Good Morning from Tokyo! As the sun rises, we welcome a new year, or as they say in Japanese, Oshōgatsu. New Year (正月, shōgatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan. Most businesses shut down from January 1 to January 3, and families typically gather to spend the days together.
In Japan, new years is viewed similarly to how it is in the west. Each year is traditionally viewed as completely separate, with each new year providing a fresh start. Consequently, all duties are supposed to be completed by the end of the year, while bonenkai parties (“year forgetting parties”) are held with the purpose of leaving the old year’s worries and troubles behind. The finishing of these tasks being symbolic, like shedding the old to make way for the new.
This time of year is rich in tradition, culture, and community. A truly singular event, that marks the beginning of a new world. Here we will discuss a few of these traditions, and what makes them so unique. Lets take a look.
New Years Tradition
January 1st is a very auspicious day, best started by viewing the new year’s first sunrise (hatsu-hinode), and traditionally believed to be representative for the whole year that has just commenced. Therefore, the day is supposed be full of joy and free of stress and anger, while everything in the home should be clean and no work should be done on this day.
In Japan, a home is more than just a building we live in. A home is a place of family values, togetherness, and memory to be cherished. These spaces are almost sacred, and are treated as such in the new year.
Homes and entrance gates are decorated with ornaments made of pine, bamboo and plum trees. Clothes and houses are cleaned as a kind of purification. One such decoration is a Kadomatsu. This is a decoration believed to bring blessings from the family’s ancestors, and house toshigami, a form of deity.
A more recent custom is watching the music show “kohaku uta gassen“, a highly popular television program featuring many of Japan’s most famous J-pop and enka singers in spectacular performances. Kōhaku is an annual New Year’s Eve television special produced by Japanese public broadcaster NHK. This show features a full lineup of some of Japan’s top performers and celebrity personalities, performing nation wide. It’s a fantastic display of modern Japanese culture and style. You can find a list of these performers and more through the link.
It is a tradition to visit a shrine or temple during shogatsu (hatsumode). This happens both on the night of and morning after new years eve. During new years eve, many walk to their local temple to offer prayer, and ring in the new year with their community. Around midnight, bells ring in a Buddhist tradition is called Joya no Kane. If you were to visit one of these temple you too may get the chance the ring this massive bell as a symbol of purification, and new beginnings.
Some also partake in the tradition of writing ema. 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 Japanes spirits are believed to receive them.
The most popular temples and shrines, such as Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, attract several million people during the three days. Most impressive are such visits at the actual turn of the year, when large temple bells are rung at midnight.
New Years Food
Last but certainly not least, the food. Yes, the part that 95% of you are really here for. Those delicious mouth watering, delicately prepared, and handcrafted meals. What would a happy new year be without a good meal, and what an amazing meal it is.
Various kinds of special dishes are served during shogatsu. They include osechi ryori, otoso (sweetened rice wine) and ozoni (a soup with mochi). On New Year’s eve, toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles) are also eaten, symbolising longevity, are served.
Of all these dishes, perhaps osechi is the most coveted. This is a combination of specially crafted small items, carefully arranged into a beautiful array of edible art. Every part of this dish having a special meaning. This is considered one of the most important meals, bringing luck, prosperity, and warm wishes for the new year.
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