Photo by David Nakamura
For the Japanese housewife who longs for a moment of rest from the daily grind of cooking and cleaning, there is one date on the calendar she can look forward to for a break: New Year's Day.
At a time that otherwise signifies beginnings, a tradition has carried forward in which households across Japan celebrate by eating osechi ryori, a meal of small delicacies, including shrimp, fish cakes, sweet potatoes, chestnuts, and black beans. They are prepared days in advance and preserved with heavy doses of sugar, soy sauce, and mirin (port wine), which allow the dishes to be served for several days without refrigeration.
This ingenious method was invented by housewives back when grocery stores remained closed for several days, and it offered the added benefit of giving then a respite from the kitchen (though only if they worked double-time leading up to the holiday). These days, housewives have it easier: Most families buy fancy, professionally prepared osechi from department stores, restaurants, and convenience stores that offer home delivery at an average cost of several hundred dollars.
After seeing stacks of elaborate plastic renderings in shop displays, I wondered: Does anyone still prepare osechi at home? I sent out emails and asked friends for leads, but I was mostly met by silence--and a few scoffs. Finally, my co-worker Ikuyo Watanabe put me in touch with her college friend Chikako Ito, 37, who lives with her husband Toru Fusegawa, 47, and their cat in a small apartment not too far from Tokyo's bustling Shibuya neighborhood.