Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association | JSS
Properly welcoming in the new year is vitally important in Japanese culture. Preparations begin weeks before the main event. The key is to set the stage for growth and good fortune for the upcoming year. Traditions on New Year’s Day take these hopeful measures a step further with celebratory meals and shrine visits. As with most Japanese celebrations and customs, sake plays a key role in celebrating the new year. The specific sake associated with New Year’s celebrations is ‘o-toso’.
The medicinal, spiced sake helps ward off sickness and protect against other ill spirits for the following year. It is an integral part of the history and culture surrounding traditional New Year’s celebrations in Japan. Even as some tradition fades, the spiritual meaning of sharing sake on New Year’s, medicinal or not, carries on. Here’s an overview of a typical New Year’s celebration in Japan and the history, meaning, and practice of drinking o-toso.
New Year’s Day, also known as ‘shogatsu’ in Japan, remains one of the country’s biggest holidays. From the first through the third of January, most businesses in Japan close. Many people send postcards with seasonal greetings to arrive on New Year’s Day itself. While these secular practices shape the experiences of New Year’s, at its core, the celebration is deeply connected to Shinto traditions.
According to Shinto beliefs, a kami enters the household on the first day of the year. Preparations begin during the last week of the year. Most schools, businesses, and homes perform a deep cleaning to welcome the kami and enter the new year with a clean slate. On the last day of the year, families and friends gather to celebrate crossing into the next year.
Traditionally, this celebration was centered around the practice of honoring the ‘toshigamisama’, or new god of the year. Villages would perform rituals to honor the passing year and welcome good harvest and luck going forward.
On the first day of the year, many people visit Shinto shrines, a practice called ‘hatsumode’. Some make the trip in time to watch the sunrise while others wait until after partaking in morning rituals at home with family. The first meal of the year usually consists of an assortment of dishes, called ‘osechi ryori’. In a traditional celebration, serving o-toso would follow the first greetings and usher in the meal.
O-toso is more than just spiced, medicinal rice wine. It carries deeper meaning down to the language used to describe it. The characters used to write toso, 屠蘇, mean to slaughter and to be revived, respectively. By drinking o-toso, one can both fend off illness and ill will while revitalizing their spirit. There’s also a popular adage used to describe the cultural meaning of o-toso. “If one person drinks it, their family will not fall ill; if the whole family drinks, no-one in the village will fall ill.” The long-lasting effects of o-toso benefit not only the individual but the whole community.
Drinking o-toso has offered spiritual and medicinal benefits for thousands of years. The earliest records of medicinal sake originate during the Han dynasty. This mix of ten herbs steeped in rice wine traveled to Japan during the Heian period, under the rule of the Saga Emperor. During this time, only the aristocracy partook in drinking sake. However, over time the practice slowly expanded to include commoners as the long-lasting traditions of o-toso began to take shape.
Before sake had left the restrictions of the Imperial court, toso was only one of three ritual, medicinal sake. Eventually, the number of medicinal beverages would dwindle to one by the end of the Muromachi warrior government rule. By this time, drinking o-toso had reached the general public through medicine. Toso was often consumed to combat the onset of a cold or upset stomach in the middle ages.
Doctors would also give customers a package of toso-san, the herbs used in making toso, as year-end gifts. This practice continued in the form of toso-san freebies given out at the end of the year in pharmacies until the early 2000s.
Drinking o-toso has fallen out of practice in some areas of Japan. However, it remains a crucial part of the New Year’s tradition in the western Kansai region. Sake still plays a role in New Year’s celebrations around the country, just in its natural state.
By definition, o-toso is rice wine steeped with herbs. While rice wine usually equates to sake by today’s standards, aristocrats and doctors occasionally used mirin when making o-toso. O-toso made with mirin can have a sweeter flavor overall. Today, making o-toso with sake is much more common, especially when offered at shrines on New Year’s Day.
Originally, the steeping blend used to make o-toso consisted of ten potent herbs and spices of both Japanese and Chinese origin. Some of these herbs, like red atractylodes japonica and wolfsbane, fell out of popular use due to their potent flavors. Today, the most popular toso-san blend includes Japanese pepper, dried ginger, cinnamon, umbellifer, white atractylodes japonica, and Chinese bellflower.
There are several customs associated with drinking sake socially and ceremonially. Customs linked to Shinto rituals have firmly structured practices.
First, the drinking vessels, or tosoki, are placed on a platform in order of size: small, medium, and large. Instead of using a traditional tokkuri, o-toso customs dictate using a small, teapot-like vessel for serving. Members of the household then drink the o-toso in order from the smallest cup to the largest cup.
The order of who drinks o-toso also differs from the standard sake convention. Rather than proceeding from oldest to youngest, the youngest member of the family drinks first. In this way, the joy and vitality of youth pass to the family elders. However, in more modern settings, the head of the household will take the first sip. If a guest visits the home within the first three days of the year, they are usually offered a sip of o-toso as well.
Drinking o-toso is another way to connect with Japanese traditions through sake. Though the custom may not be as common today, it represents a deep, still ongoing, part of national history. When moving into the new year, drinking o-toso opens up opportunities for good fortune and carries Japanese culture into the future. Keeping this practice alive benefits the family, the community, and the richness of Japanese sake culture.