Otoso: A Forgotten Japanese New Year Tradition

This spiced brew of sake and mirin is sipped for good health during new year celebrations. These days, it could use some more supporters.

by Jessica Thompson
Winter in Europe – particularly the festive period – is embraced with a cup of hot spiced wine: gluhwein in Germany, glögg in Sweden, mulled wine in England. Coming into the colder months in Japan, I wondered if Japan had a similar tradition, and I discovered ‘otoso’, a spiced sake drunk as part of New Year celebrations.  
But when I asked Japanese friends about otoso, it was met with only vague recollections – some recalled their grandparents preparing it for the family decades ago; others had never heard of it; some thought it was the general word for the sake drunk at New Year; some thought it was a tradition that belonged to a region that wasn’t theirs.
Since ancient times, Japanese people present rice to shrines as offerings. Sake, brewed from the sacred grain, is imbued with significance and is essential to celebratory events throughout the year: wedding toasts, festivals, blessing newborns at the shrine. Blessed sake drunk for celebrations like New Year is omiki – the kanji (神酒) represents ‘deity’ and ‘sake’. The sake is offered to the gods, and then by drinking, it is to channel the spiritual power of the gods, as well as connect you with more closely with them.
Otoso differs from omiki. It’s traditionally a mixture of mirin and sake (or akazake, a special type of red sake, if you’re a Kumamoto prefecture local), infused by a cocktail of health- and luck-providing herbs and spices (known as tososan), and is to dispel the ill-health of the past, and wish for good health in the year to come. The kanji (屠蘇) represents ‘slaughtering evil’ and ‘reviving the soul’.

It’s first recorded to have been drunk by Emperor Saga, Japan’s 52nd emperor, who reigned in the 9th century. Since around the 7th century, kanpo medicine and its principles of healing through herbs and spices came from China. Drinking otoso for New Year celebrations was an integral part of Imperial court celebrations from the Heian period (794 – 1185), before becoming more widespread during the subsequent Edo period (1603 - 1868).
Otoso is traditionally drunk on New Year’s Day, or in first few days of the New Year, traditional sipped from special stacking sake cups - sakazuki - and poured from a shapely lacquer teapot, known as a choshi. Sakazuki are elegant, saucer-shaped vessels, usually of lacquer, used for ceremonies like weddings and New Year’s celebrations. Cups of otoso are sipped facing to the east, in order of youngest to oldest, to pass on the vivacity of the youth to the elders. It’s drunk before starting osechi ryori, the official, traditional New Year meal.

The reasons it fell out of popularity seem to be a general changing of habits, taste preferences, a perception of the formality, difficulty in sourcing ingredients, and preparation time. Even osechi ryori, once made at home, is now more commonly ordered from department stores and convenience shops. 

“Over time, families may have changed shape,” which could impact the passing on of traditions, says Kakuro Sugimoto, a pharmicist and kanpo specialist who held a workshop on homemade otoso in December 2019. “And celebratory events have become more simplified.”

“Thinking about the way we spend New Years these days, there seems to be more relaxed ‘home parties,’ with friends and relatives you haven’t seen in a long time,” says Misa Murata of Verseau, a medicinal herb specialist.

“I think that over time, people felt that the rigidity of traditional otoso culture didn’t fit this more relaxed environment – not to mention that many people don’t have the particular sake vessels.”
The tososan ingredients generally include 5-10 kinds of traditional kanpo herbs and spices, which may vary by region, taste, and maker.  Sansho pepper, bellflower root, cinnamon, citrus peel, licorice, benihana, clove, cang zhu, and fennel are common ingredients. Sansho pepper has antibacterial effects and soothing for the stomach; bellflower root is a relaxant and pain relief; cinnamon bark aids digestion; bellflower is anti-inflammatory; citrus peel soothes the stomach.
Sake and mirin contain nutrients such as glucose and amino acids, which can help promote blood circulation, amongst other effects. In general, otoso contains a slew of ingredients that can aid digestion at a time when our over-indulged systems can use some help, and boost our immune systems in the chill of winter. Health-providing alcoholic beverages are not uncommon in Japan, known as yakushu. That said, it is still booze, so the law of diminishing returns applies.
To make otoso, combine about 300ml of sake and hon mirin (real-deal mirin, without additive and extra sugar), and soak the tososan pouch in it – if you are buying one pre-prepared. Making it from scratch, with herbs and spices to suit your preference, is also an option. A lot of sake makes it a drier brew, and a lot of mirin makes it quite sweet and rich, so adjust to your preference. Allow the mixture to infused for 7-8 hours, then remove the spices.

I found pouches of tososan online, as well as at the supermarket nearby in the days before New Year. I chose an arabashiri sake by Masumi Brewery in Nagano, as the style is a freshly pressed sake available seasonally during the winter period. It is fresh, tangy and dry, and balanced well with the mirin and spices.

As we look to slower ways of living and reviving the wisdom and practices of our ancestors, traditions have a way of sneaking back into everyday life.

Kyokusui-no-en, a practice that began around the 5th century in Japan, where a group gather by a stream on the 3rd March, and compose a piece of poetry to the time that it takes to float a sakazuki filled with sake down the stream. They pluck the sakazuki from the water and down the sake as they recite the poem and become more inspired. This practice disappeared around the 10th century, but was revived in 1963.

"In recent years, traditional  Japanese culture and practices have been getting renewed attention. In addition to this, lifestyles using medicinal plants has also been attracting attention. So there is a good chance that the number of people who will adopt otoso may increase.”

            Kakuro Sugimoto

At Sugimoto’s otoso workshop held in Tokyo in December recently, he says that the participants enjoyed making their own tososan.

“Everyone looked forward to making otoso. The liked the idea of being able to make their own original blends.”

He even suggests adding a slug of your favorite liquor (rum, whiskey, shochu) along with, or instead of, the sake and mirin.

“I work in the medicinal herb industry and feel that people are becoming more and more interested in the possibilities of herbs, so I think little by little, there is the chance for otoso culture to be revived.”

Misa Murata
I asked Misa if she could provide a recipe for her own, new wave, osoto.

The theme Misa chose for her brew is, ‘Things I can receive from my surroundings.’

“I chose sake and mirin from my local sake brewery in Aichi Prefecture, the yuzu came from my neighbor, and the kuromogi come from a farmer I have a good relationship with,” says Misa. 

“By choosing local products and supporting local producers you care for, its a way of showing gratitude for the people who tend to the land every day. By doing this, we can truly spread a wonderful Japanese culture of otoso for a modern era.”

“I want to come up with new recipes. Times are changing, and I want to use things that are close to us today, both in terms of physical proximity, and in relevance and accessibility in modern life.”

Misa Murata

“When I drink otoso, I feel like the new year begins.

“By eating and drinking to celebrate the calendar, it sets milestones and a good rhythm in life.”

Kakuro Sugimoto