Japanese New Year's Traditions

Good morning everyone,

It's going to be a bit warmer today. Actually the whole week will be pretty much the same as today although the mornings may be a wee bit warmer starting Monday. Otherwise, we can expect daytime highs around 13C and a mix of sun and clouds all through the next week.

Sorry, today's blog is a little long. I thought it would be good for you to read about Japanese New Year traditions in English. That way, you can explain them a bit better to your English-speaking friends.

New Year’s Eve - Omisoka (大晦日)

“Omisoka” is the Japanese expression for New Year’s Eve. In order to start off the new year with a fresh mind, families and kids come together to clean up the entire house (called “osoji” - big cleaning) and use the last few days of the old year to make preparations for “osechi ryori” (see below), special decorations and rituals for New Year’s Day. As many people go back to their hometowns during this time, it's actually a great chance to visit Tokyo, because it won't be nearly as crowded as usual.

Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘)

Around midnight on New Year’s Eve, you may hear bells peal for about 1-2 hours. This Buddhist tradition is called “Joya no Kane,” and it is one of the most important rituals of the year for Buddhist temples all over Japan. No matter where you live, you can probably hear the sound of the bells as temples are in many neighborhoods.

But do you know why they strike the bell exactly 108 times? In Buddhism, it is believed that human beings are plagued by 108 types of earthly desires and feelings called “Bonnou,” exemplified by anger, adherence and jealousy. Each strike of the bell will remove one troubling “Bonnou” from you.

The kanji “Jo (除)” means “to throw away the old and move on to the new” and “Ya (夜)” means “night.” So, it is the perfect night to leave your old self behind and commence the new year with new resolutions and a clear head. By the time you count the 108th peal, you are ready to start the new year refreshed without anything troubling your mind—in theory.

Toshikoshi-soba (年越し蕎麦)

The tradition of eating soba (Japanese noodles) on New Year’s Eve is said to have become common during the Edo era (1603-1868). When soba is made, the dough is stretched and cut in a long and thin form, which is said to represent a long and healthy life. Interestingly, as soba is cut easily compared to other types of noodles, it also symbolizes a wish to cut away all the misfortunes of the old year in order to commence the new year refreshed.

Kadomatsu (門松)

You might have seen a green decoration made of pine, bamboo and plum (“ume”) trees in front of Japanese people’s houses and offices during the last few days of the old year and the first few days of the new year. It is called “kadomatsu,” and during the period from right after Christmas until January 7, it is believed to provide temporary housing for the “toshigami sama” (deity) in order to ensure a great harvest and blessings from the family’s ancestors on everyone in the home. Pine, bamboo and plum trees each symbolize longevity, prosperity and sturdiness.

Kagami-mochi (鏡もち)

“Kagami-mochi,” often translated as a mirror rice cake, is a rice cake used as a decoration. But you may wonder why it is called a mirror as it doesn’t look like a mirror at all.

However, mirrors in Japan a long time ago had a round shape, and were often used for important Shinto rituals. As mirrors are believed to be a place where gods reside, these mochi (rice cakes) are shaped like an ancient round mirror to celebrate the new year together with the gods.

On top of the rice cakes is a type of orange called “daidai” (now replaced with “mikan” most of the time). When written with different kanji “代々”, it means “over generations,” representing a wish for prosperity of descendants over generations.

New Year’s Day - Ganjitsu (元日)

Do you know the difference between these similar words, “ganjitsu” (元日) and “gantan” (元旦). Even some of my Japanese friends say “I’ve never thought about that…don’t they mean the same thing?”

Not exactly. While “ganjitsu” refers to the whole 24 hours of New Year’s Day, “gantan” only refers to the morning of New Year’s Day. The second kanji “旦” represents the sun coming up over the horizon—sunrise.

“Ganjitsu” is a pretty busy day for Japanese families. After breakfast (“osechi ryori”) with all the relatives, they visit shrines and temples and shop for New Year’s special sales ... but each of these traditions has a hidden meaning, purpose and sometimes complex way to conduct it.

Osechi Ryori (おせち料理)

“Osechi ryori” consists of traditional Japanese foods eaten at the very outset of the new year. They are served in a beautiful 3 or 4-layer bento box called “jubako” placed in the middle of the table, and are shared by families or friends surrounding it. The “osechi” tradition is said to have started in the Heian Era (794-1185), and since then, each food item in “osechi” has represented a particular wish for the new year.

