Osechi-Ryori: Japanese New Year Food

Japanese Osechi-ryori

One tradition that’s pretty universal in Japan during the New Year is eating osechi-ryōri (おせち料理). The individual foods might be eaten throughout the year, but for New Year they are arranged in a more special way to symbolize hopes for an auspicious year to come.

I’ve posted before about osechi-ryori, but strangely, I don’t think I ever actually explained it (if I did, I can’t find the post). So, this article is an example of what osechi-ryori might look like. Different families will do different things, depending on how much effort they want to put into it, and available resources.1

The presentation my wife did this year is pretty typical of our home, but again may be somewhat different than other families.

The first dish here is a baked snapper or tai (鯛):

Japanese Osechi-ryori

Baked fish is a common dish in Japanese culture, but I grew up eating deep-fried fish and chips, so I never really tried regular baked fish until recently. Snapper isn’t my personal favorite (baked mackerel is good), but my wife did a nice job here. There hardest part of baking fish is how to deal with the smell. In Japan, they have special ovens for baking fish that can siphon the smell away, but we have an older, American oven and so the main trick is to bake in a little bit of water. If the fish gets to dry, the smell worsens.

The next dish, using a Mickey Mouse-shaped bento box we bought in Japan, is nimono or stewed vegetables (煮物):

Japanese Osechi-ryori

Nimono is a common winter dish, but it’s really yummy because you can make it with all kinds of vegetables. Here we used chicken, lotus root (which looks like little wagon wheels), carrots, burdock root, and konyaku which looks like black jello, but is actually made of sweet potato. I love my wife’s nimono. It’s great.

Also, my wife made ozōni soup:

Japanese Osechi-ryori

Ozoni soup is something you might enjoy any time during the winter, but it’s often served during New Year’s Day as well. Here you can see my wife used chopped spinach, mochi rice cake which melts nicely in the soup, chicken and a slice of the pink and white kamaboko (see below).

Finally the pièce de résistance:

Japanese Osechi-ryori

This is the main osechi dish and includes the following (clockwise from upper-right):

  • Black beans or kuromamé (黒豆), sweet.  According to wikipedia the name “mamé” is a synonym for health.
  • Chestnut paste or kurikinton (栗きんとん).  This too is kind of sweet and tasty.  The golden color also implies wealth and happiness.
  • Stir-fried burdock root and carrots, julienne, or kinpira (キンピラ).  These are slightly spicy, and one of my favorite winter dishes.
  • Pink and white fish cakes or kamaboko (蒲鉾).  The name doesn’t sound appetizing, but they’re actually quite good, especially in soup.  The colors are festive, and the round shape looks like a rising sun implying the new year.2
  • Wrapped konbu (昆布) rolls.  Again, this is similar to the word yorokobu, the verb to enjoy something.  Konbu seaweed is thicker and chewier than nori seaweed, but still good.
  • Salmon roe eggs, or ikura (イクラ).  Popular in sushi, but also good over rice with soy-sauce.  But since they’re very salty, don’t eat too many or you’ll get indigestion.
  • Shredded daikon and carrots with vinegar (?).  More of a salad-type dish, but very tasty.
  • In the middle is herring roe or kazunoko (数の子), which is also a word-play for kazu (number) and ko (children).  This implies a household with many children.3

This page in Japanese has a more comprehensive explanation of different osechi dishes and their meaning, and the Wikipedia article is pretty helpful too.

If you buy the fancy, catered ones, the dishes will be much more elaborate, and in nice bento boxes (like the ones we enjoyed in Japan in past years), but this year my wife wanted to make it herself, and keep it fairly simple so we don’t have a lot of wasted food sitting around for days.  This year the amount was just right, and was almost gone by the 2nd.

In the past, I’ve seen big elaborate osechi dishes, and the “good” foods get picked clean very quick, but the less appetizing choices tend to linger for days.  So, sometimes less is more.  ;)

Anyhow, that’s a brief look at osechi-ryori.  :)

1 We know some Japanese wives who live overseas in places where these ingredients are pretty hard to obtain.

2 We bought some fancier kamaboko that had pictures inside. This photo, taken a few days later when my wife made leftovers, shows a slice of kamaboko with a picture of an umé (plum) branch.

