Originally written on December 2020. Updated 2022
Toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦), delicious buckwheat noodles, is one of Japan’s unique New Year’s customs.
The history of this curious tradition dates back around 800 years, to the Kamakura period, and it is said that it all started at one Buddhist temple that gave soba to poor people on New Year’s. In the Edo period, when the common class developed customary religious and superstitious rituals, these New Year’s noodles turned into a fixed custom done by people all over Japan, still today.
But why do people eat soba on New Year’s Eve, or Ōmisoka (大晦日)?
To say it with two words: good fortune.
Compared to ramen and other pasta regularly enjoyed in Japan, soba are rather firm and easy to break while eating. Thus, soba symbolize something like “breaking off the old year” and, in addition, their thin, long shape is also synonymous with a long and healthy life.
However, toshikoshi soba do also serve a very practical purpose: as the majority of Japanese head to a temple or shrine at midnight of New Year’s Eve, the easily digestible buckwheat noodles make for a very good late night snack (or, if you prefer, early morning).
Despite they’re literally called “New Year’s Eve noodles”, eating toshikoshi soba right at midnight is actually considered bad luck. This has to do with the meaning of breaking off the old year and, if eaten at midnight, there’s a certain overlap of the old and the new year, thus you cannot break off all of last year’s troubles properly, but instead carry them over to the following year.
In some areas of Japan, toshikoshi soba are actually eaten after the New Year’s celebrations altogether, and some believe that eating while listening to the New Year’s bells at shrines and temples will bring bad luck as well. So, the proper time to eat enjoy the dish varies depending on region and household. Just make sure that there’s no overlap happening and no bells are ringing…
And about the dish itself, there are two types of eaters: those that prefer to eat it warm in a soup, called zaru soba, and those that prefer to eat it cold, dipped in a sauce. And if soba in hot soup can seem a bit poor with only buckwheat noodles swimming in broth, why not spice them up with some toppings?
Ebi, shrimp, for istance, that are a symbol of longevity. Interestingly, their curved shape carries the meaning of “living so long that your back starts to bend.”
Or Nishin, herring, a symbol for prosperity: it only takes two herrings to lay a myriad of eggs, there’s hardly anything more prosperous than that!
Or why not Kamaboko, boiled fish paste, as a good omen? Its shape resembles in fact a rising sun on the horizon. Or maybe Abura-age, fried tofu), for monetary fortune. Fried tofu is said to be the favorite dish of foxes, who happen to be the messengers of the deity of Inari, who is linked to business prosperity.
Either way, with the hope of good fortune in each bowl, it’s easy to imagine the custom being adopted quickly from family to family, slurping in its symbolism:
To enjoy a fulfilling, peaceful life with every slurp of the long soba noodles.
To break free from the past like the soba noodle so easily breaks with each bite.
To gather strength and resilience like the tough buckwheat crop.
To grow your fortune just as buckwheat flour was once used by goldsmiths to gather up leftover gold dust.
And, eventually, superstitious or not, enjoying Toshikoshi Soba has become one of the most enduring traditions observed by the Japanese people in the New Year.
Images from web – Google Research