Like all cultures, Japan has some treasured holiday favorites. The most basic and most important is making mochi. Mochi is made by pounding boiled rice to a smooth elastic paste. Unlike other forms of food preparation, pounding the rice to a paste was traditionally the husband’s job, like the couple pictured at left pounding home-made mochi in their carport despite the rainy day. It’s not uncommon for social groups or neighborhood associations to turn the task of mochi-making into yet another shared festivity that forms part of the New Year’s preparations. For the less energetic however, mochi can also be bought in shops like the one pictured below. After the rice has been thoroughly pounded, the rice paste is formed into balls of various sizes, dusted with rice flour and left on trays to air dry.
For the holidays, two or three large cakes of dried mochi in graduated sizes are stacked up rather like a snowman and topped with a tangerine to form yet another New Year’s decoration that signifies prosperity and thankfulness. Smaller mochi are often added to o-zoni, a sweet New Year’s soup made from red adzuki beans or else they can be toasted till the mochi have turned melty soft and puffy, making a wonderful hot winter treat.
Osechi is New Year’s party food. It can be a wonderfully elaborate visual treat, served in elegant lacquered or porcelain trays. Many of the foods are pickled or preserved and served at room temperature, so that they can be made in advance and allow the hostess to relax with the family and guests during the period of New Year’s entertaining. Traditionally, women did not cook for the first day or two of the new year, but in order to get to that brief period of respite, they are currently engaged in several, several days of pre-New Year’s preparation.
And to top it all off, the sweet shops are offerng the most delightful display of New Year’s candies. Those on the far right of the picture are decorated with little mice, the Chinese horoscope sign assigned to 2008. The twelve animal signs also transit through a longer 60-year cycle of elemental associations: Metal, Fire, Wood, Water and Earth. Each of the elements persists for 12 years, that is, one complete cycle of animal years. Being the first in the cycle of twelve signs, the Year of the Mouse is considered a particularly auspicious time for beginning new projects, launching new endeavors. And being the beginning of an earth cycle, those new endeavors are considered destined toward slow but stable growth over many years to come.
So good luck to you all in your 2008 ventures, and may you be well prepared to have a Happy New Year!