3 People have been asking if we are going to have a third child, and although we would like to have a third child, I don’t think we can realistically afford one. Plus we’re getting old enough that it’s not such a good idea anynore.

Happy New Year 2016

Hello Dear Readers,

This is my first post written in 2016 (my last post was actually written in late 2015 ;p ).  I’ve been missing the blog lately and wanted to write a little bit about the New Year’s celebration.  First we did mochi-making (お餅つき) at the same house as last year.  We were hosted by the same local artisan and mochi-making expert featured here in this newspaper article.

Mochi Making 2015

You can see me here helping my son to pound mochi rice.  Daddy did most of the work. Here my daughter decided to try too:

Mochi Making 2015

A few days later we enjoyed New Year’s Eve or Ōmisoka (大晦日) in Japanese with some friends.  Lots of good food:


New Year's Eve 2015

And as usual we watched the yearly Japanese special Kohaku Uta Gassen. Little Guy seems to enjoy watching the Japanese girl idol groups.

Idol Groups and Son

This might be AKB48, but I can’t recall. Plus, there are so many similar groups: HKT48, NMB48, etc. I can’t keep track anymore. Also, I was pretty sick that night:


However, I did enjoy some delicious toshi-koshi soba (“End of Year Soba”) before going to bed:

Toshi-koshi soba

Finally, the next day, my wife had osechi-ryōri ready, which I will talk about in a later post.  We did not do hatsumode this year at the usual temple because I am a minister’s assistant now with a specific temple, so it seemed a bit strange to go visit other temples instead, plus I had to help lead the service that day.1

Anyhow, it was a nice end to a very nice year.  During 2015, I got to become a minister’s assistant with the Buddhist Churches of America, and got a new job, which I like much better than my old job with a certain company that sells things online.  Finally I took the JLPT N1 exam for the first time.  I’ve definitely gotten over the long “funk” I had for a few years, and am looking forward to another year of blogging fun with you all.

Happy New Year Everyone!


1 Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is somewhat against the practice of omamori in Japanese culture, so naturally I didn’t get one. I might pick up one or two when I visit Japan this summer though. Even though it’s kind of a superstition, I just like collecting them anyway.


From the Sutra of the Ten Stages, which is chapter 26 of the massive Flower Garland Sutra (華厳経):

If the beings I see by my enlightened vision
Were saints equal to Shariputra,
And one should honor them for millions of ages,
As many as the sands of the Ganges River;
And if someone honored an individual illuminate
Day and night, cheerful,
With the finest garlands and such,
And thereby created excellent virtue;
And if all were individual illuminates,
If one honored them diligently
With followers and incense, food and drink,
For many eons,
Still if one made even one bow to one buddha
And with a pure mind declared obeisance,
The virtue would be greater than all that.

What interests me about this quote is how praising an enlightened Buddha is much greater virtue than a famous monk or saint. There are a lot ways to interpret why, but anyway I just thought it was interesting. It’s hard to find good quotations from the Flower Garland Sutra anyway since it is so long and dense. ;-)


Yet Another Definition of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

Over the years, as I try to make sense of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, or “Shin” Buddhism as all the teenagers say nowadays,1 I have tried a number of different ways to understand and explain it to others.2 However, I wanted to share an explanation that really opened my eyes.

I was recently perusing the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, which I received a while back (and regularly use) as a sample copy.  I was looking up some information on Zhiyi, the famous Chinese Tian-tai Buddhist monk which I then used to rewrite the Wikipedia article on the Five Periods and the Eight Teachings.  But having finished that, I decided to then lookup the entry on Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, and this passage caught my attention (emphasis and links added):

Shinran refers often to the single utterance [of Amitabha Buddha’s name Namu Amida Butsu] that assures rebirth in the pure land.  This utterance need not be audible, indeed not even voluntary, but it is instead heard in the heart as a consequence of the “single thought-moment” of shinjin, received through Amitābha’s grace.  This salvation has nothing to do with whether one is a monk or a layperson, man or woman, saint or sinner, learned or ignorant.  He said that if even a good man can be reborn in the pure land, then how much more easily can an evil man; this is because the good man remains attached to the illusion that his virtuous deeds will bring about his salvation, while the evil man has abandoned this conceit.  Whereas Hōnen sought to identify the benefits of the nembutsu [reciting the Buddha’s name] in contrast to other teachings of the day, Shinran sought to reinterpret Buddhist doctrine and practice in light of Amitābha’s vow [to rescue all beings].  For example, the important Mahāyāna doctrine of the Ekayāna, or “one vehicle,” the buddha vehicle whereby all sentient beings will be enabled to follow the bodhisattva path to buddhahood [full enlightenment], is interpreted by Shinran to be nothing than Amitābha’s vow.

