefecture's sumptuous “Toshi-tori Zen") Source: Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Web site:  https://www.maff.go.jp




5. Summary


We have been discussing the traditional ceremonial foods through O-misoka, but O-misoka is also the day when we put the finishing touches on the Osechi (New Year's special dishes) to be served during the New Year holidays. While preparing the Osechi dishes and eating Toshi-koshi soba, Japanese people reflect on the year and get ready to welcome the New Year.


Some temples and shrines serve sweet sake, ginger tea, warm soup and even allow visitors to "ring the bell" during the New Year's Eve and New Year's visit. Many Japanese people go out in the cold to get those special treats. By just learning about O-misoka, you probably have a better understanding of the Japanese people's obsession with foods.


JCI offers many programs that allow you to experience Japanese food and a variety of other Japanese cultures and gain a deeper understanding of Japan.

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