Almost every culture celebrates the turn of the year at some point in some way, and these days the turn of the Gregorian calendar year is an almost universal turning point even though many cultures use other calendars as well. This state of affairs creates a little bit of confusion in some cultures, but only a little. In China, for example, the turn of the Gregorian year has its importance, but the lunar New Year is still much more important. In the Jewish Diaspora things are a bit more complicated. Rosh Hashanah marks the Jewish New Year, and has its importance, but it vies much more earnestly with the Gregorian New Year. All told, we can say that every culture, perhaps every individual, has multiple turning points in the year. For me birthdays are critical turning points when I reflect on the previous year and look forward to what is to come. But I still cling to New Year’s Eve as a critical turning point for several reasons. First, it’s a communal celebration. Second, there are real secular changes that happen. Third, I’m in the habit of doing special things on this day.
I could rabbit on about how anthropologists view cycles, the passing of the year, etc., but I’ll spare you. Some of it is interesting, some is challenging, but most of it is fairly straightforward common sense which you already know at some level. Maybe you’d like to learn why January 1st is the beginning of the new year? Well . . . look it up. Most of the online historical sources are accurate – to a degree. You can dismiss all the “origins” nonsense, but the basic facts concerning when Europeans switched to January 1st are not controversial. You might be a bit surprised though.
I always take the time on New Year’s Eve to reflect on the past year in a personal way. I go through each month, step by step, and look at successes and failures, with an eye to learning something useful. I don’t make resolutions as such, but I do hope to learn from the year’s mistakes. Obviously this practice can be ongoing, but taking stock once a year is useful too. My first job as a teenager was working in a light engineering factory on Slough Trading Estate as a stockroom clerk. Most stockrooms in those days took inventory once a year, but this firm had what they called “perpetual inventory.” That is, when the workload for the clerks was light they were supposed to do a bit of inventory, so that in the course of a year they had checked all the stock drawers twice. Of course that never happened. Everyone hated doing inventory, so it got put off until it had to be done all at once. That’s how I wound up with my summer jobs – doing inventory. From a factory point of view I don’t think it matters whether you do inventory all at once or a little at a time – all the time. Life is different. It’s good to take stock of your life daily. I do. It’s ridiculous to put it off. On my commute on the way to work and again on the way home I give thought to how my life is going, and how the day went. It looks an awful lot like staring out of the window, but I’m musing. What will the day bring and how will I manage? What worked? What didn’t work?
For cooking on New Year’s Eve I fluctuate between traditional Japanese food, and fish of some sort. For many years Japanese dishes were my norm – especially soba which is very traditional. Soba means buckwheat in Japanese, but usually also means buckwheat noodles. I’ll make soba tonight. There are many, many varieties of hot soba. Soba is also often served as a noodle soup in a bowl of hot tsuyu. The hot tsuyu in this instance is thinner than that used as a dipping sauce for chilled soba. Popular garnishes are sliced long onion and shichimi togarashi (mixed chili powder). These are various possibilities.
Kake soba 掛け蕎麦: Hot soba in broth topped with thinly sliced scallion, and perhaps a slice of kamaboko (fish cake).
Kitsune soba きつね蕎麦 (“fox soba”, in Kantō) or たぬき蕎麦 Tanuki soba (“raccoon dog soba”, in Kansai): Topped with aburaage (deep-fried tofu).
Tanuki soba (in Kantō) or Haikara soba ハイカラ蕎麦 (in Kansai): Topped with tenkasu (bits of deep-fried tempura batter).
Tempura soba 天麩羅蕎麦: Topped with tempura, a large shrimp frequently is used, but vegetables are also popular. Some of soba venders use kakiage for this dish and this often is called Tensoba.
Tsukimi soba 月見蕎麦 (“moon-viewing soba”): Topped with raw egg, which poaches in the hot soup.
Tororo soba とろろ蕎麦 or Yamakake soba 山かけ蕎麦: Topped with tororo, the puree of yamaimo (a potato-like vegetable with a mucilaginous texture).
Wakame soba わかめ蕎麦: Topped with wakame seaweed
Nameko soba なめこ蕎麦: Topped with nameko mushroom
Sansai soba 山菜蕎麦 (“mountain vegetables soba”): Topped with sansai, or wild vegetables such as warabi, zenmai and takenoko (bamboo shoots).
Kamonanban 鴨南蛮: Topped with duck meat and negi.
Currynanban カレー南蛮: Hot soba in curry flavored broth topped with chicken/pork and thinly sliced scallion.
Nishin soba 鰊(にしん)蕎麦: Topped with migaki nishin 身欠きニシン, or dried fish of the Pacific herring.
Sobagaki 蕎麦掻き: A chunk of dough made of buckwheat flour and hot water.