The top-half of this quotation is pretty standard Jodo Shinshu teaching.  I’ve read this before, and share it here more as a background reference.  What gave me pause was the second-half where it talks about how Shinran interpreting Buddhist doctrine in light of the Buddha Amitabha’s vow to rescue all beings.  In all my years of learning about Jodo Shinshu, I simply never noticed that.  I admit I’ve always approached it the way Honen did: finding a way for Pure Land teachings to fit within the greater Buddhism, but Shinran’s approach is kind of radical in a way.

The Lotus Sutra teaching of Ekayana is a great example of this, because I do consider myself a devotee of the Lotus Sutra, but it never occurred to me that his would be an expression of Amitabha Buddha’s compassion toward other beings.  Usually the Lotus Sutra describes itself as the king of all sutras, the pinnacle teaching, and much of Buddhism tends to follow this line including me.  In such a framework, the Pure Land sutras and practices are part of the overall “vehicle” preached in the Lotus Sutra. However, Shinran turns this on its head.  It kind of blew me away.  For example, the verses in chapter five of the Lotus Sutra, when seen in the light of Amitabha’s compassion take on a whole new meaning for me.

I found this passage last week, and I’ve been mulling it over since then, appreciating the implications.  I may explore this again in future posts.  Stay tuned.  ;)

1 Just kidding. I just wanted to sound like a cranky old man. ;)

2 I know I have more posts buried somewhere in the last 8 years of blogging, but I didn’t have the time to search. Thankfully there’s Google! ;)

Just As You Are


There’s a famous Japanese poem that you will often see in Jodo Shinshu Buddhist literature usually translated as “Just Right” or “Just As You Are” or “Sono-mana”. Rev. Taitetsu Unno, who passed away a couple years ago, translated the poem in one of his books, and it has been popular since among English-speaking Shin Buddhists.

Recently, I remembered this poem, and tried to find the original in Japanese, and when I did, I realized that there were some problems with the English translation. Nothing serious, but worth sharing.

The actual name of the poem in Japanese is 仏様のことば(丁度よい)or hotoke-sama no kotoba (chōdo yoi), which means “The Buddha’s Words (Just Right)”. It was composed by one Maekawa Gorōmatsu at the age of 93.

Here is the original poem in Japanese (source here):


In English, the translation is usually this (source Spokane Buddhist Temple):

You, as you are, are just right.
Your face, your body, your name, your surname,
they are, for you, just right.
Whether poor or rich, your parents, your children,
your daughter-in-law, your grandchildren
they are, for you, just right.
Happiness, unhappiness, joy and even sorrow,
for you, they are just right.
The life that you have walked
is neither good nor bad.
For you, it is just right.

However, when you look at the Japanese, that’s only about two-thirds of the original poem. Here is a rough-translation of the rest:

No need to take pride in anything, no need to be humble either.

If there’s nothing above, there’s nothing below either.

Even the day and time of your death is just right, too.

A life hand in hand with the Buddha

Isn’t supposed to be wrong for you.

Rather, when you hear that it is just right for you,

Enduring faith [confidence in the Buddha] is born.

Namu Amida Butsu
(Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light)


Something for the Holidays

Hi Everyone,

Ive been writing this blog for seven years now and have had many readers and visitors since then. Recently I found this old, old post I wrote in 2008 that I wanted to share for the holidays:


This is a fake Buddhist sutra about Santa Claus that I wrote by mixing several real sutras and rewriting the text for Santa. It was a fun excercise in making the holidays more “Buddhist”. 

Please enjoy and happy holidays!

