Japan Today (by Ran Matsugi):
While New Year’s Eve is a time for parties and fireworks in many countries, in Japan, it is usually a somber time when people return to their hometowns to enjoy a few days together with their extended families – not unlike Christmas in the West.
However, the lack of parties does not mean Japan is a boring place during the New Year holiday period. This time of year is rich in tradition and culture, and if you have never experienced New Year in Japan, you’re missing something.
Here is a guide to some New Year traditions and what they mean.
Why is New Year’s Eve called “omisoka” in Japanese? In the old calendar, the last day of each month used to be called “misoka”. “Miso” can mean 30 in Japanese, and “ka” means day. Although not every month has just 30 days, the tradition of calling the last day of the month “misoka” remained, and the last day of the year became “omisoka” (great last day of the month). After the new calendar was adopted, all the other “misokas” became less popular, but “omisoka” remained.
This refers to the end-of-year cleaning which takes place in offices and homes. It is believed that by cleaning your house, you can purify your residence and welcome the “Toshigami-sama” (god of the coming New Year).
As soon as Christmas Day is over, the Christmas trees and decorations come down and New Year decorations go up. “Kadomatsu” are made of three cut bamboo sticks and pine tree branches and are put up in the entrances of buildings or houses. The bamboo shoots, which represent heaven, earth and humanity, are believed to attract the gods. The gods dwell in the pine until Jan 7, after which time the decorations are taken to a shrine to be burnt, releasing the spirits back to their realm.
Toshikoshi Soba (年越し蕎麦)
People eat soba at around midnight to ward off evil spirits before the New Year comes. Some also wish for a long life, or long-lasting connection with families by eating soba. Rakuten research reports that 67.5% of people surveyed are planning to eat “toshikoshi soba” this year.
Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘)
“Joya no Kane” or purification bells are important at New Year Buddhist ceremonies in which the priest rings the bell 108 times. According to Buddhist beliefs, the number 108 corresponds to the number of evil desires that we suffer from. It is believed that by listening to or ringing the bell 108 times, you can get rid yourself of those evil desires. Many temples allow people to participate in ringing the bell.
Ganjitsu (元日) and Gantan (元旦)
Why are there two words meaning New Year’s Day? “Gantan” generally refers to the morning or sunrise on Jan 1, while “Ganjitsu” refers to the first “day” of the New Year.
On New Year’s Day, you’ll see legions of Japan Post employees whizzing along on scooters delivering New Year greeting cards. Though the custom has lost some of its popularity in recent years – young people tend to avoid sending the cards, while others design their own cards and send them by email – “nengajo” are still important for businesses and the older generation for expressing appreciation and best wishes for the New Year. “Nengajo,” many of which are hand-written, also have lottery numbers on them.
The most popular activity on New Year’s Day is “hatsumode” or first visit to the shrine. The bigger shrines like Meiji in Tokyo, Kawasaki Taishi in Kawasaki and Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto are packed with hundreds of thousands of people from early morning throughout New Year’s Day. Many people go to smaller shrines in their neighborhoods. If you go, you’ll see burning incense sticks. The smoke itself is called “zuko,” and shrine visitors wave it over their heads to purify spirits and their bodies for the New Year.
You’ll often see people leaving shrines, holding wooden arrows. These are given to shrine visitors to put somewhere in their homes to ward off evil spirits. The point of the arrow isn’t sharp; it’s just a decoration.
Osechi ryori (おせち料理)
This refers to special New Year delicacies traditionally made before New Year’s Day, and meant to last for seven days without refrigeration. The original reason for needing it to last for seven days is because there is a seven-day period of non-cooking to appease the fire god, Kohji. He would get upset and cause a natural hazard if you made fire so early in the year. In later years, this non-cooking period has changed to give housewives a rest during the New Year holidays since they worked so hard until New Year’s Eve. The food often comes in an elaborate bento box.
This decoration consists of two round rice cakes and a mandarin (mikan) on top. Traditionally, the cakes were adorned with a different citrus fruit known as “daidai,” which were considered auspicious as the meaning of the word can be translated to “generation after generation”, representing the family’s wish for a long and prosperous bloodline. The rice cakes are supposed to be an homage to the mirror of the sun goddess Amaterasu. With its round, mirror-like shape, “kagami-mochi” symbolizes the renewal of light and energy at the start of a new year.
On New Year’s Day, children aged 22 and under receive monetary gifts from their parents and grandparents in specially decorated envelopes called “Pochi Bukuro” (Pochi bag). According to the Allabout questionnaire, the popular amounts of “otoshidama” are 1,000 yen for children younger than 6, 3,000 to 5,000 yen for children aged 6 to 17, and 10,000 yen for 18 to 20+ students.
Many department stores and other retailers now open on New Year’s Day, giving children a chance to spend their “otoshidama” as well as tempting other shoppers with these lucky bags. Some people hit store after store and emerge with an armful of “fukubukuro.” The bags contain various items with a total value of twice the price of the bag.