San Ga Nichi
Oshogatsu, the New Year’s celebration, once referred to the whole first month of the succeeding year. In modern times, however, most associate it with the first three days of January only, called San Ga Nichi. While much of December is filled with raucous celebrations to bid adieu to the closing year, the country comes practically to a standstill during San Ga Nichi as everyone gathers with family and close friends at shrines or temples and feasts on sake and special foods.
San Ga Nichi Food
Most San Ga Nichi festivities feature osechi-ryori, a spread of food that’s imbued with heavy symbolism. It might include boiled konbu (seaweed), kamaboko (fish cakes), kurikinton (mashed sweet potatoes with chestnut), kinpiragobo (simmered burdock root), kuromame (sweetened black soybeans) and ebi (shrimp). In Okinawa, regional specialties like kubu irichi (stir-fried seaweed) and kubumaki (seaweed rolls), along with nakamijiru (stewed offal) are popular to celebrate the New Year. Of course, sushi and sashimi are never out of place at a party in any region of Japan. Nor is mochi, which is often incorporated into ozoni, a special stew made with various ingredients according to the prefecture.
On January 7, the Japanese celebrate Nanakusa. Reportedly, the tradition stems from the late 19th century. People believe that eating the famous seven-herb porridge, nanakusa gayu, will ward off evil and yield longevity and health after the indulgences of the New Year.
Although there is much variation, nanakusa gayu typically features the following herbs:
- water dropwort (seri)
- shepherd’s purse (nazuna)
- cudweed (gogyō)
- chickweed (hakobera)
- nipplewort (hotokenoza)
- turnip (suzuna),
- daikon (suzushiro)
Widely available at Japanese grocery stores, especially around January, you just simply toss this herb mix into rice porridge and flavor it with salt, if need be. Some people also add konbu or katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes).
Kagami Biraki, which literally means “opening the mirror,” refers to the ceremonial opening of either a cask of sake or the breaking apart of mochi. The words kiru, to cut, and waru, to break, have negative connotations; thus this celebration uses hiraku, or “open” instead, in the sense of opening new opportunities.
Although Kagami Biraki celebrations can happen at any time to mark significant annual or milestone events—people open sake barrels ceremonially at everything from weddings to sports events—people routinely celebrate it on January 11, with a few regional alterations.
Kagami Biraki Food
At this time, kagami mochi rice cakes are the offerings to the deity of the New Year, then you break it apart. When disassembling the mochi, it’s crucial that you use your hands or a wooden hammer. The action of cutting has negative connotations due to the historical practice of ritual disembowelment, which was once perpetrated in the country but now, of course, is an unpleasant topic for a festive occasion.
Once broken into small chunks, the mochi is less visually appealing, so it’s often incorporated into other dishes. Zenzai or oshiruko, a sweet red-bean soup, is popular for dessert. The savory ozoni soup is also a popular choice. If you can’t purchase kagami mochi, don’t worry. Small plastic kagami-mochi decorations containing bite-sized portions inside are available at Japanese grocery stores or online.