Probably there are different ways to spend the New Year’s holidays depending on the cultural background of every country and also on the customs and traditions in your own family. In Japan there is also a long list of cultural things to do during this important event. 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, and it basically a huge ornate bento box of delicious and auspicious food items. An osechi ryuori bento usually 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. This meal takes a long time to prepare, so many families nowadays also order it in advance from supermarkets, restaurants etc. The family usually gathers in the morning of the New Year and shares the Osechi in a 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, Kagami mochi is meant to welcome the New Year and it’s 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”, and of the meanings is “several generations” which implies longevity.
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. Another explanation for soba’s auspicious symbolism is said to be the length of noodles that signifies long life.
On hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year), people in Japan visit the shrine or temple around midnight on New Year’s Eve to pray to the gods for a good year to come. The shrine staff 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 the 108 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 shrines and temples to hear the bells ring and reduce the 108 kleshas from their minds.
The busiest time for the Japanese post office is most probably end of December and beginning of January. The reason lies 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 West. 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 a yearly common custom taking many different forms during the years.
The Japanese have a custom of giving money to children as a gift for 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 it occupies an important place in the New Years celebrations 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, is yet another traditional ornament for the New Year holidays and it represents a brand new start. The Japanese custom is to hang it on the house entrance usually right after Christmas, as it is believed it brings good luck, has a role in preventing bad spirits from entering, and it is 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 midnight and celebrate the event together. There are more and more countdown parties in night clubs, bars and hotels, as well New Year’s concerts and performances. 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.
Some people make the best of both worlds – they go to a countdown party with friends, but go and visit a shrine for hatsumode right after midnight!
: AC photo/