Creating Our Worst Nightmare


A wise man1 named Ultron once said:

“Everyone creates the thing they dread. Men of peace create engines of war. Invaders create Avengers. People create… smaller people? Er… children! I lost the word there. Children. Designed to supplant them. To help them end.”

With all the conflict going on in the world, this quote seems all the more true.

1 Just kidding, of course. I did enjoy the Avengers movie quite a bit, though. :)

Gone, Gone, Gone to the Other Shore

Cloudy day at river shore


As a celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment on Bodhi Day, I wanted to share this little-known, but interesting quote from the Dhammpada:

179. By what track can you trace that trackless Buddha of limitless range, whose victory nothing can undo, whom none of the vanquished defilements can ever pursue?

Compare with the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra:

The Thus Come One [the Buddha] has already left
the burning house of the threefold world
and dwells in tranquil quietude
in the safety of forest and plain.

Happy Bodhi Day!

P.S. Title of this post comes from one possible translation of the mantra used in the Heart Sutra.

Done with the JLPT N1

Hi all,

It’s been a long time since I last posted an update about the JLPT exam. I debated about whether I should take the N1 or not. Finally, I decided to try the N1 exam, but not to spend a lot of time studying for it. Instead, as an experiment, I wanted to try to pass the N1 without spending hours with workbooks and mock tests; I wanted to pass by doing what I should be doing anyway: reading Japanese books, listening to Japanese, etc.

So, since January, I did just that: I spent time reading Japanese comics, but also Japanese-language novels, etc. It was pretty hard at first, but over time I’ve gotten more comfortable reading long, complex texts.

Further, my son “Little Guy” is obsessed with Buzz Lightyear, and loves to watch the movie Toy Story 2.1 He calls the movie “Buzz!” and wants to watch it almost daily. We let him watch it in Japanese, so he gets exposure like his big sister did, and often watch it with him. Every time I watch Toy Story 2 in Japanese, I learn something new. But also we watch the “morning dramas” on NHK through cable TV. The current drama Asa Ga Kita is a lot of fun to watch, for example.

But did it work?

Today I took the JLPT N1 exam at last. It was very familiar in a way, since I had taken the N2 and N3 in the past. However, it was also different, since I had taken a big risk in preparing for this exam. I noticed during the exam that I was considerably older than most of the other test takers: mostly high-school or college-aged kids. I had the benefit of experience, but on the other hand, I less free time to study.

In any case, the test was quite a challenge. The written portion of the exam was quite long, and there was still some vocabulary I didn’t know. Further, the essays were numerous and long, and I started to run out of time toward the end, so I had to rush a bit. However, I was surprised how much of the essays I could understand. In the past, I often had to do some guessing, but this time, I felt pretty comfortable reading them, and even learned some interesting facts and topics.2

So, by the end of the written exam, I felt pretty good.

Then came the listening part. The listening part was much harder than I expected. The conversations were long, and had many twists and turns, so even if I think I understood the answer, the topic would change at the last minute. I realized that although I had watched Japanese shows and such, they were either too short or too focused on children. I didn’t watch enough adult media.

So, after the listening section, I felt pretty disheartened. I felt that I had come so close, but failed in the last section.

On the other hand, I looked at the scoring system for the JLPT, and even if I score relatively low in one section, I can still pass if the overall score is good. I can’t score too low, but I know I got at least some questions right in the listening section.

But was it enough to pass? I won’t be able to find out until the end of February when they send out the scores. :(

I’m not sure why the JLPT takes so long to reply back, but I guess it’s because they have to wait for all the completed tests across the world to arrive first, grade them at the same time, then send out the results. That’s just a theory though.

Anyhow, for not having studied at all, I actually did better than expected. At the same time, I am reminded that my biggest weakness is listening. I know my listening skills are weak when talking with my wife and her friends, but still the test reminded me how weak it really is.

The point though, is that you can pass the JLPT without spending lots of money on textbooks and classes. Just do what you should be doing anyway: getting as much exposure and experience with native Japanese as you can. :)

1 He has Buzz Lightyear t-shirts, Buzz Lightyear pajamas, toys and dolls. :)

2 I wish I could tell you what they were, but obviously I can’t. Anyhow, the JLPT had a diverse set of essay topics, and so there was probably something for everyone. That is, if you could read them. ;)