The yearend period, called shiwasu, is a really hectic time in Japan. Think of it as spring cleaning, Thanksgiving and the usual end-of-year activities all rolled into one.
Businesses and individuals busily try to tie up any loose ends, or at least bring things to a good stopping point, to end the year on a good note. You’re also supposed to give your home a good cleaning from top to bottom, to banish the old and stale to greet the new year afresh. Then there’s the added pressure of getting ready for the oshogatsu (New Year) celebrations, which usually involve family gatherings that for millions of people include a long trip back to their hometown. And on top of all of that there are all those bonenkai or “forgetting the year” parties to attend, which more often that not involve serious drinking, plus the fairly recent addition of Christmas-related parties and events. It’s no wonder that many people find this the most stressful time of the year.
Given all this frantic activity, it makes sense that New Year’s Eve itself, called omisoka, is traditionally celebrated very quietly in Japan. Instead of fireworks and party crackers and flowing champagne, most people spend the evening at home watching TV or reflecting on the year with friends and family. Temple bells, which can be heard throughout most of the country, ring out the old year 108 times, once for each of 108 traditional evils. Eating toshikoshi soba (yearend buckwheat noodles) is an integral part of New Year’s Eve in most parts of the country. The word “toshikoshi” means to climb or jump from the old year to the new.
Growing up in Japan in the 1970s, our family followed the standard New Year’s Eve ritual of the time. First, we’d have a light dinner, then we would all crowd in front of the TV, sitting on the tatami floor snuggled up inside the kotatsu (under-heated table covered with a thick duvet). We would watch the special yearend music programs that were so popular at the time, especially the “Kohaku Uta Gassen” singing competition on NHK.
More often than not, my sister and I would nod off when the young pop singers we were interested in had had their turn and the older enka singers started appearing, only to be woken up by my mother setting the kotatsu with bowls of hot toshikoshi soba. We’d slurp our soba while watching the rest of “Kohaku,” argue over whether the red or white team of singers deserved to win, then reluctantly drag ourselves out of the warm kotatsu to either go to bed or, if my parents were feeling energetic, to leave the house just after midnight and head to the local Shinto shrine for hatsumode, the year’s first shrine visit.
The next morning, we’d pack up to go visit my grandparents for san-ganichi, the three-day New Year holiday period.
These days, “Kohaku” is not nearly as popular as it was then, and modern urban houses are likely to have Western-style living rooms with under-floor heating instead of cold tatami rooms with kotatsu, but the toshikoshi soba tradition remains basically the same.
Like many other old, entrenched traditions in this country, most people have forgotten exactly how this custom of eating soba noodles on New Year’s Eve began, and even what it’s supposed to mean. It probably started in the Kamakura or Muromachi periods, in the 13th or 14th century, when either a temple or a wealthy lord decided to treat the hungry populace to soba noodles on the last day of the year. The triangular (mikado) shape of the buckwheat grain is supposed to embody the power of the Emperor (also mikado). Japanese people of the olden days did love their puns.
Although its origins may be much older, the toshikoshi soba tradition really became widely established in the Edo Period (1603-1868). The townspeople of Edo (present-day Tokyo), many of whom were shonin or of the merchant caste, developed all kinds of religious or superstitious customs and rituals in order to attract good fortune, and toshikoshi soba was one of those rituals. (Most of the “ancient” customs that are still practiced in Japan today actually only became established in the Edo Period and later.) Soba was more popular in the Kanto region and to the north at the time, so thicker udon noodles were used in Kyoto in a similar context at first, but nowadays soba noodles are used in most areas of the country.
According to some historians, soba is supposed to signify strength and resiliency, since the buckwheat plant itself bounces back even after being flattened by wind and rain. Others focus on the long, thin shape of the noodles, which may signify the wish for a long life. (One idealized lifestyle that was popular in the Edo period, probably following Confucian thinking, is “long and thin” [hosoku nagaku] — a long, peaceful, uneventful life.)
There’s also the theory that because thin soba noodles can be bitten off very easily, unlike thick udon noodles for example, they signify the clean cutting off or ending of the old year and all of its troubles.
But my favorite theory for the origins of toshikoshi soba is based on the fact that fine soba flour was once used by goldsmiths and gilders to gather up leftover gold dust. Because of this, soba became associated with gold, and therefore good fortune.
Soba noodles are used in other contexts too. In some parts of the Kanto region, new arrivals to a neighborhood are still greeted with a gift of soba, called hikkoshi soba (moving-in soba). Some businesses used to repeat the eating of soba noodles around the time of Setsubun (Bean-Throwing Festival) in early February, to really ensure that the upcoming year will be a good one. Still, toshikoshi soba is the most enduring soba tradition by far.
These days, spending a quiet night at home eating a comforting bowl of soba simply allows your body and stomach to rest up after the stress and drinking and feasting that preceded and may well follow. As you slurp your toshikoshi soba, you can ponder for yourself whether you want those noodles to mean long life, a clean slate, good fortune — or all of the above.
Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha International). She writes about bento lunches on justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more on justhungry.com.