In terms of partying New Year’s Eve might not be as big in Japan as it is in other countries of the world, but Japanese people sure get busy right on 1 January: crowds of people line up at Shintoist temples to say a little prayer on the very first day of the new year. The tradition itself is called Hatsumode, and it is supposed to bring good luck for the upcoming (or actually beginning) new year. People buy amulets and burn incense sticks in order to purify themselves of last year’s sins and also to be able to forget them…it is indeed a fresh start according to Japanese religious tradition. The eager Shintoists (or sometimes Buddhists) wait in line in the cold outside the shrines, keeping warm with some amazake (fermented, hot rice drink) and with the help of traditonal bonfires. The ritual continues later, at home, with the celebratory lunch or dinner…but what is it that they eat on the first day of the year?

Soba for good luck and longevity

Last year, we dedicated an entire post to the health-promoting features of soba, the most popular type of Japanese noodle made out of buckwheat. This time, we are going to focus more on the symbolism of soba-eating on the 1st of January, a tradition which dates back to the 13-14th century in Japan (however, the ritual became integral to the customs and traditions of the middle class only in the Edo period).

Soba, according to Japanese customs, represents a long and content life, as the noodles themselves are long and stretchy, but they also symbolise breaking away from the problems of the old year, as soba is easy to bite. As buckwheat itself is known for its resilience and strength in all circumstances, those who eat buckwheat noodles will overcome all difficulties and have good luck!

However, there is no soup without some fine stock to soak the noodles in: this time it is dashi, the excellent, heart-warming Japanese fish stock, made of katsuobushi (bonito flakes), or seaweed, or… both of them at the same time, making it even tastier!

So, with soba and dashi, and some finely chopped scallion on top, the Japanese have come up with toshikoshi soba: a healthy dish for the first day of the year, one which also brings luck for a fresh start!

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