New Year In Japan
New Year’s is celebrated in numerous ways by people living in different countries all around the world, and Japan is no exception. Within Japan itself, there are traditional and modern ways to ring in the new year, with everything from special decorations and greetings cards, to special soba noodles and shopping deals.
Japanese New Years Traditions Includes:
Hatsumōde (初詣 hatsumōde) is the first Shinto shrine visit of the Japanese New Year. Many visits on the first, second, or third day of the year as most are off work on those days. Generally, wishes for the new year are made, new omamori (charms or amulets) are bought, and the old ones are returned to the shrine so they can be burned. There are often long lines at major shrines throughout Japan.
Most of the people in Japan are off work from December 29 until January 3 of every year. It is during this time that the house is cleaned, debts are paid, friends and family are visited and gifts are exchanged. It would be customary to spend the early morning of New Year’s Day in domestic worship, followed by sake—often containing edible gold flakes—and special celebration food. During the hatsumōde, it is common for men to wear a full kimono—one of the rare chances to see them doing so across a year. The act of worship is generally quite brief and individual and may involve queuing at popular shrines. The o-mamori vary substantially in price.
A common custom during hatsumōde is to buy a written oracle called omikuji. If your omikuji predicts bad luck you can tie it onto a tree on the shrine grounds, in the hope that its prediction will not come true. The omikuji goes into detail and tells you how you will do in various areas in your life, such as business and love, for that year. Often a good-luck charm comes with the omikuji when you buy it, which is believed to summon good luck and money your way.
The sight of sunrise is familiar to early risers. On New Year’s Day the experience takes on a more special meaning — legend has it the sun goddess Amaterasu created this country after all.
So Jan. 1 is the one day that people who like to sleep in may be tempted to wake up early and experience hatsuhinode (the first sunrise of the year). Of course, late risers may be more easily convinced just to go all night on New Year’s Eve.
Japanese used to believe that Toshigami, a god bringing good luck, appeared with the first sunrise of the year. Therefore, you can benefit from hatsuhinode wherever you live, but nothing beats the majestic beauty of experiencing it with Mount Fuji in the background. While Japan’s most famous mountain can’t be climbed at this time of the year due to snow, there are several places that can still provide you with some excellent Instagram shots. These include spots in Yamanashi Prefecture such as Lake Motosu, Lake Yamanaka and the vicinity of a monument to the poet Kotaro Takamura (1883-1956) in the town of Fujikawa, where the sun should rise near 6:50 a.m.
There’s always a chance of cold weather and a swarm of tourists descending on these spots on New Year’s Day, so be sure to dress warmly and leave for your destination early.
Generally, the good luck charms in Japan are sold throughout the year, but there are a few notable exceptions. Hamaya, the “demon-breaking arrow”, is sold at Shinto shrines only during the first days of the year.
Hamaya is a decorative arrow said to bring good luck and the origins of this tradition are in the Edo period when, at the first celebration of the New Year, it was a custom to bring for the newborn boys a gift consisting in a decorative set of bow and arrow (hamayumi). Today, hamayumi are not as popular as hamaya, but there are still shrines selling them during the first days of the New Year. I bought one for myself last year at the Asakusa Shrine.
Dondo-Yaki is an event held in various regions in Japan after the New Year’s Holidays are over. It is a traditional event where everyone in the neighborhood gathers around a powerfully-burning bonfire to wish for happiness in the new year.
Osechi-ryōri is a traditional Japanese New Year food. The tradition started in the Heian period (794-1185). Osechi is easily recognizable by their special boxes called jūbako, which resemble bentō boxes. Like bentō boxes, jūbako are often kept stacked before and after use.
The term osechi originally referred to o-sechi, a season or significant period. New Year’s Day was one of the five seasonal festivals in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. This custom of celebrating particular days was introduced from China into Japan.
Originally, during the first three days of the New Year, it was a taboo to use a hearth and cook meals, except when cooking zōni. Osechi was made by the close of the previous year, as women did not cook in the New Year.
