New Year’s spicy sake tradition conquering Japanese evil spirits

Sake ochoko and tokkuri.

New Year’s Eve in Japan is a muted affair. Away from downtown’s neon spectacle there is little appeal at midnight for the west’s effusive, tactile rapture. Popping champagne and igniting fireworks is rare outside popular tourist hubs.

And yet, the Japanese staid stereotype is a myth.

Japan blows its mind on excesses throughout the year. Over-drinking, overeating and enjoying itself nightly. Catch a weekday evening’s last urban train from the city to witness overindulged businessmen enjoying a moment’s sleep. Dreams of returning to the office in a few hours is for many a daily reality.

New Year is family time. A workforce mobilised by a 3-day holiday travels back to hometown childhood memories. It’s a special time; a family time; a personal time. A rare year-end treat: seasonal food, special drinks and annual get-togethers.

Tradition favours restrained indulgence. The city’s demand for after-work excesses stay behind. Domestic respect and professional life rarely mix.

The family’s New Year’s Day breakfast – osechi-ryōri [御節料理] – is important tradition. Symbolising gratitude for the previous 12-months and hope for the year ahead. Drinking sake with osechi-ryōri is optional.

Another western-Japan tradition is blending a year-end spicy mix of sake and medicinal herbs. But don’t confuse Otoso [お屠蘇] with Europe’s favourite warming festive drink: sweet, spiced wine, beer or cider. Rather than something adopted from the west, Otoso’s Japanese history reaches back a millennium. And its history in China is even older.

But it’s not everybody’s taste. This writer is among those preferring sake in its natural state. Yet some believe its spicy, medicinal taste heals the spirit. Even its literal name (屠蘇) means conquering evil spirits.

The Japanese consume otoso from three shallow sake cups — sakazuki (盃) . Each sakazuki is a different size. Depending upon region and tradition, it is either the family elder or youngest member who drinks from the smallest cup first. It is then passed around the next elder / youngest in turn before tradition moves on to the next size cup.

The practice of drinking sake deserves to be preserved. Whether it’s otoso at New Year or plain sake throughout the year. The regional variations and seasonal customs are unique. The flavours refined over hundreds of years combined with traditional production methods are something to celebrate.