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During the year of college I spent doing homestay in Tokyo, for New Year’s, my host family and I ate a traditional osechi meal. Served in a multi-layered box, almost each of the dozen or so dishes had some sort of auspicious meaning behind it, and the presentation and cultural significance of the whole affair was a memorable experience.

That said, I’ve never found myself craving osechi again, and it turns out my lack of enthusiasm isn’t a result of my foreign background. More and more young people born and raised in Japan are deciding they can do without osechi at New Year’s, and they’ve actually got some pretty sound reasons why.

Osechi has generally been the most opulent meal of the year. Aside from being considered delicacies in their own rights, the dishes symbolize health and prosperity, such as sea bream (tai in Japanese, which is close to medetai or “auspiciousness”), kazunoko (herring roe, with its large number of eggs serving as a portent for the eater’s many future descendants), and ozoni, rice cakes whose extreme stretchiness is meant to be evocative of a long life.

These days, though, an increasing number of young people aren’t really looking forward to the feast, and judging from online comments, they’ve got six major complaints.

1. It’s a pain to make

Traditionally, people eat osechi for each of the first three days of the New Year, so if you’re making yours at home, you’ve got a lot of cooking to do. Since no one really wants to spend all of January 1 to 3 in the kitchen, though, the custom has been to prepare three days’ worth all at once at the tail end of December.

▼ Happy New Year!

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This isn’t as simple as the time-honored bachelor strategy of making a massive pot of spaghetti, either. For a proper osechi meal, you need at least eight different items, and somewhere closer to 16 for the full effect.

But hey, if you don’t want to cook, you can always buy ready-made osechi, right?

2. It’s expensive

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The modest example pictured above, which is listed as being enough for one meal to be shared by two or three people, will set you back 11,500 yen (US $100). Multiply that out by however many you’ll need for all the members of your family, plus the three days osechi is traditionally eaten for, and you’ll quickly see that cost is the poison center to the silver lining of store-bought osechi.

3. It’s not exactly fresh

Deluxe, premade osechi sets are delivered through the mail, meaning that customers are paying top dollar for what’s arguably day-old food, with even more time passing until the last day of osechi on January 3.

4. It’s a package deal

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For the most part, Japan is OK with putting its palate in the chef’s capable hands, as attested to by the many popular restaurants where customers order set courses, sometimes without knowing exactly what each dish will be. In general though, there’s some sort of theme. A sushi set will consist primarily of raw fish, and the course at a yakitori restaurant can safely be assumed to have chicken skewers of various cuts playing the starring role.

Osechi meals, though, tend to be all over the place flavor and ingredient-wise. Just because you love the sweet omelet rolls called datemaki, an osechi mainstay, doesn’t mean you’ve got any interest in munching on tazukuri, the osechi stalwart of sardines seasoned with soy sauce. Several online commenters say they’re not convinced it’s worth throwing their money away on the dozen or so dishes in a premade osechi meal they don’t want just to get at the one or two they do.

5. Allergens are part of that package

Over the last two decades, Japan has become extremely conscious of food allergies. We mentioned above that osechi is served in multi-layered boxes, which is to give the impression of blessings and good fortunes piled upon one another in the year to come. Some people, though, are uncomfortable with shellfish and eggs being in such close proximity to each other during shipping and the three days after delivery. In households where both parents don’t eat osechi because of allergy issues, a self-perpetuating cycle gets set up, because if Mom and Dad aren’t eating it every year, their kids won’t grow up with the custom either.

6. The chopsticks might be really dirty

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The last complaint about osechi isn’t about the food itself, but rather the chopsticks used to eat it. Instead of the regular chopsticks you use every day, osechi is supposed to be eaten with a pair of iwaibashi, wooden chopsticks placed in a wrapper adorned with the character for kotobuki (longevity and prosperity) or some other celebratory imagery. After each meal, the iwaibashi are tucked back into the wrapper and put into the box with the leftovers, to be taken out and used again for the next osechi meal.

And no, we didn’t forget to mention the part where they’re washed.

Granted, if you’re following proper table manners (and have deft enough fingers), the chopsticks shouldn’t really be coming into contact with your lips, tongue, or teeth very often. Still, they are touching the food, and after three days, they’re bound to build up a layer of oil, grease, and other residues, and a lot of hygiene-conscious young Japanese would just as soon not have that as a hidden ingredient.

▼ Maybe the reason osechi is accompanied with sake is to keep you from thinking too much about such things.

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Source: Naver Matome
Top image: Homtasuwa
Insert images: Livedoor, Yahoo! Japan, Naniwa Issui, Hashitou, Coto Coto