January in Nakatsugawa

This photograph of a family was taken by Ito Jintaro in around 1930. We can tell from the accumulation of snow in the background that this was taken in around January. We can also tell from how they are dressed that it could be a special occasion, possibly New Year’s Day.

The New Year break is the most important holiday in Japan. It has been celebrated on January 1st (Gregorian Calendar) since 1873, five years after the Meiji Restoration. The holiday is associated with many traditions such as making mochi, ringing a temple bell 108 times, visiting a shrine, sending postcard greetings called nengajo, and otoshidama – a tradition where adults give children money. One very commonly observed tradition throughout the country is the eating of special food to celebrate the new year.

Osechi-ryori is the first meal of the year on New Year’s Day. It is typically presented in the form of two or three layers of boxes that contain various auspicious dishes, including various kinds of seafood. 

I asked Ito Nobuko, who is in her early 80's, about her memories of New Year when she was a young girl and here’s what she told me.

"When I was a girl, the New Year was celebrated according to the old calendar and it was often sometime in February.

“The special thing about New Year’s Day was the food. One key difference from everyday meals was that everyone, including the kids, got their own ozen. That’s a low table used for serving festive food.

“We had the same items every year. I remember eating pumpkins with azuki beans, powdered soybean with walnuts, thinly sliced radish. We did not have a formal osechi, though. That was considered very luxurious.

“We used to go to Iwakura Jinja shrine in the morning. It was a custom for the whole family to eat mochi while it was still dark and then go to the shrine very early for hatsumode, the first prayer of the year. It snows a lot in Nakatsugawa but at that time of year, people would work through the night to clear the snow so that everyone could visit.”

Nobuko's son Katsuaki, now in his early 60's, remembers how special it felt to have his own ozen. By the time he was a child, people were eating differently. His mother’s first memories date back to the Second World War, when food was scarce. When Katsuaki was growing up, they did not have osechi but he does recall being able to eat chicken and rabbit, which they kept at their house.

These days, with better access to supermarkets, people can choose from  many options. The local inn, Shirakawa-so, also makes splendid takeout sushi bento and oodoburu (hors d'oeuvre) on special occasions. These are very popular in the local community.

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