Toji, the winter solstice in Japan, naturally falls on the shortest day of the year, usually around December 21-23 or so. Bathing is common custom, whether at a natural-hot-spring onsen or in the comfort of one’s own accommodations. At home, many Japanese people will take a yuzu-yu, or yuzu bath. Throwing a few of these whole citrus—prized for its cleansing and healing properties—is thought to yield good luck and ward off bad spirits.
In some prefectures, itokoni—a simmered dish made of adzuki beans and kabocha, the latter a winter staple—is very popular. Kabocha itself is considered lucky. And the beans’ red color—often seen during Japanese celebrations—is thought to protect against evil, as well.
Renkon, another solstice meal, arises form the linguistic custom known as unmori. In Japanese, the sound of the letter “n” rhymes with the word “u-n,” which means fortune. So, people consider eating foods whose names include the “n” sound—nin-jin (carrots), ren-kon (lotus roots), ginnan (gingko nut) and udon are popular examples— auspicious.
Although there are few true Christians in Japan, they’ve nevertheless adopted their own traditions. Many Japanese folks treat Christmas Eve like Valentine’s Day, showering their beau with gifts and a meal out at a swanky restaurant. However, the most prevailing tradition is KFC—yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Christmas Eve Food
In a country where turkey is not widely the available, the best (and easiest to acquire) approximation is fried chicken. But it doesn’t come easy—due to its popularity, KFC can be difficult to come by on Christmas Eve. You’ll likely have to pre-order weeks in advance. Or, at least wait in an extraordinarily long line for that pricey eight-piece bucket. And to go with it? KFC sells their own brand of sparkling wine for a perfect pairing.
For dessert, strawberry shortcake has become a Christmas Eve mainstay. Somewhat different from what you might find in the U.S. or Europe, however, the Japanese version features a thick layer of whipped-cream frosting and strawberries, which represent the sun on the white background of the national flag.
A Shinto tradition that has incorporated Buddhist elements over the years, Omisoka manifests in the annual cleaning of shrines to exorcise not only physical grime but also intangible impurities. Likewise, people clean their homes on December 31, as well as their own bodies. New Year’s bathing is known as toshi no yu.
When all the cleaning is complete, it’s time to feast! Soba noodles are often the meal of choice, although there’s no clear-cut answer as to why. Some say soba is easily broken down, a metaphor for dissolving the hardships of the past year. Other might say that the noodle, long and thin, represents longevity in the year ahead. There are also economic reasons, which held more sway in times of old: When you’re broke, why go further into debt for an elaborate meal when you can try to start anew?
Toshikoshi soba, or year-crossing noodle, is served in its simplest form on New Year’s Eve, in hot dashi broth with finely chopped scallions (with optional additions such as tempura, fish cakes or raw egg). Regional variations of wheat-based udon are a popular New Year’s Eve meal, as well.