This spiced sake, considered to have medicinal qualities, is typically drunk around New Year's to ensure good health, eternal youth and long life. Records show that the custom of drinking toso was practiced at court in the early ninth century.
The drink is prepared by steeping in sake or mirin (sweet sake) a package of spices, or tososan - an herbal mixture of cinnamon bark, the seeds of sansho (Japanese prickly ash), and the roots of medicinal plants such as bofu and okera, a perennial herb that grows in sunny, dry mountainous areas. Similarly prepared spiced beverages include Germany's gluhwein and the mulled wine found in Europe, especially around Christmastime.
Toso was introduced to Japan from China, where the tradition involved hanging a red sack of herbs in a well on the evening of New Year's Eve. The next day, the bag was soaked in sake and offered to a deity in a sakazuki, or sake cup. Then one family member drank the toso while the others wished for good health.
Toso is usually served in special vessels - a lacquerware pot, similar in shape to a teapot, and shallow cups, often seen stacked in threes, from largest to smallest, on an individual serving table. A traditional New Year's decoration affixed to the pot adds to the festive significance of the occasion.