As the clock strikes midnight and the world bids farewell to the old year, the Japanese celebrate the New Year in their style. Oshogatsu, also known as the Japanese New Year, is a long-standing tradition full of customs and rituals that show the country's rich history and the idea of starting fresh. It is considered the most important holiday in Japan, and the celebrations extend for several days, typically from January 1st to January 3rd.
Oshogatsu is a time for families to come together, express gratitude for the past year, and welcome the opportunities of the upcoming one. Many people return to their hometowns to celebrate with relatives, and there is a strong emphasis on traditional customs, rituals, and symbolic foods like Osechi Ryori. Let's take a closer look at the lively celebration of the Japanese New Year and discover what makes it special.
Cleaning and Decluttering
A significant aspect of Japanese New Year preparations involves thorough cleaning, known as osoji. People meticulously clean their homes to bid farewell to the old year and welcome the new with a fresh start. This practice is rooted in the belief that a clean home attracts good luck and positive energy.
In Shinto tradition, cleaning is associated with purification. By cleaning their homes, people participate in a ritual that not only refreshes the physical space but also carries spiritual significance, purifying the home for the New Year. Deep cleaning is also a preparation for Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year. People want to start the New Year with a clean and purified home before seeking blessings at Shinto shrines.
The intensity of osoji may vary from household to household. It often involves the whole family and can be very tiring. Sometimes even neighbors and communities come together for a collective cleaning effort.
The preparation for Oshogatsu begins well before the actual day, with homes adorned in traditional decorations. You can find these items easily in local markets, department stores, and through online shopping platforms.
Here are Japanese traditional decorations for the new year:
Kadomatsu is a traditional decoration placed in pairs at the entrance of homes, businesses, and other establishments. It typically consists of bamboo shoots, pine branches, and sometimes ume (plum) branches. Kadomatsu symbolizes longevity, prosperity, and the spirit of nature.
Shimekazari is a decorative Shinto straw rope adorned with shide (zigzag paper streamers) and auspicious items such as citrus fruits, ferns, and white ritual paper. It is hung on the front door to ward off evil spirits and welcome good fortune and blessings.
Kagami mochi is a traditional New Year's decoration made of stacked round rice cakes. The two rice cakes represent the past and upcoming years. It is often adorned with a daidai (bitter orange) on top, symbolizing continuity and the generational cycle.
Nengajo are special postcards exchanged to convey New Year's greetings and good wishes. These postcards often feature zodiac animals or other symbols representing the upcoming year. People send them to friends, family, and colleagues, and the cards are typically delivered on New Year's Day.
In December, you'll start seeing lots of New Year postcards with all kinds of designs everywhere. A variety of stickers, stamps, and adorable decorations are available for purchase to personalize and enhance the special touch of your cards. You can also customize your card from scratch by designing it yourself and adding your photos using printing machines. Simply go to nearby convenience stores and find printing machines equipped with various templates, designs, and customization options.
Timing is crucial when sending nengajo. There is a cultural emphasis for these postcards to arrive exactly on January 1st or as close as possible. Nengajo can be sent from mid-December, and the official acceptance period for sending them typically begins around December 15th and extends until a few days before New Year's Day. Japan Post sets specific deadlines for sending nengajo, and these dates vary each year. However, if you're running out of time or want to ensure faster delivery, you can also use express delivery services provided by Japan Post.
Counting down to midnight
Just like in many parts of the world, the Japanese eagerly anticipate the stroke of midnight. However, instead of fireworks, the New Year is often welcomed with the ringing of temple bells. Many people visit temples on New Year’s Eve to participate in Joya no Kane, the ritual ringing of the bells 108 times. The bells are rung 108 times, symbolizing the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief. People gather at these temples to listen to the bell ringing, reflect on the past year, and make resolutions for the upcoming one. It is considered a spiritually significant and reflective way to welcome the New Year.
