New Year or Oshogatsu is the most important holiday in Japan, but for the outsider it may not be so obvious. The count down fireworks are picking up big cities like Tokyo & Osaka, but in Sapporo you will not see festive lights, fireworks or night performances, not even people on the streets on New Year’s Night. On the contrary, most of people return to their hometowns to spend the holiday together with the families. To understand the Japanese New Year let's look at the rich traditions of Oshogatsu.
Its' customs are full of symbolism: from the house preparations to the food on the table on New Year’s Day, to the temples and shrines visits, everything has a special meaning rooted in ancient traditions and subjected to complexed procedures and rituals.
As many things Japanese, all the action happens indoors, in the privacy of a home.The last days before the New Year are spent cleaning one’s house, preparing osechi ryori, (New Year’s auspicious food), making house decorations and getting ready for rituals for New Year’s Day. There is a saying “Decisions made on New Year’s Day are the key to a successful year”, so the first day of the year is of the utmost importance. Symbolically, the best way to start it is by viewing the sunrise - hatsu-hinode - welcoming the New Year’s deity, Toshigami-sama, which in line with Shinto tradition descends from the mountains into the houses, bringing happiness and wealth.
No work should be done in the first 3 days of the year, as these days are reserved for rest and visits to temples and shrines. In the old times this was the only time of the year when women took rest from housework and cooking. Thus, osechi ryori - New Year’s auspicious foods - were cooked in advance. Some people call it delicious, but in my opinion, it’s hard to make delicious food that can be stored for 3 days without refrigerator. Nevertheless, osechi are presented in an exquisite, multilayered lacquered box and demand the prime place at the table on New Year’s Day. Mostly, due to its symbolic meaning. For example, datemaki is a sweet rolled omelette which resembles the scrolled paper and represents a wish for learning and culture. Kohaku komaboko is a boiled fish paste in the shape of the rising sun. It represents the first sunrise of a new year. Kazunoko is herring roe which symbolizes fertility. Ebi (shrimp) is for the wish of longevity. The bent body of a shrimp resembles a hunch of an old person, its antennas - long beard. There are more items in osechi box, meaning that each family member can focus on attracting a particular fortune or go all in.
Nowadays, every supermarket, 7/11 and even online stores sell osechi, as well as weird looking kagami-mochi, “mirror rice cakes”, used as decorations. These 2 layered rice cakes with a little citrus fruit on top refer to the old belief that deities live in the mirrors. Long ago, mirrors in Japan had a round shape and were used for Shinto rituals. The mochi in the shape of ancient mirrors are meant for the gods, but can be eaten as well, by roasting them over coals.
Outside of houses and offices one can notice a pair of green decorations made of pine, bamboo and plum, called kadomatsu. From right after Christmas until January 7th it is providing a temporary home for the New Year’s deity to ensure that the family will have a great harvest and blessings from the ancestors.
At New Year’s night one of the most important Buddhist rituals of the year, Joya no Kane, is performed - ringing a temple bell 108 times. In Buddhism, it is believed that human beings are plagued by 108 types of defilements - such as greed, jealousy, anger etc. Each strike of the bell will remove one defilement from you, and by the end of the ritual you’ll be purified from the previous year’s impurities and prepared to enter a new year with a clean slate.
In the first days of the year families and relatives also visit Shinto shrines to pray for health and happiness. People buy omamori, good luck charms, and hamaya, sacred arrows, to invite good fortune and ward off the evil.
On New Year’s Day it is a Japanese custom for adults to give their children or young relatives otoshidama, or a gift of money. The tradition originated as an offering of kagami mochi to a New Year deity. Those rice cakes, given from parents to children, first were replaced by small toys, and today - by gifts of money.
A very popular custom is sending New Year's cards, nengajo, which are specially marked to be delivered on January 1. It is not uncommon for one person to send out dozens of cards to friends, relatives and co-workers; for public figures, businessmen and politicians this number can reach over a thousand. All nengajo also have lottery numbers on them, and when delivered, the holders of the winning numbers will be able to receive various prizes.
If you happen to be in Japan for New Year’s Night, go to a Buddhist temple to observe Joya no Kane, and make sure you get rid of all 108 defilements. Afterwards, enjoy Western style parties at night clubs and bars, and don’t forget to stop by a Shinto shrine in the following days to wish for good luck in the new year.
Happy New Year to you all!
Our blog covers any and all topics of travel in Hokkaido - from the best gourmet oysters to off-the-beaten-track adventures - and everything in between.