Even if preparing other Japanese New Year’s dishes seems beyond your ability, you can’t go wrong with toshikoshi (“year-crossing”) soba, the noodles eaten just before midnight on o-misoka, New Year’s Eve.

The traditional list of New Year firsts in Japan is long. From hatsumode — the first shrine or temple visit of the New Year — to hatsubasho — the first sumo tournament of the year — anything and everything imaginable is fitted with a hatsu prefix and celebrated as the premier happening of the new calendar. With so many firsts surrounding the New Year, it is notable that there is really only one “last” — the eating of the toshikoshi soba.

On the last day of the outgoing year, homes all over Japan are abuzz with the sounds of housewives shaking out the rugs, children running the vacuum and husbands sweeping out the garden in preparation for the three day o-shogatsu New Year’s holiday. Seasonal housecleaning (susuharai) is repeated in shops and restaurants, where employees perform the final inventory and cleaning of the year (tanaoroshi).

After a fitful day of cleaning, many families sit down to a lavish meal before planting themselves in front of the television to watch NHK’s famously over-the-top annual “Kohaku Utagassen (Red and White Song Contest),” which ends just before midnight. Then, at 10 minutes to midnight, it is time for toshikoshi soba, the last meal of the year.

Soba (buckwheat) was cultivated in Central Asia for as many as 4,000 years before the Christian era and made its way from China by way of Korea to Japan, where the first references to it date from the Nara Period (710-794). Buckwheat has been cultivated as a secondary crop in Japan since its introduction, and for many years was considered a peasant food, often eaten in times of famine.

Soba — and the noodles made from its ground flour — are now known all over the world, so much so that domestic buckwheat production (centered primarily in Nagano and Shikoku prefectures) cannot keep up with demand. Consequently, today a large portion of the soba flour made into noodles comes from crops grown in North America, China and Russia.

The eating of noodles on New Year’s Eve is a custom that goes back at least 200 years. For toshikoshi soba, handmade noodles are left extra long to symbolize longevity and prosperity. Slurping the hot noodles in the last minutes of the old year and the first moments of the new insures health and good fortune for another 12 months.

Toshikoshi soba

There is really nothing especially different about the noodles eaten on New Year’s Eve except the name. Generally, hot noodles are eaten with the traditional broth of the region, with a shrimp or two thrown in for the occasion. Families that prefer cold soba noodles celebrate in their own style as well.

Throwing a noodle-making party is a wonderful tradition (see my July 8, 2001 column in The Japan Times for detailed instructions on how to make handmade noodles), but there are also many very good-quality fresh and dried noodles available at the local market. There are many varieties of soba noodles: noodles that have been flavored with green tea, noodles that have been colored with squid ink, or, for those who find plain soba too strong a flavor, hachiwari noodles (made from 80 percent soba flour and 20 percent wheat flour).

Soba noodles should be treated like all pasta and boiled in a large amount of hot water. There is no need to add oil or salt, however, and the noodles are rinsed of their starch after straining. Soba is usually wrapped in individual portions, making it easy to figure out the right amount to cook for a crowd. Cooking times for noodles vary, so it is best to follow the instructions on the package — even if you don’t read Japanese, the boiling time is generally written in Arabic numerals.

The following is a broth recipe utilizing dark and light soy sauces (a compromise between eastern and western Japan), with a final infusion of shaved mackerel to give the soup a wonderful smoky flavor. The recommended additions and garnishes are guidelines — feel free to be creative.

600 ml dashi (ichiban or niban)
50 ml mirin
25 ml usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce)
25 ml koikuchi shoyu (dark soy sauce)
2 tablespoons sugar
20 grams (one very small handful) saba bushi (dried shaved mackerel)

For garnish:

Finely chopped scallions
Finely cut nori seaweed
Grilled and julienned shiitake mushrooms
Julienned thin egg omelet
Cooked shrimp, halved

1) Combine ingredients in a stockpot and bring just to the boil.

2) Remove from heat immediately and strain through cheesecloth.

3) Ladle hot broth over hot noodles and add garnish.

4) Cool and store unused portion in the refrigerator.

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