I love Christmas celebrations, and Thanksgiving when I'm in the U.S., but the holiday that has the most memories for me is New Years. This is the biggest holiday celebrated in Japan.
When I was a kid (when we lived in Japan and not elsewhere) we went to my grandparents' house every year. All of the relatives on my mother's side gathered there. Since my mother has 5 siblings, all of them plus their spouses and children made for quite a large party. Usually at least half of them would stay over for a night or two, and the futons would be lined up from edge to edge over a huge expanse of tatami mats, over three rooms with the shoji screens opened up. Besides the family there were all the neighors, employees of my grandfather and uncle, and other visitors who dropped by.
For this crowd, my aunt, who was in charge of the kitchen, had to prepare huge amounts of food. She wasn't into prettiness, but somehow managed to keep everyone overfull with her abundance. She would spend hours preparing everything before New Years day - vats of kobumaki (konbu seaweed wrapped around dried anchovies and cooked in a broth), nimono (sort of a generic term for stewed/braised vegetables and some sort of meat, usually chicken, or tofu), and so on. Ostensibly all the New Year's traditional foods are prepared in advance to allow the cook or housewife to rest during the first few days of the New Year, but it means a lot of preparations beforehand.
One New Year's tradition that my aunt has even kept up to this day, is to make some mochi with my uncle, in a real wooden hisu. He would wield the tsuki (the heavy wooden pounder), while she should rapidly turn the pounded rice mass. I was always amazed at how perfect their rhythm was. If he'd slipped and brought down the pounder too fast, he would have crushed her hands, but it never happened.
Mochi is a very glutinous, sticky sort of dough made by pounding steamed short-grain rice (mochi mai). Nowadays barely anyone makes their own mochi, and if they do they use an electric mochi machine that turns and pounds and kneads the rice. (A bit of trivia: the inventor of the original bread machine got the idea from seeing how a mochi machine operated.) Most people however just buy dried cakes of mochi. Mochi is eaten year round, but is most popular for New Years where it's made into zoh-ni. Basically, a cake of fresh or grilled mochi is stewed briefly in a clear dashi stock based soup with other ingredients. The ingredients vary widely depending on what part of the country you come from. Since we lived in the Kanto region, we had the rather boring combination of chicken pieces and komatsuna (mustard greens), though I always thought it was delicious.
Mochi was traditionally consumed during the New Year period for various reasons: partly for luck, and partly so that the cook or housewife didn't have to make rice during that time. Besides the mochi that's eaten in soups and such, stacked rounds of mochi, called kagami mochi (mirror mochi), is displayed in front of the family kamidana (shrine). This is usually left for weeks after the New Year, until it's rock hard, then broken up with a hammer. Both my aunt and my mother used to break it up into small bits then deep fry the bits for a delicious kind of rice cracker.
Other New Year's foods are also full of significance. Various bean dishes are served, such as stewed kuromame (black beans). Beans are meant to be for fertility, as is tazukuri, small dried fish coated in sticky sweet caramel. Colors are important too: kinton, a dish of pureed sweet potatoes with sugar syrup and beans or chestnuts, is colored a bright yellow with the seeds of the nadeshiko flower, and supposed to invoke gold, signifying prosperity. Namasu, a sort of sweet-sour instant pickle made with daikon radish or turnips, has a bright red added to it in the form of carrots or hot red chili peppers. Red and white together is considered lucky and festive. And so on. These foods were served in beautiful stacked lacqured bento boxes called juubako.
The irony is, that these traditional New Year's foods are not that well suited to the modern palate in Japan, and so they are consumed less and less. Gone are the days when people ate kinton and kobumaki and zoh-ni until January 7th, the end of the New Year's period. Nowadays, popular New Year's foods are things like sliced cold roast beef and chirashi-zushi (sashimi and other things on a mound of sushi rice), hardly full of significance of any sort. Still, some people do at least have small amounts of the traditional foods, perhaps in a one-layer juubako.
I myself don't like the traditional foods enough to go to the extra effort of trying to make them here. Still, I will make perhaps some kinton and some zoh-ni on New Year's day, just to bring back some memories.
(Three years ago, I wrote about the New Year's Eve food tradition: Toshikoshi soba .)