How the Japanese start the New Year


Japan is famous for its long-lived, health conscious  population, and this is in part due to their food-as-medicine approach, and their traditions around the New Year are no different.

These are two Japanese traditions (featuring high levels of spermidine, of course!) practiced at the beginning of the year that support detoxification and optimum nutrition. 

Nanakusa-gayu  - rice porridge with seven herbs

On the morning of the 7th day of the New Year, it is a tradition to eat rice porridge with seven special herbs. This is believed to ward off evil spirits and to bring in good spirits and health for the new year.  The seven herbs were first recorded in a 14th century poem, but the tradition is much older. #detoxday, anyone? 

In Japan, rice porridge, called okayu in Japanese, is usually served when you are sick. After indulging in festive food over the New Year’s holiday, a simple rice porridge with herbs and a hint of salt would help sooth your delicate tummy. The seven herbs are also a source of nutrition when green vegetables are scarce in winter.

In addition, rice porridge is often made with rice that has been boiled, cooled and then heated again by adding boiling water. The process of boiling rice and then cooling it, turns it into a resistant starch that feeds the beneficial bugs in our gut biome.

Nanakusa (literally, “seven herbs”), are seven edible wild herbs: seri (oenanthe javanica), nazuna (Shepherd’s purse), gogyo (cudweed), hakobera (chickweed), hotokenoza (nipplewort), suzuna (turnip), and suzushiro (daikon, radish). With the exception of turnip and radish, it is difficult to buy these herbs in the supermarket, as they just grow wild and must be foraged. 

These herbs are also believed to have health benefits. For example, seri helps increase appetite and alleviate fever; gogyo protects against colds; hotokenoza improves condition of the stomach and gut; suzuna helps constipation; and suzushiro helps digestion.


Setsubun - “seasonal partition”

There is an annual ritual in Japan where soy beans, a star ingredient containing high levels of spermidine, takes a particular leading role.

Setsubun, which means “seasonal partition” in Japanese, falls on the day before the first day of spring based on the 24 divisions of the traditional solar year, not on the lunar calendar. This year (2021) it is on February 2nd.

It is believed that bad spirits tend to appear around the time of seasonal changes, so at setsubun people throw roasted soy beans at oni (monsters) representing bad spirits to ward them off and welcome the new year.

This bean scattering (known as mamemaki in Japanese) takes place at home where a member of the family wears an oni mask, but you can also see mamemaki at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The soy beans must be roasted ( they are then called fukumame, or fortune beans). 

You are expected to eat the same number of fortune beans as your age to bring in good spirits.  It obviously gets more difficult to eat them all when you get older, so you can also turn the fortune beans into tea (called fortune tea) by pouring hot water over them together with sour plums and kelp, another staple in Japanese cuisine!

Eating according to the seasons allows different colonies within the gut to be fed since they each live off of different types of prebiotic fibers. And having as diverse a gut biome as possible has been linked with higher immunity and overall health and well-being.

Let us know in the comments how you incorporate seasonal eating into your life!




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