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A guide to New Year traditions in Japan

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By Haruka Masumizu

The New Year is just around the corner. For many non-Japanese, especially newcomers to Japan, many of the customs and traditions of New Year may seem hard to understand. New Year or Oshogatsu is the most important holiday period in Japan for families and it is rich in tradition. If you're lucky enough to be invited by your Japanese friends to join them, you'll be in for some interesting experiences.

Here is our annual guide to help you understand New Year customs in Japan.

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 might be interesting for you to see usually busy and hectic Tokyo suddenly become so quiet and empty.

Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘)

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Photo: Wikipedia

Around midnight on New Year’s Eve, you may hear bells peal in the tranquil sky monotonously 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)

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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)

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Photo: Wikipedia

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.

The shimekazari (しめ飾り) or New Year wreath, made of twine, twigs, paper strips and a mikan, is also a common sight at entrances to homes and offices.

New Year’s Day - Ganjitsu (元日)

You might be confused by two different yet similar words, ganjitsu (元日) and gantan (元旦). Even if you ask your Japanese friends what the difference is, they will probably say “I’ve never thought about that...don’t they mean the same thing?”

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)

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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. Click here for an explanation of the various dishes.

Iwai-bashi (祝箸)

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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, even if you think it is efficient to use both sides of the chopsticks to get some food from the shared plate, it will be considered disrespectful toward the deity.

Otoso (お屠蘇)

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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, had been 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)

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Photo: Wikipedia

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 5,000 yen, 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)

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Photo: Reuters

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)

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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)

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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.

© Japan Today

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2 Comments
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This was a beautifully written, well researched article. I have lived here for 24 years and this is the first time I have understood at least some of things that I witness on a yearly basis. Thank you!

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Excellent article! Very thorough, but not tiresome. Reading it makes me miss Japan so much! I lived there for 3 years and it wasn't long enough.

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