Symbolism, spirit and good spirits merge on shōgatsu, the celebration of the Japanese New Year. Officially observed on January 1st since the mid-19th century, the new year brings with it a reverence for a fresh start and family-friendly shōgatsu festivals that last until January 3rd.
But that’s not the only time to celebrate the “out with the old” and “in with the new” mentality of the new year in Japan. Bōnenkai or, “forget-the-year parties,” are held throughout December, while shinnenkai, or “New Year’s parties,” are held throughout January. Those parties give everyone ample opportunity to tipple the Japanese way with traditional drinks and inspired cocktails.
O-Toso During Shōgatsu
Everyone has at least one ceremonial drink of o-toso during shōgatsu. Not unlike Appalachian coin-and-cabbage or Italian lentils and trotters in sentiment, o-toso, a sake or mirin based herbal tincture, “expels” the past year’s bad fortunes and encourages health and wellness in the upcoming year. The herbs in o-toso purportedly treat or prevent a variety of maladies, ranging from the common cold to insomnia to poor circulation. Whether from the herbs, sake or general good humor of the atmosphere, a celebratory toast or two of o-toso during shōgatsu makes you feel a little better.
You can brew o-toso at home two ways: with MU No. 16 tea you can purchase on Amazon, which contain most of the o-toso herbs, or by steeping herbs.
To make o-toso with herbs, steep one teaspoon of sansho peppercorns, one cinnamon stick, one teaspoon of cumin, two teaspoons of ground ginger, two tablespoons of lemon juice, one small ginseng root, one whole dried mikan (tangerine) peel and three tablespoons of mizuame in one-half gallon of sake or hon mirin (14 percent ABV) for 10 hours to several weeks. Alternatively, steep two MU No. 16 tea bags in one-half gallon of sake or hon for 10 hours to several weeks.
Bōnenkai and Shinnenkai
Family-free and far less formal, bōnenkai and shinnenkai, usually sponsored by employers, give you an excuse to imbibe with liberty. Bōnenkai gives partygoers a chance to forget about the past year by drinking them away with colleagues. And you can really let your hair down, too, thanks to bureiko, a break in social and professional protocol afforded to guests. Rank, age and superiority don’t apply at bōnenkai, so feel free to overindulge without worrying about repercussions — unless you’re one of these unfortunate souls, in which case you’re on your own.
Shinnenkai largely follows the same theme as bōnenkai but with a New Year’s focus. Instead of forgetting the past year, you celebrate a new beginning by wishing good fortune upon your colleagues and employer. Bureiko applies here, too, so you get a pass for any shenanigans that take place. You can host a bōnenkai and shinnenkai at work, a pub (izakaya) or at home. Whether you hire a bartender or act as your own, make sure to put these favorites on the menu:
Made with shōchū or Japanese whiskey, matcha powder, sweetener, soda water and lemon juice, matcha hai goes down easy and tastes similar to a green tea-infused whiskey sour. To make a matcha hai, mix one shot of shōchū, one-fourth teaspoon of matcha powder, two shots of chilled soda water and one tablespoon each lemon juice and gum syrup or honey syrup in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Pour in an ice-filled Collins glass and garnish with a lemon wedge.
Umetinis are a fun riff on the martini made with plum liqueur. To make an umetini, mix three-and-a-half shots of umeshu with one-and-a-half shots of gin. Add a spritz of lime and garnish with a lime wedge, if desired.