Japanese Customs for a Good New Year
Everyone wants to have a fresh, auspicious start in the New Year. In Japan, there are unique cultural practices intended to bring health and happiness as well as fulfill various wishes and requests for the upcoming year. Here are some suggestions for bringing in luck the Japanese way:
STEP 1: Clean and Tidy Up
Japan’s traditional New Year customs are based on the teachings of Shinto (a polytheistic faith native to Japan). On New Year’s Day, it is said that the god of the New Year (toshigami-sama) visits each household to bring a year of good fortune with blessings such as the perpetuation of the family line, an abundant harvest, and good health. Accordingly, preparations to welcome toshigami-sama are an important part of the customs of the Japanese New Year.
The first thing you should do is household cleanup. Just as you would when welcoming guests to a party at your home, you should clean your apartment from end to end. It is believed that if you rid your home of the dust that has accumulated over the past year, you can greet the god of the New Year and receive divine favor.
Hatsumode is the first shrine visit of the New Year. People pray for their health and good luck and buy good-luck items, such as omamori (good-luck charms), hamaya (charm arrows) and kumade (charm rakes). The most popular shrines for the event are Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, Naritasan Shinshoji in Chiba Prefecture, Kawasaki Daishi in Kanagawa Prefecture, and Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. Each of them has almost three million visitors during the New Year’s holiday.
STEP 2: Decorate Your House with New Year’s Ornaments
Kadomatsu, shimenawa, and kagamimochi are the New Year’s ornaments that welcome toshigami-sama. Translated as “pine tree at the gate,” a kadomatsu is viewed as a signal to toshigami-sama to enter the house. In Shinto, pine trees are considered to be homes for deities, so two pine trees, one male and the other female, were traditionally set on the right and left sides of a gate to a home. These days, a decorative pine tree ornament with bamboo and plum blossoms is often placed on the front door.
A shimenawa, meaning “tightened rope,” is a divider that is thought to mark your house as a holy place. In other words, it is meant to repel bad luck. Customarily made with twisted straws or hemp, a shimenawa was originally hung above a gate or entrance, but today simplified ornaments are often hung on the door just like a holiday wreath. Kagamimochi, large and small round mochi (rice cakes) stacked on top of each other, are an offering to toshigami-sama. The round shape represents the sun and moon as well as yin and yang, signifying a happy and full life.
It is customary to decorate with these New Year’s ornaments by December 28 and to take them down by January 7. The used ornaments are traditionally burned at a Shinto shrine.
A kadomatsu is put out to welcome toshigami-sama (the god of the New Year).
A shimenawa delineates a sacred inner space from the outside world. Simplified versions of shimenawa are more common these days.
Layered, round mochi signify a happy and fulfilled life.
STEP 3: Eat New Year’s Food
It is a Japanese tradition to eat osechi-ryori throughout the New Year’s holiday (until January 3). Osechi-ryori is served in layers of lacquer boxes, jubako, to bring “layers of luck.” The dishes include kobumaki (kelp rolls), kuromame (simmered black beans), datemaki (rolled sweet omelets), kurikinton (mashed sweet potato with chestnuts), kinpira gobo (braised burdock), tazukuri (candied dried sardines), namasu (pickled daikon radish and carrot), nimono (simmered vegetables), kazunoko (herring roe), ebi-no-saka-mushi (sake-steamed shrimp), kamaboko (pink and white fish cakes), and tai-no-shioyaki (grilled sea bream). Each dish in osechi has a symbolic meaning: the dishes usually promote good health, fertility, longevity, a good harvest, or happiness. People are supposed to finish cooking osechi dishes by New Year’s Eve so that they can spend the New Year’s holiday without cooking.
The taste of the dishes is usually strong––sweet, sour, salty, or dried––because they have to keep for several days. These days, people are more conscious of using time efficiently, so they tend to buy ready-made osechi dishes available at stores and restaurants in Japan. People also do not really follow the strict rules of osechi as much as they once did but rather create their own ways of preparing and enjoying the foods of the New Year.
O-toso, thought to repel evil spirits and promote longevity in the coming year, is served in the morning of New Year’s Day. It is an herb-infused sake containing blended herbs called tososan.
O-zoni is another staple of New Year’s cuisine. This soup containing mochi is served in millions of styles that differ from region to region and from family to family. Some use a clear broth while others use a cloudy miso soup; some put round mochi in the soup while others use rectangular mochi; some grill the mochi before putting it into the soup while others use raw mochi. Toppings also have regional differences, and the options are closely related to the local harvest.
Finally on January 7, people eat nanakusa gayu, a type of porridge containing seven specific greens. Simply seasoned with salt, it is good for the stomach after all the celebratory meals and drinks.
Each item in osechi-ryori has a specific meaning that is related to good fortune.
O-zoni is a New Year’s soup dish topped with mochi, vegetables, and other items from the local harvest.
On January 7, people eat a porridge made with seven greens available in the season.
2015: The Year of the Monkey
In ancient Japan there was a specific way of indicating the year, month, and date. It was a prototype of a calendar and was called eto. Eto consists of jikkan (ten symbols) and juunishi (twelve symbols for the twelve zodiac signs), and one of the twelve symbols, represented by different animals, is applied to each year. The eto animal for 2015 is the monkey.