In the earliest days, osechi consisted only of nimono, boiled vegetables with soy sauce and sugar or mirin. Over the generations, the variety of food included in osechi has increased. Today it may refer to anything prepared specially for the New Year, and some foreign dishes have been adopted as “Westernized osechi” or as “Korean-style osechi“. And while osechi was traditionally prepared at home, it is also sold ready-made in specialty stores, grocery stores, and even convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven.
Especially in households where osechi is still homemade, toshi-koshi soba is eaten on New Year’s Eve. Its name literally means “year-crossing soba.” Although there may be some symbolism attributed to it (i.e., long life, health and energy in the upcoming year), this tradition may be regarded as largely pragmatic: the traditional wife, busy cooking several days’ worth of food for everyone, would likely prefer to make something simple for immediate consumption. It is considered bad luck by many Japanese to leave any toshi-koshi soba uneaten.
The Emperor’s Greeting
At the Imperial Palace each year on 1 January, Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress receive New Year greetings from His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince and the rest of the Imperial Family; the Speaker and Vice-Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President and Vice-President of the House of Councillors; Diet members; the Prime Minister; Ministers of State; the Chief Justice and Justices of the Supreme Court; other government officials with Imperial attestation (Ninshokan); Administrative Vice-Ministers of Ministries and Agencies and other leading figures of legislative, executive and judicial organs; prefectural governors and chairpersons of prefectural assemblies; and heads of diplomatic missions to Japan and their spouses. This ceremony is considered a state event.
Bonshō (Japanese: 梵鐘, Buddhist bells), also known as tsurigane (釣り鐘, hanging bells) or ōgane (大鐘, great bells) are large bells found in Buddhist temples throughout Japan, used to summon the monks to prayer and to demarcate periods of time. Rather than containing a clapper, bonshō are struck from the outside, using either a handheld mallet or a beam suspended on ropes.
The bells are usually made from bronze, using a form of expendable mold casting. They are typically augmented and ornamented with a variety of bosses, raised bands and inscriptions. The earliest of these bells in Japan date to around 600 CE, although the general design is of much earlier Chinese origin and shares some of the features seen in ancient Chinese bells. The bells’ penetrating and pervasive tone carries over considerable distances, which led to their use as signals, timekeepers and alarms. In addition, the sound of the bell is thought to have supernatural properties; it is believed, for example, that it can be heard in the underworld. The spiritual significance of bonshō means that they play an important role in Buddhist ceremonies, particularly the New Year and Bon festivals. Throughout Japanese history, these bells have become associated with stories and legends, both fictional, such as the Benkei Bell of Mii-dera, and historical, such as the bell of Hōkō-ji. In modern times, bonshō have become symbols of world peace.
Fukubukuro (福袋, [ɸɯkɯbɯkɯɾo], “lucky bag”) is a Japanese New Year custom in which merchants make grab bags filled with unknown random contents and sell them for a substantial discount, usually 50% or more off the list price of the items contained within. The low prices are usually done to attract customers to shop at that store during the new year. The term is formed from Japanese fuku (福, meaning “good fortune” or “luck”) and fukuro (袋, meaning “bag”). The change of fukuro to bukuro is the phenomenon known as rendaku. The fuku comes from the Japanese saying that “there is fortune in leftovers”. Popular stores’ fukubukuro usually are snapped up quickly by eager customers, with some stores having long lines snake around city blocks hours before the store opens on New Year’s Day.
Fukubukuro are an easy way for stores to unload excess and unwanted merchandise from the previous year, due to a Japanese superstition that one must not start the New Year with unwanted items from the previous year and start clean. Nowadays, some fukubukuro are pushed as a lavish New Year’s event, where the contents are revealed beforehand, but this practice is criticized as just a renaming of selling things as sets.
