New Year is known as oshogatsu and is the most important holiday in Japan. Although in recent years Xmas is celebrated, once Dec 25th has passed all Xmas decorations are taken down overnight, to be replaced by traditional ones made of bamboo and pine branches. All duties are supposed to be finished before the end of the year, bonenkai (“forgetting the year”) parties are common, and houses are cleaned even more spotlessly than usual.
On New Years Eve, at midnight, people make their way to a temple or shrine. To a westerner this is strange as a temple is Buddhist but a shrine is native Shinto. But then in some things, religion included, the Japanese are pretty flexible. In truth they are not very religious, being more ritualistic and superstitious. At any rate, some people go to temples to ring in the New Year. At the local temples, such as the one shown below, the locals queue for tickets to ring the bell. In Kyoto, where some of the bells are huge, the monks of the temple do it. By ringing the temple bell 108 times, we can get rid of the desires and sins from the past year, or such is the Buddhist belief.
Ringing the Bell at Midnight on New Year’s Eve in Tokyo
One of the most popular New Year’s customs in Japan is to buy an oracle or “omikuji”, at the temple or shrine, on which one’s luck for the year is written. There are typically around a hundred or more fortunes a person might get, with each one bearing a specialized description as to how lucky (or unlucky) a person will be, with details regarding finances, health, romance and more. However, if you receive an unlucky fortune, you can escape its effects by tying it up at a designated spot or to a tree in hopes of averting the predicted misfortune. A pretty flexible version of religion don’t you think? Those strips of paper wrapped round wires in the photo are the ‘unwanted ones!. You can also buy demon-quelling arrows (“hamaya”), again shown in one of these pictures.
New Year’s Day at Meiji Jingue Shrine, Tokyo
At home, special food is also eaten: on New Year’s Eve, toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles), symbolizing longevity, are served. For the three days of New Year two kinds of special food are eaten, “osechi” and “ozoni”.
Osechi dates back to the Heian period (795-1185). In those days there was a superstitious belief that it was unlucky to cook during the first three days of the New Year. Thus, all the food to be eaten during this period had to be prepared ahead of time before the New Year started. Because of this, dishes that keep well over the course of several days are essential to osechi cuisine: simmered dishes, dishes featuring dried ingredients and pickled foods make up the main core of the New Year’s feast. Each dish has a symbolic meaning related to longevity, good health, fertility, or joy. Sake, the traditional rice wine, though much less popular than in the old days, is often drunk at New Year. As I’m writing this on January 2nd, my wife and I intend to drink a fine dry sake tonight.
The other food eaten, sometimes in a soup, is ozoni. Ozoni is made of mochi, or rice cakes made from glutinous rice. Mochi rice which has been soaked overnight, then cooked, is pounded repeatedly with a big wooden mallet until it reaches the desired sticky, stretchy consistency, after which it is shaped for consumption.
Finally, every house sends special New Year’s cards, which are specially marked to be delivered on January 1st. It is not uncommon for one person to send out several dozen cards to friends, relatives and co-workers. The cards are related to the Chinese animal zodiac. 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, is the year of the chicken!
Selling Demon-quelling Arrows “Hamaya”
Tying Unlucky “Omikuji”
Writing Wishes “Ema”
Japanese christians are usually seen on the streets at this time of year, as shown by the man holding the yellow signboard. Their broadcast message is usually very mournful and unattractive. The message on his signboard reads, “Jesus Christ was crucified for human beings’ sins”. Yep. just what we need to know at the beginning of the new year!