It’s a rare occasion or ceremony that does not include some sake in Japan, and that harbinger of renewal, New Year’s Day, is no exception. Although sake figures prominently in o-shogatsu celebrations from morning to night, opening the year with a prayer for health in the form of drinking o-toso is perhaps the most interesting.
O-toso is sake specially prepared by steeping a mixture of herbs in it for several hours. Drinking it with family in ceremonial fashion, first thing on New Year’s Day, is said to ward off sickness for the entire year ahead, as well as invite peace within the household.
The tradition of o-toso came from China and originally the mixture consisted of eight herbs. Things have naturally changed slightly over the years, and some of the herbs have changed, as a couple in the original concoction were deemed too potent. But most remain true to the original recipe.
Included in the mixture are cinnamon, rhubarb and sansho (Japanese pepper), as well as a few not commonly seen in the West, like okera (Atractylodis rhizome) and kikyo (Platycodi radix). It’s stuff you never knew existed, much less needed.
O-toso was adopted in Japan in the ninth century during the reign of Emperor Saga in the Heian Period. Back then, on Dec. 19 of each year the herbs were placed in a triangular bag and hung from the branch of a peach tree over water. At four in the morning on New Year’s Day, the herbs were put into sake and steeped for several hours before being partaken of in the morning.
During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the custom spread among common folk as pharmacies would give out the o-toso mixture (known as o-tososan) to patients as yearend gifts. This practice continued to some degree until about 20 years ago.
The custom has evolved into a fairly ritualized form over the years. After morning greetings on o-shogatsu, the o-toso is drunk using a special set of three lacquered vermilion cups sitting on a small dais. The three cups fit inside each other and are drunk from in order of size: small, medium then large. It is poured not from a normal sake tokkuri, but from a special vessel resembling a kyusu (teapot).
The o-toso is drunk in order from the youngest in the family to the oldest with the intention that the older members of the family can share in the joy of youth imparted as the cups are passed.
Drinking o-toso is said to protect against infectious diseases like colds. Folklore dictates that if just one member of the family drinks o-toso, everyone in the family will be free from illness. If the entire family drinks it, the whole village will remain free from illness for the year. (What a deal! Why didn’t we hear about this earlier?!)
Making it at home is easy, provided you know where to go and pick your wild bekkatsu (smilax china), bofu (Ledebouriellae radix) and uzu (aconite root). Combine those with the five mentioned above and you’re golden.
A simpler solution is to go down to the local drugstore and pay 200 yen for an elaborately packaged tea bag of o-tososan. On New Year’s Eve, stick that puppy in about 300 ml of sake and let it steep for seven or eight hours. It will be ready first thing in the morning.
It is also possible to use mirin instead of sake, which has less alcohol, or a mixture of mirin and sake. While this may make it taste a bit sweeter, the taste of o-toso made with good sake is not bad at all. A bit medicinal and slightly bitter, perhaps, but interesting.
Also, should guests visit during the first three days of the new year, they are first given a glass of o-toso, and after that a glass of sake.
As is the fate for many traditional rituals, the o-toso ceremony is not as commonly practiced these days as it has been in the past. Many younger people, in fact, may not know all that much about it. Although all things run their natural course, it would be a pity if o-toso were to totally fade away.
On Jan. 19th, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist Rob Yellin and I will be hosting our first sake and pottery seminar of the new year at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho. Those interested should make a reservation with me by e-mail.