Tokyo's New Year rush is on for gourmet carry-outs

December 30, 1990|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Mom, the man's here with the carry-out food -- where's the $500?

A scene something like that is being played out in homes all over Tokyo this holiday weekend, as it is at this time every year when Japanese families receive take-home food orders that will give Mom a break from cooking during the biggest annual celebration on the country's calendar.

This food didn't come from the neighborhood pizzeria.

Packaged not in paper or plastic but in elegantly hand-made bamboo or lacquer boxes, these carry-out provisions have their own name, osechi. They come from gourmet food boutiques and pricey department stores, at figures that start around $100 for a family of four and quickly run up to the $700 range.

Top prices this year ran to about $2,300 for three days' provisions for a family of four.

That price covered the work of a famous hotel chef who prepared only 15 sets of osechi, mostly lobster, shrimps and abalone, named "Banquets of the Gods."

"It has to be special," said Mariko Yamaguchi, an assistant financial analyst. "These days, you have to not only give your mother a break from cooking but also compliment her by implying that only a famous gourmet cook can even substitute for her for a couple days."

Osechi are a case-study in the Japanese genius for keeping centuries-old traditions alive by adapting them to the ever-richer circumstances of the country.

For as long as history records, at least 1,800 years, Japanese have made the arrival of a new year the occasion for a break from the workaday world.

To include mothers in the break, it was for centuries a tradition to have the family pitch in during the week before the holiday, to put together enough food to see the house hold through a celebration that usually lasts at least three days.

That custom began to change, but not to die, amid the soaring prosperity of the decades since the U.S. Occupation after World War II.

Today, Japanese families do much less pitching in and much more going out. This has meant that, in a country where take-home food is as likely to come from a glittery department store as it is from a fast-food shop, New Year's has become a monumental rush season for gourmet carry-out.

It takes organization to deal with the crush. In June and July, most big department stores are working with printing contractors to produce full-color osechi brochures.

The stores have competed with each other for contracts with famous restaurants to provide the prestigious gourmet lunch boxes that will highlight the brochures' offerings.

By December, most department stores are operating separate counters for osechi orders. Four or five young women work at nothing else for most of the month.

At the Matsuya department store, the oldest and biggest in the neon-walled Ginza shopping and nightclub district, osechi from four restaurants in Kyoto are the highlight of a brochure that spreads 48 take-home packages across five full-color pages.

One of its prime offerings goes for 98,000 yen, about $750.

For this, the family will enjoy three days of dinners prepared by one of Kyoto's many restaurants, a three-box collection that is offered as provisions for three or four people but in which most of the shrimps, sushi pieces and other offerings come in groups of three or six.

For the more cosmopolitan, Matsuya and other osechi sellers also offer to put up Chinese, French and other foreign foods in equally fancy lacquered or bamboo boxes.

About one-quarter of the offerings on most brochures are foreign. The foreign dishes tend to be in the middle-price ranges, from $200 to $400 for a family of four, but often they include food for only one main meal.

Several hundred dollars for a couple days' worth of carry-out food can seem a bargain to many Japanese.

"It's a chance to try out the flavors of a famous restaurant at maybe one-third what it would cost to eat the same food if you took the same number of people there and had it served to you," Ms. Yamaguchi said. "Really good Japanese traditional food has become so expensive, you can only eat it on an expense account or for a holiday."

But department stores have not yet driven homemade osechi fromthe field.

Cooking schools thrive on the homemade variety, offering courses that teach tens of thousands of women how to make it in classes that cost about $450 for 20 one-hour sessions. Most cooking schools reported that their enrollments were up 10 to 30 percent this year.

Most housewives still make dishes at home to go with the family's carry-out order.

The Takara brewery, makers of several popular brands of sake, the national rice-wine, polled housewives in the 30-40 age group and found that 90 percent of the respondents cook at least one osechi item at home.

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