The New Year stands before us… like a chapter in a book, waiting to be written. It brings lots of hopes and considered special all around the word. For the Japanese people Oshogatsu(New Year) is the most important celebration of the year. This is the time of year when this ultra modern, technology tycoon of the world goes back to its century old customs and traditions. In Japan this holiday season is full of traditions from Shinto, Buddhism. At the heart of the Japanese New Year tradition is the notion of renewal.
The New Year in Japan is what Christmas is to western world. Japanese people see the New Year as a time to spend with friends and family. It is an important time in Japan’s religious calendar. Though unlike many other East Asian counties, Japan celebrates the New Year as per the Gregorian calendar on 1st of January; the celebration takes place according to indigenous Japanese Traditions and customs.
Here are Top 10 fascinating elements of Japanese New year celebration.
New Year preparations start with Osoji. Osoji means the grand yearend cleaning ritual before a fresh start. Originally, this cleaning and purification was done on December 13, and it was known as Susuharai Day. Nowadays, new year cleaning is done on 13th until the 28th. As per the Shinto belief gods visit our homes on New Year; so to welcome them and celebrate New Year people purify their homes and remove last year’s clutter by cleaning from top to bottom. Osoji has a metaphoric meaning as well. Cleansing of the physical and spiritual stains of the past year is crucial and is expected in this age old ritual. This involves house cleaning, settling business accounts and tidying up personal affairs. The idea behind Osoji is finishing off the old year properly before making a new start.
Nengajo is Japanese greeting cards especially for the occasion of New Year. Nengajo are used to send new year wishes to friends and relatives. Japanese people send Nengajo so that they arrive with the good wishes on the very first day of the year. These cards will largely contain the animal of the year representing the Chinese zodiac sign. Addressing is generally done by hand to give it a personal touch.
In the end of December you will see Kadomatsu everywhere in Japan. Kadomatsu is distinctive New Year decoration with mainly pine, bamboo and plum blossom. Pine has a great importance in Japanese culture. In Japanese culture pine is symbol of strength, longevity and youthful optimism. The bamboo represents resilience, rapid growth along with dignity. The apricot or plum blossom are considered symbols of fertility and determination in adversity. As per the Shinto belief gods visit our homes on New Year and to invite and welcome them ‘Kadomatsu’ are placed outside the home. Generally places are decorated with Kadomatsu on any date from the 13th to the 28th and these decorations remain at the front of the house until January 7.
Shimenawa is a decorative rope formed with rice-straw arranged in a peculiar fashion. It is used as a Talisman against evil and is placed at the entrance of the house. In Shinto traditions Shimenawa indicates sacred area and also signifies that the home has been purified in order to welcome the gods. It is old belief that Shimenawa protect the place from any evil as no evil can cross the shimenawa. As a custom, after the end of New Year celebration these decorations are taken to the dondoyaki, the burning of the decorations at the local shrine or temple.
‘Mochi’ or rice-cakes are inseparable part of Japanese New Year celebration. It’s customary at this time of year to have steamed rice cake (mochi). Traditionally pounding mochi by hand at home and eating it fresh was a New Year ritual. Even now in some parts of Japan people pound it by hand on the occasion of New Year. Kagami mochi is decorative New Year rice cake, it consist of two round rice cakes and a tangerine (called ‘daidai’) on top. Traditionally, ‘Kagami-mochi’ was a part of offerings on the occasion of new year to the gods, but in todays modern days it is simply considered as a traditional New Year decoration. After the New Year celebration is over is it is broken up with wooden mallet and eaten on January 11. Cutting it with knife is considered inauspicious.
The New Year is the time to indulge in good food. Osechi Ryori’-the New Year food is a feast for the eyes as much as the stomach. This is a centuries old tradition that dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185). It is full of symbols and auspicious elements. For example black soy beans is a symbol of good health, Herring roe is considered symbol of fertility and good harvest. Traditional colors of celebration red and white are creatively incorporated in the food. Osechi Ryori is prepared in advance before New Year’s Eve. It mostly contains dried dishes or dishes with lots of sugar and vinegar to make the food last for longer period. Now a day Osechi ryori is available in market as well. It is considered the best part of Japanese New Year celebration.
‘Hatsumode’ means ‘the first shrine visit of the year’. People visit nearby shrines or temples with their families to express their gratitude for the year that passed and to pray for safe and happy new year. Some people go for these visits at midnight but most people prefer it in the very first morning of the year. After their prayers people indulge in buying Omikuji(random fortune written on a small piece of paper) ,Omamori(Lucky Charms or talisman) and Hamaya(a decorative arrow to keep away the misfortune and attract good luck).
Otoshidama is another interesting custom related to Japanese New Year, especially for kids. Japanese children get a present from their relatives called ‘Otoshidama’. On this occasion money is given as gift to children rather than any kind of present. It is handed over in cute special decorative envelopes called ‘otoshidama bukuro’. Traditionally, otoshidama were small gifts like small bag of mochi and orange given during New Year mainly to spread joy.
Fukubukuro is relatively modern custom that has got very popular. In the late Meiji period Ginza Matsuya Department Store started this unique concept of fukubukuro and since then almost every retailer in japan has adopted it. ’Fukubukuro’ means ‘Lucky Bag’. The idea of Fukubukuro is derived from a mythological concept of ‘bag of luck’ which god carries all the time with him.From small outlets to big departmental stores, everyone offers these ‘lucky bag’ for a discounted price that contain a variety of the shop’s products, which will be a surprise; you will not know what is inside until you actually buy and open it.
There is great significance attached to all the first things you do in New Year. ‘Kakizome’ means ‘First writing of the year’. This is mostly done on 2nd of January. According to traditional beliefs performing some activity related to your interest or hobby on the second day of the New Year will improve one’s skills in it, hence many people practice their calligraphy skills. This ritual is performed using holy water (“wakamizu”) from the well. It is written by facing lucky direction of the year according to local zodiac. Poem, proverbs or Words expressing good meaning are usually written.
With the changing world, customs and traditions related to Japanese New Year celebration are also changing. Globalization and modernization are affecting the way people celebrate the good times all over the globe and Japan is not an exception to it. Huge illumination displays, glittery lights comprise beautiful structures and walkways; Grand shopping seasons have become important part of Japanese New Year celebration. However with the elements listed above, the spirit and significance of traditional New Year celebration continue to survive in Japan.