Guest writer: Urusai_Uni#0007
It’s that time of year again where Japan is getting ready for one of it’s most popular winter holidays: Oshōgatsu, otherwise known as New Year’s! This is Japan’s holiday for families to spend time together and is also very important in culturally and religiously. Around the world, countries and people have very different ways of celebrating New Year’s, and Japan is no different. Here’s a little bit of a look into what New Year’s in Japan is like.
Pre-New Year’s Eve
Before we can celebrate the new year we have to make sure we’re ready for it and that means cleaning! Osouji, or “Big Cleaning,” is like spring cleaning in western countries. It’s also a good opportunity to clean things like hard to reach spaces or large appliances. Osouji is not limited to just the household either. Schools and workplaces also partake in heavy duty cleaning, usually starting the second week of December, up to New Year’s Eve.
Along with literal cleaning, companies also clean out their stock, offering discounted fukubukuro, aka “lucky packs.” These are like blind bags with several products at a discounted price and you usually don’t know what you’ll get. Companies also take advantage of the popularity of fukubukuro and may sell special edition products specifically made for them.
Also to prepare for New Year’s, several different types of decorations, or Okazari, are put on display. Kagami Mochi are two tier stacks of mochi with a mandarin, called a daidai, stacked on top. These mochi are usually home made but fake ones made of plastic or styrofoam are becoming more and more common because they require less work to make. Another ornament are kadomatsu, pairs of bamboo and pine gates that sit on either side of the front door to welcome home ancestral spirits or deities.
New Year’s Eve
After all that cleaning, it’s now time to relax! New Year’s Eve in Japan is a quiet day, unlike in many other countries which may have huge parties and fireworks. New Year’s is a time for family to spend time together. A tradition that isn’t as old as some of the others, but is a tradition nonetheless, is to watch the NHK Kōhaku Uta Gassen, an annual television special where famous singers compete against each other on either the red team or the white team. It’s 4.5 hours and has been running for over 50 years!
For Dinner, Toshikoshi Soba is served. It is a hot soba (buckwheat noodles) soup that is eaten to symbolize longevity but also to cut away and let go of hardships in the old year and to usher in the new. Toshi means “year” and Goshi (Koshi) means “to cross over” so its name literally translates to “year crossing over noodles”!
Finally, in the last hour of the old year, the Joya no Kane begins. Monks ring giant bells at buddhist temples starting at about 11pm. The bells are rung 108 times with the last ring coinciding with midnight and the beginning of the new year. The bell ringing is to chase out bad feelings and start anew.
Gantan, New Year’s Morning
It’s finally Gantan and one of the first things many people do in the morning is eat breakfast. New Year’s breakfast often consists of Ozoni, a simple soup with mochi in it. Breakfast may also be something called Osechi Ryōri. Osechi is a collection of different foods packed into an often three tiered bento box and is usually eaten for several days. New Year’s is not a day for work so Osechi is often prepared (or bought) several days in advance. This tradition dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185) so the traditional foods like kamaboko (red and white fish cakes), lotus root and black beans don’t need to be refrigerated. However, sushi and sashimi are very common now that refrigerators are the norm.
Before the sun rises, many people go outside, often to places like mountains in order to appreciate the first sunrise of the year. Hatsuhinode literally translates to “first sunrise” and it’s even popular to travel in order to get to the best sunrise watching spot!
Along with Hatsuhinode is Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year. At the shrine, people pray and make their offerings as well as buying new Omamori, small lucky charms. Old Omamori are dropped off to be burned as it is bad luck to hold onto ones from past years. Omikuji, or fortunes, are also often bought. Omikuji that are kichi (lucky or blessed), are kept and ones that are kyō (cursed), are tied up on walls of wires at the shrine in hopes to ward it off and leave it behind.
Ganjitsu and Beyond
Other activities on Ganjitsu (New Year’s Day) include playing games with family like Hanetsuki (a net-less version of badminton played with wooden rackets) and Koma (spinning tops). Takoage (kite flying) is also a popular activity.
Themed postcards called Nengajō are sent to relatives and are popular to open and read on New Year’s. They often depict the year’s zodiac animal and the words “Akemashite Omedetou”, aka “Happy New Year’s”! Children especially look forward to Otoshidama, a kind of money gift, from their relatives. The amount of money is different depending on the child’s age, going up as the child gets older.
I hope this gave you a little bit of insight into one of Japan’s most important holidays! New Year’s is Japan’s time to relax and spend time with family, and to start the new year off on a good note.