There are many interesting public holidays which come with traditional practices in the Japanese calendar, there’s the Children’s Day on May 5th, where families with boys fly a koi-shaped flags at their homes or there’s Labor Thanksgiving Day on November 23rd. However there is no Boxing Day and if Christmas falls on a weekday, people go to work and children go to school as per usual.
But the most important time of the year in the Japnese calendar is the New Year period. New Years in Japan is a true celebration filled with traditions both new and old. Families come together to give thanks to the year passing and celebrate to bring in the new one – there’s even a children’s song about it. New Years begin on the 31st of December and most take the time to celebrate and enjoy the new year until the 3rd of January – so what happens in those four days?
OOMISOKA (New Year’s Eve)
A lot of us in Australia and the world will begin New Year’s Eve by kicking back, perhaps cooking a feast or having a tasty beverage or few but in Japan, this is the day of preparation and appreciation.
In the olden days, it was believed that New Years Day brought ‘Toshigami-Sama or Oshogatsu-Sama’ – the god of the new year. Extending from the idea of being a good host to the god of the new year, people cleaned their homes which also has a double meaning for ridding of any negative energies. From children to the elderly, people clean their homes top to bottom and inside out.
New Year’s Eve a busy day for most in Japan, not only from the cleaning but also from the cooking and the preparing for the New Year’s Day feast – but we will touch more on the food a little later on.
Once the cleaning and cooking is done, it’s then time to kick back and relax.
To symbolise the connection between the year passing and the year coming, people in most areas of Japan eat soba noodles which are called ‘Toshi Koshi Soba’. They tend to do this while they watch the New Year’s Eve specials on the television.
New Year’s Eve on TV in Japan isn’t just a special broadcast of fireworks, exciting and brightly dressed performers entertain with comedy, music and more around the clock on this day. But the biggest TV event of all on December 31st is the ‘Kohaku Uta Gassen’ on NHK. This is a battle-of-the-sexes style music contest featuring the biggest superstars of the year.
© Nagi Usano
Male pop stars and Japanese enka ballad singers are in ‘Shiro-Gumi (white team’ and their female rivals/counterparts compete as ‘Aka-Gumi’. Traditionally the winner was decided by audience vote at the concert hall, but nowadays, you can vote through the television or online.
As midnight comes, buddhist temples around Japan ring their large, ceremonial bells 108 times to ‘ring in’ the new year.
New Year’s Day and ‘Sanga-nichi’
New Year’s Day and the following two days are called ‘Sanga-nichi’. Basically, these are the three days that most businesses are closed and the hard-working people of Japan take a proper break.
The first of the three, the New Year’s Day is of course about welcoming the new year and celebrating with loved ones. In the morning of New Year’s Day arrives the New Year’s cards – it’s basically Japan’s version of a Christmas card, and instead of featuring Santa or Raindeers, it oftenfeatures artworks of the Chinese Horoscope for that year.
People who have lost a loved one and are in mourning from the previous year, send out a card before the New Year’s period to ask not to have these sent out of respect for their giref.The Japanese head to the shrines on this day, which for most is the first outing of the year and they ask the gods for wellness and good luck – this is when many also buy good luck charms and amulets for the year.
Many will head to the shrines on this day, which for most is the first outing of the year and they ask the gods for wellness and good luck – this is when many also buy good luck charms and amulets for the year.
© Jun Takechi
After their first outing comes the grand feast, which is known as ‘Osechi Ryouri’. It often comes in a multi-level bento box filled with sweet and savoury dishes, it’s much like a five-star degustation course. Staples of ‘Osechi’ includes sweetened black beans, caramelised fish, omochi (sticky rice cakes) and of course, sashimi.
The 2nd of January is all about ‘firsts’. Save for those who do this on the 4th instead, for shops and goods and customer service-based businesses, the 2nd is the first day back at work and first day back at selling. Department stores prepare lucky dip bags called ‘Fukubukuro’ – which includes a selection of items (what they are is a surprise in most cases) for a set price anywhere from ¥3,000 to ¥50,000.
The third day for most is the last day off and it’s often enjoyed by relaxing in front of the television, or by going to the shrine if they have not yet visited.
The New Year’s period has perks for children too – there’s ‘Otoshi-Dama’ which is similar to the Chinese tradition of giving money to children in a celebratory envelope to aid them with starting the new year. There is also fun games like Karuta – which is basically an educational alphabet and haiku game, where one reads the haiku and the players look for the card which depicts the haiku and the first letter of it.
It is said that what you dream in these three days – either on the night of the 1st or the night of the 2nd – can indicate what sort of a year you will have. If you dream of Mt. Fuji, an eagle, an eggplant or all of them, it has been suggested to be good luck.
All of these fantastic traditions of New Year’s is what makes this time such an exciting time of the year to visit Japan, especially if you are able to stay with a Japanese host family. It is unlike any new year’s celebrations in the western world and you’ll get to experience the best parts of traditional Japanese culture.