January 1st or New Year’s Day (元日) is a very fortunate day in Japan. It is meant to be full of joy and happiness with no stress or anxiety. Everything should be clean and you should not work on this day. A popular custom is to watch the first sunrise of the New Year (初日), which is meant to guarantee good luck for the New Year. It is tradition to visit a shrine or temple during oshogatsu for hatsumode (初詣), the first visit of the New Year. The bigger more popular shrines and temples are extremely crowded with people praying for health and happiness. We usually visit Inaba Jinja, which is the biggest and most famous shrine in Gifu City.
Here are some popular traditions and customs that are followed during New Year’s in Japan
Shimekazari (しめ飾り) is a traditional New Year’s decoration made out of sacred Shinto rice straw rope, pine twigs, and carefully crafted zigzag-shaped paper strips called shide. Shimekazari is usually hung on the front door, and is used to keep bad spirits away as well as inviting the toshigami (歳神) or Shinto deity to visit.
- The straw has the meaning of inviting the toshigami to remain in the house
- The opened fan signifies the wish for a prosperous future
- The stalks of rice express the hope for a good harvest in the New Year
Kadomatsu (門松) is a traditional Japanese New Year decoration traditionally placed in front of homes to welcome ancestral spirits or kami of the harvest. They are believed to bring prosperity and good luck for the family. The bamboo symbolizes strength and prosperity, the pine symbolizes long life, and the rope protects against evil spirits. After January 15 the kadomatsu is burned to appease the kami or toshigami and release them.
Kagami Mochi (鏡餅) is another traditional decoration that consists of two round mochi (Japanese rice cakes). The smaller rice cake is placed on top of the larger one with a daidai (bitter orange) on top. The two mochi represent the past year and the year ahead with the daidai, which means “generations” in Japanese representing the continuation of a family from one generation to the next. These days you can buy a modern version with the zodiac sign for the coming year on top instead of the bitter orange. This year 2014 was the year of the horse, with the New Year in 2015 being the year of the sheep.
|Traditional style Kagami Mochi|
|2014 Year of the Horse Kagami Mochi|
Mochibana (餅花) is a popular New Year’s decoration that consists of branches decorated with pieces of white and pink mochi. They look like flowering branches of the blossoms in spring, and signal the coming of spring ahead in Japan.
Nengajo (年賀状) is a Japanese custom of sending a New Year’s Day Card to friends and relatives. It is very similar to our custom of sending Christmas Cards. Japanese people send these so that they arrive on January 1st. It is common to feature the zodiac sign for the coming year on the card.
Toshikoshi Soba (年越しそば) is buckwheat noodles that are eaten on New Year’s Eve and symbolise longevity. It is believed that by eating these long thin noodles you will live a long and healthy life. Toshikoshi means the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new one. It has become a modern tradition to eat toshikoshi soba while watching TV on New Year’s Eve, with the music competition Kohaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦) the most popular show to watch. To ensure good luck, all the noodles must be polished off before midnight.
Hatsumode (初詣) is the first shrine visit of the New Year to pray for health, happiness and prosperity for the coming year. Most people will make their visit on the first, second, or third day of the year. A common custom is to buy an omikuji, which is a fortune written on a small piece of paper. If the omikuji predicts bad luck, you can tie it onto a tree on the shrine grounds, in order for the prediction not to come true.
|Hatsumode at Inaba Jinja in Gifu City 2014|
Osechi Ryori (御節料理) is traditional Japanese dishes served during New Year celebrations. The tradition started in the Heian Period (794-1185) with each dish having a special meaning. Osechi ryori is served in special boxes called jubako (重箱) and contain food such as konbu (boiled seaweed), kamaboko (fish cakes), kinpira gobo (burdock root), and my personal favourite kuromame (sweetened black beans).
Ozoni (お雑煮) is a soup made with mochi (rice cakes) traditionally served on New Year’s Day. Our family usually has ozoni for breakfast on New Year’s Day. Ozoni varies from region to region and from household to household.
Otoshidama (お年玉) is special money given to children on New Year’s Day. It is handed out in small decorated envelopes by family and relatives. The amount varies depending on the age of the child, but will typically be something like this.
- Babies and Pre-Schooler: ¥1,000 (USD$10)
- Elementary School Student: ¥3,000 - ¥5,000 (USD$30-50)
- Junior High School Student: ¥5,000 - ¥10,000 (USD$50-100)
Mochi (餅) a favourite custom for New Year's is creating mochi or soft rice cakes from boiled sticky rice. This is called mochitsuki (餅つき) and is usually made before New Year’s Day and eaten during the start of New Year’s in January.
Hope you have a great New Year's wherever you are in the world!