For centuries, Japanese women have spent the days before the New Year holiday preparing a feast of delicacies for their families. These days, however, busy families are breaking with tradition and are buying the holiday's special meals from stores.
New Year is the most celebrated holiday in Japan. During the three-day holiday, Japanese families gather and eat traditional dishes to celebrate the arrival of the New Year. The holiday meal is called osechi and traditionally, housewives cook it in the days before the New Year.
But tradition is starting to change, as modern life becomes too busy for women to spend days cooking. More and more women hold jobs outside the home so many families have stopped making their osechi. Instead, they are buying commercially prepared meals.
Akemi Suto is a mother in Tokyo who holds a full-time job outside her home. "I am very busy with my work until the end of the year and have no time to stand in the kitchen. But I don't want to stop eating the traditional meal so I buy prepared osechi and that saves me the trouble of cooking," she says. "This year, I ordered from a catalog at my favorite supermarket. The price is reasonable and it works well for my situation."
Osechi meals have been tradition for at least 650 years. They offer special dishes prepared in bountiful quantities and served during the first three days of January. The foods are arranged in the multi-tiered lacquered boxes. Inside are colorful assortments such as sweet chestnuts, omelets, boiled soybeans, broiled fish, pickled herring roe, and a variety of other seafood. The menu varies in different regions of the country.
To keep up with changing lifestyles, department stores, supermarkets and other retailers are offering packaged osechi. Many retailers say orders this year have reached an all-time high and osechi has become big business. Naoto Sakuragi is a food buyer at Mitsukoshi, one of the major department stores in Tokyo. He says his store has received 65,000 orders so far. That is a 20 percent increase from last year, and it is because people find it convenient to buy osechi. He adds that osechi boxes from famous restaurants that cost around $300 dollars are selling well.
Mr. Sakuragi says Mitsukoshi has sold out its two limited deluxe meals, which were priced at $9,500. Other popular items include more modest boxes that are designed for small families.
Osechi packages have proved so popular that Mitsukoshi this year began taking reservations in the middle of October, one week earlier than last year. To make sure they got their favorite dishes, many customers lined to order on the first day that reservations could be made.
Items in the osechi box are also changing. Katsushi Kunimoto, a spokesman for the Japan Food Association, explains. Mr. Kunimoto says salty foods were the main items in the past because they were preserved and could last for a few days, allowing housewives to rest on the first few days of the New Year. But he finds that today's osechi contain luxurious items and dishes that cannot be preserved, such as fresh seafood.
To make sure everyone in the family gets a special holiday treat, major department stores have even introduced New Year's meals for dogs that sell for as much as $150. Mr. Sakuragi at Mitsukoshi says the sets sell briskly because pets have become a part of Japanese families.