Probably there are different ways to spends holidays on the New Year depending on the cultural backgrounds of every country and also on the customs and traditions in your family. In Japan there is also a long list of things to do during this important event so here is a guide to how Japanese people spend their time during New Year and a few of the most important traditions during oshogatsu (お正月/Japanese New Year).
Osechi-ryōri is a New Year traditional food in Japan that contains dried or sweet ingredients such as seaweed, Kazunoko (herring roe),Gomame (also known as tazukuri) that are dried sardines, Kuromame(black beans) vegetables such as gobo (burdock root),seafood, Konnyaku (devil’s-tongue starch) etc. The family usually gathers in the morning of the New Year and shares the Osechi in a convivial and cheerful atmosphere.
The sticky white dumpling made from rice is called Mochi(もち) and during the New Year, Japanese make a special shape from Mochi turning it into “Kagami Mochi”. Prepared with the soup ozoni(お雑煮), a New Year traditional Japanese dish, is used to welcome the New Year and eaten during the beginning of January.
The Kagami Mochi is formed from two round cakes of mochi with a tangerine (daidai) placed on the top of it. The Tangerine is supposed to be a symbol for “good year” and “prosperity”, having as meaning “several generations.”
Traditionally, Japanese eat Soba(Japanese noodles made from buckwheat flour) one hour before the New Year`s countdown. Soba is a pretty tender type of noodles so it is quite easy to cut into halves. From ancient times, Japanese believed that eating Soba before the next year starts will help ensure an auspicious new year as it helps cutting bad things from previous one.
On New Year or hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year), people in Japan visit the shrine or temple around midnight to pray to the gods for a good year to come for their families and their beloved ones. The monks ring a huge bell for 108 times to the countdown and it is believed that it will reduce 108 of kleshas (factors that produce mental torment). The 108 times are equal to 108 of kleshas. Buddhism says life is suffering and the kleshas represent the mirror of the suffering divided in 5 principal forms : anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy, desire, depression.
People visit the shrine and temples to hear the bell rings and reduce the 108 kleshas from their minds.
The busiest times for the Japanese post offices is most probably end of December and beginning of January. The reason lays in the Japanese tradition to send New Year`s greetings (nengajo/年賀状)or postcards(Nenga-hagaki/年賀はがき). The custom dates back to the Heian Period and is pretty similar to the custom of sending Christmas cards in the Western culture. Nowadays, we have many ways of contacting each other and see if we`re doing well or not, but in the past, people didn`t have many means of communication so that`s how the nenganjo tradition was born: to tell and hear from the beloved ones and take a load off your mind knowing that they are doing fine. Even though we now communicate via email or social media, New Year`s postcards are still a significant part of the Japanese culture and have become an yearly common custom taking many different forms during the years.
Japanese have a culture of giving money to children during the New Year. This practice is known as otoshidama. A symbolic amount of money is handed out in small decorated envelopes called pochi-bukuro.
The Kadomatsu is a traditional Japanese decoration(made from bamboo and pine) and occupies an important place in the New Years celebrations, here in Japan. It is usually 2 pines forming a gate, set in front of homes in order to welcome ancestral spirits or “kami”(gods) and have good luck in the coming year.
The Shimekazari, another traditional ornament during this period represents a brand new start and Japanese hang it on the top of their house entrance usually right after Christmas as it is believed it brings good luck and has as role preventing bad spirits from entering and inviting the deities.
Recently, many young Japanese people tend to stay with their friends at the beginning of the New Year and similar to other countries, they gather somewhere for the countdown just before the midnight and celebrate the event together. Sometimes, you might get lucky and see some fireworks, but most of the times, Japan`s New Year is typically quiet as it is religiously linked to the Buddhism traditions, so is more like families gathering to welcome the New Year together, a solemn celebration and a quiet evening with your beloved ones.