Ema are small wooden plaques, common to Japan, in which Shinto and Buddhist worshippers write prayers or wishes. The ema are left hanging up at the shrine, where the kami (spirits or gods) are believed to receive them. Typically 15 cm wide and 9 cm high, they often carry images or are shaped like animals, or symbols from the zodiac, Shinto, or the particular shrine or temple. In ancient times people would donate horses to the shrines for good favor; over time this was transferred to a wooden plaque with a picture of a horse, and later still to the various wooden plaques sold today for the same purpose. Once inscribed with a wish, Ema are hung at the shrine until they are ritually burned at special events, symbolic of the liberation of the wish from the writer.
O-mikuji are random fortunes written on strips of paper at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan. Literally “sacred lot”, these are usually received by making a small offering (generally a five-yen coin as it is considered good luck) and randomly choosing one from a box, hoping for the resulting fortune to be good. As of 2011 coin-slot machines sometimes dispense o-mikuji.
The o-mikuji predicts the person’s chances of his or her hopes coming true, of finding a good match, or generally matters of health, fortune, life, etc. When the prediction is bad, it is a custom to fold up the strip of paper and attach it to a pine tree or a wall of metal wires alongside other bad fortunes in the temple or shrine grounds. A purported reason for this custom is a pun on the word for pine tree and the verb ‘to wait’ the idea being that the bad luck will wait by the tree rather than attach itself to the bearer. In the event of the fortune being good, the bearer has two options: he or she can also tie it to the tree or wires so that the fortune has a greater effect or he or she can keep it for luck. O-mikuji are available at most shrines and remains one of the traditional activities related to shrine-going.
A kadomatsu is a traditional Japanese decoration as yorishiro of the New Year placed in pairs in front of homes to welcome ancestral spirits or kami of the harvest. They are placed after Christmas until January 7 (or January 15 during the Edo period) and are considered temporary housing (shintai) for kami. Designs for kadomatsu vary depending on region but are typically made of pine, bamboo, and sometimes ume tree sprigs which represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness, respectively. “The fundamental function of the New Year ceremonies is to honor and receive the toshigami (deity), who will then bring a bountiful harvest for farmers and bestow the ancestors’ blessing on everyone.” After January 15 (or in many instances the 19th) the kadomatsu is burned to appease the kami or toshigami and release them.
On New Year’s Day, Japanese people have a custom known as otoshidama where adult relatives give money to children. It is handed out in small decorated envelopes called pochibukuro, similar to Shūgi-bukuro or Chinese hóngbāo and to the Scottish handsel. In the Edo period, large stores and wealthy families would give out a small bag of mochi and a Mandarin orange to spread happiness all around. The amount of money given depends on the age of the child but is usually the same if there is more than one child so that no one feels slighted. It is not uncommon for amounts greater than ¥5,000 (approximately US$50) to be given.
Toso is drunk to flush away the previous year’s maladies and to aspire to lead a long life. For generations, it has been said that “if one person drinks this his family will not fall ill; if the whole family does no-one in the village will fall ill”, and has been a staple part of New Year’s osechi cuisine in Japan.
Toso is written using two kanji: 蘇 representing evil spirits and 屠 meaning to defeat.
Toso is made by combining several medicinal herbs to form tososan, a spicy mixture, which is then soaked in sake or mirin. If made with mirin, essentially a sweet sake, it is suitable for drinking, but using fermented mirin seasoning would not be appropriate as it is too salty.
Three sizes of cup, called sakazuki (盃) (see picture), are used starting with the smallest and passed round with each family member or guest taking a sip. Drinking rituals differ by region, but in formal situations would proceed from youngest to eldest. This tradition originated in China whereby the young effectively test the drink for toxins. However, in Japan, around the beginning of the Meiji or Shōwa periods, custom changed and the head of the household usually takes the first drink.
The tradition of drinking toso at the New Year began in the Tang Dynasty in China and was adopted by Japanese aristocrats during the Heian period. The first cup drunk would be made with tososan, and the second and third cups with different varieties called byakusan and toshōsan.
The drinking ceremony finally passed to the general public and doctors would give out tososan. Even today some chemist shops have retained the custom and give tososan away as a free gift at the end of the year.