A bell in shrine
Osechi Ryori (Traditional New Year's food)
It’s a tradition in Japan to eat special food over the first few days of the New Year. Osechi Ryori is a traditional Japanese New Year's cuisine that consists of a variety of specially prepared dishes. These dishes are meticulously crafted and arranged in jubako, which are multi-tiered lacquer boxes. Osechi Ryori is not just a meal; it is a symbolic and auspicious way to welcome the New Year, with each dish carrying specific meanings and wishes for the upcoming year.
Some common components of Osechi Ryori include:
Kuromame (黒豆): Sweet black soybeans symbolize health and hard work, as the word "mame" (bean) also means diligence.
Kazunoko (数の子): Herring roe represents fertility and prosperity. The tiny, golden eggs are associated with the wish for a bountiful harvest and numerous offspring.
Tazukuri (田作り): Tazukuri consists of dried sardines cooked in a sweet soy glaze. It signifies an abundant harvest and a prosperous year in agriculture.
Zoni (雑煮): Zoni is a soup containing mochi (rice cakes) and various ingredients like vegetables, chicken, or seafood. It varies by region and family. Eating zoni is believed to bring good fortune.
Kohaku Namasu (紅白なます): Kohaku Namasu is a dish of shredded daikon radish and carrot dressed in a sweet vinegar marinade. The colors red and white symbolize celebration and happiness.
Osechi Ryori is often made by families at home, with each dish carefully prepared to symbolize specific hopes and wishes for the New Year. Additionally, many people purchase pre-made Osechi Ryori from specialized stores or department stores, where skilled chefs and culinary artisans create beautifully arranged sets for those who may not have the time or expertise to prepare them at home.
Hatsumode (The first shrine visit)
One of the most cherished traditions during Oshogatsu is Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year. Families and individuals flock to Shinto shrines to offer prayers for good fortune, health, and success in the upcoming year. The atmosphere is festive, with street vendors and traditional performances.
Hatsumode is typically performed within the first few days of the New Year, with January 1st being one of the most popular days. During their visit to the shrine or temple, visitors usually bring offerings such as coins, symbolic items, or ema (wooden plaques) on which people write their wishes. Visitors can also draw an omikuji or small written fortunes to see their luck for the coming year. If the fortune is unfavorable, it is customary to tie it to a designated area at the shrine or temple to leave the bad luck behind.
Otoshidama (New Year's monetary gifts)
The New Year holiday is not only eagerly anticipated by adults but also by children. Otoshidama is part of Oshigatsu's custom where parents, relatives, or family friends give monetary gifts, usually in special envelopes, to children. The money is typically presented in small, decorated envelopes called "pochibukuro" or "otoshidama-bukuro." These envelopes are often adorned with traditional New Year's motifs or characters. The custom symbolizes good luck and prosperity for the younger generation and is a delightful part of the Oshogatsu celebrations for children.
Parents giving otoshidama to children
New Year sales in Japan are not complete without fukubukuro. It is a Japanese New Year's custom that involves the purchase of mystery bags or lucky grab bags, typically offered by retailers and businesses. The term "Fukubukuro" translates to "lucky bag" or "fortune bag" in English.
Fukubukuro usually begins on January 1st. Retailers prepare these bags as a way to attract customers and clear out excess inventory from the previous year. This tradition is not limited to a specific type of store; various retailers, including clothing stores, electronics stores, and even restaurants, participate. It contains a variety of items, and their contents are often a surprise. The bags are sold at a fixed price, which is typically much lower than the total value of the items inside.
Fukubukuro bags are often available in limited quantities and for a limited time. Some people line up early outside stores to secure their desired lucky bag. The appeal of Fukubukuro lies in the potential for obtaining items at a significantly discounted value. The excitement of the surprise and the thrill of the hunt contribute to the popularity of this New Year's tradition.
The New Year celebrations in Japan embody a harmonious blend of ancient traditions and modern customs. Japanese people welcome the new year with gratitude and excitement for the future, from visiting shrines for good luck and enjoying special foods like Osechi Ryori to grabbing mystery bags with surprises inside. 明けましておめでとうございます. Happy New Year!