New Year’s in Japan
The start of 2009 is just days away. For some readers this will be your first New Year’s in Japan, while for others it may be one of many. Japan has its own set of traditions to celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, some of which may be different from those practiced in your own country.
First, let us examine the practices that take place during the period leading up to the New Year. A widespread practice is the custom of sending nengajo, New Year’s postcards. As long as your postcards are mailed within a certain timeframe the post office will ensure that they arrive at their respective destinations on January 1st. Pre-made cards are available in stores, but there has been an increase in the number of “do-it-yourself” nengajo—you can print nengajo with photographs at home, for example—thanks to current technology.
In the days leading up to New Year’s, many families thoroughly clean their households. They do so not only to keep their households neat, but also to welcome the god of the New Year. Bonenkai, literally “parties to forget the year,” also take place in the final days of the year, often with one’s co-workers.
On New Year’s Eve, people may choose to stay at home and spend time with their family. One way to spend time together is in front of the television. The annual Kohaku Utagassen, or Red and White Song Contest, will commence for the 59th time on December 31st. The contest pits the red team, comprised of female singers, against the white team, comprised of male singers. A vote takes place at the end, and the side with the most number of votes is declared the winner. If you have an interest in either popular Japanese music or more traditional enka music it is not to be missed!
People may also choose to go to a temple and welcome the year in a more traditional way. Temples ring bells 108 times, 107 times in the current year and once more on the first, in order to bring about an auspicious beginning to the New Year. This practice is known as joya no kane. The number 108 represents the number of worldly desires in Buddhism. Ringing temple bells 108 times is thought to drive away these desires.
No matter how you choose to spend your New Year’s Eve, there is a simple way to welcome the New Year in Japanese fashion: eat toshikoshi soba. The custom of eating toshikoshi soba, literally “year-crossing buckwheat noodles,” takes place on New Year’s Eve. These noodles are long, symbolizing longevity. Some people believe it is bad luck not to finish all of these noodles, so make sure you eat all of your noodles!
Osechi ryori is eaten on New Year’s Day, but the food itself is prepared in the days leading up to January 1st. Some examples of osechi ryori include ozoni (a soup containing mochi, or glutinous rice cakes), kamaboko (steamed fish cakes), kazunoko (herring roe), and kuromame (black beans). There are regional variations of osechi ryori, such as the different styles of ozoni found in the Kanto and Kansai areas. In the Kanto area, the broth is made from bonito broth and soy sauce, but in the Kansai area it is miso based.
On New Year’s Day, it is customary to visit a shrine or temple for what is called hatsumode. Visitors pray for a safe, healthy year. During this time many people will wear their best or new clothes, including kimonos. Old protective amulets, or omamori, are thought to bring bad luck if they are not disposed of in a proper manner, so hatsumode is an excellent opportunity to dispose of your old omamori and purchase a new one.
Children receive otoshidama on New Year’s Day from relatives. Otoshidama are envelopes that contain money. The amount of money inside the envelope varies.
Traditional New Year’s decorations include kadomatsu and kagami mochi. Kadomatsu, literally “gate pine,” are decorations made of pine and bamboo that are placed at the entrance to one’s home. The decorations include three large stalks of bamboo, but the design surrounding the bamboo varies. Kagami mochi consists of a stand with two mochi. The bottom mochi is larger than the top mochi. There is a small orange, called a daidai, on top of the smaller mochi. While daidai in this context refers to an orange, daidai can also mean generation to generation. This decoration is called kagami mochi because of the mochi are said to have resembled a mirror or kagami. Perhaps you have seen these decorations at a local store.
New Year’s is a time to relax and visit with friends and family, so please enjoy yourselves! We hope that all of our readers have a happy, healthy 2009!