For example, “renkon” (lotus root) represents a hope for a good and happy future without obstacles ahead, because you can see the other side (the future) through the holes without obstacles. 

Iwai-bashi (祝箸)

When you eat “osechi ryori,” you will use a special type of chopsticks called “iwai-bashi.” Usually, chopsticks get thinner toward one of the ends that you use to pick up food, while with “iwai-bashi,” both ends are sharp. This is because one side will be used by yourself, and the other side is believed to be used by a deity.

“Osechi ryori” is something that is offered to the deity first, who then allows you to share it so you’ll be blessed with a fruitful year ahead. So, this is one situation where you shouldn't use the top end of the chopsticks to take food from the communal plate, it would be considered disrespectful toward the deity.

Otoso (お屠蘇)

“Otoso” is sometimes translated as New Year’s sake, but when written in kanji it reveals a different meaning. The last kanji “蘇” is believed to be the name of a demon which used to harass villagers, and the middle kanji means to “kill” or “slaughter.” Now you can easily guess that the purpose of drinking “otoso” is to drive away evil spirits around you and to wish for a long life without any disease.

The tradition of “otoso,” which was originally imported from the Tang dynasty in China, where this type of sake was used for medicinal purposes, was originally only practiced as a new year ritual among the Heian nobility. It was only during the Edo era that it became a commoners’ practice.

When you drink “otoso,” families share the same three special cups. The drinking order generally starts from the youngest person of the group and ends with the oldest, whose purpose is to allow older people to absorb some vitality from the young people.

Otoshidama (お年玉)

“Otoshidama” refers to a Japanese tradition that all children look forward to every year. Kids receive small envelopes with some cash from their parents, grandparents and close relatives, generally from 5-6 people. The average amount of money per envelope is Y5,000, but it generally increases as the kids grow up.

The tradition originated as an offering of rice cakes called “kagami mochi” to “toshigami-sama,” a New Year deity. Those rice cakes, given from parents to children, were called “toshidama” in the past, and they came to be replaced with small toys, and then with money today.

Hatsumode (初詣)

“Hatsumode” is the first visit to a shrine or temple during the first few days of January, where family and relatives pray together for a fortunate year ahead. Some of the most popular shrines and temples organize festivities with stalls that sell food, “omikuji” (fortune-telling strips of paper for drawing) and lucky charms to wish for safety, prosperity of descendants, good exam results, love and wealth.

When you make a prayer at the altar, you might be confused over how the prayer is specifically conducted by Japanese people. Here’s what to do: First, throw some coins into a box in front of the altar, ring the bell using the rope hanging down from it, bow twice, clap your hands twice in front of your chest, and lastly bow one more time.

Nengajo(年賀状)

“Nengajo” refers to a special type of postcard Japanese people send to their friends and acquaintances as a form of greeting at the end of the year. This custom is quite similar to the tradition in Western countries of sending Christmas cards. They are generally delivered on Jan 1 when posted by a certain date in December thanks to a generous service operated by the post office.

“Nengajo” generally start with a standard sentence “Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu (Happy New Year)” and “Kotoshi mo Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu” (Thank you for all your support for this year in advance.) Additionally, people tend to write how they have been doing recently or their new year resolutions along with their family photo or an illustration of the coming year’s sign from the Chinese zodiac.

But greetings from your friends are not the only purpose of “nengajo.” All “nengajo” postcards have lottery numbers on them, and when delivered, the holders of the winning numbers will be able to receive various prizes, which include some expensive items like travel tickets and electronic devices.

However, in this digital age, some young people consider sending postcards as old school. For such people, a new service is becoming increasingly popular—the service that allows people to send and receive “nengajo” quickly by email or by some SNS apps, and even to attach a video clip to the “nengajo.”

Fukubukuro (福袋)

Directly translated, “fukubukuro” means a lucky bag, which is a Japanese tradition where department stores and shops fill bags with random leftover goods from the past year and sell them at a sizeable discount. The tradition is said to come from a Japanese proverb that says “There is fortune in leftovers (Nokorimono ni wa fuku ga aru).”

Some popular shops such as 109 in Shibuya have an incredibly long queue in front of them hours before they open on New Year’s Day. The value of the items is often 50% more than the selling price. If you don’t mind waiting and are prepared for a stampede, New Year’s Day is a great shopping opportunity.

Did I miss anything? If you have anything else you'd like to be able to explain in English, let me know!

Have a great day!

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