New Year's Customs in Japan
New Year's, or oshogatsu in Japanese, is the most important holiday in Japan, and it is celebrated quite differently than it is in the West. Japan has so many interesting customs and ways to celebrate oshogatsu. Many families will play traditional games like karuta or fukuwarai (where a blindfolded player places body parts on a face). While spring cleaning is a popular concept in the US, in Japan cleaning is done before the new year to welcome it with a clean slate. Instead of (or sometimes in addition to) Christmas presents, Japanese children receive money in the form of otoshidama. These are but a few of the customs, and I would like to introduce some other popular ways that Japanese people celebrate New Year’s.
Ozoni and Mochi
While there isn’t really such a thing as a New Year’s meal in the US, Japan has many foods that are associated with the holiday, such as osechi and soba. Mochi is a well known and popular Japanese food so of course it's a must for New Year’s celebrations. Ozoni is a New Year’s dish that consists of mochi and soup. The soup varies by region, and popular options are dashi, a stock from dried bonito, and red or white miso stock. Red bean soup is another option. In addition to mochi, meat, fish, vegetables, or yuzu flakes can also be added. Of course, mochi can also be eaten by itself and making mochi is a popular New Year's activity.
This, however, is not the only use for mochi. It is also used in kagami mochi, a New Year's decoration. Two pieces of mochi are stacked and a daidai orange is placed on top. While nowadays, a mikan is sometimes used instead of a daidai, daidai is the traditional fruit because its name can also be read to mean "generations" (代々). The mochi and the daidai are placed on stands, which are then displayed around the house or in the family altar as an offering to the kami, or gods. Many stores will sell plastic wrapped mochi as well as ones featuring cute characters. Traditionally, the kagami mochi is opened on January 11th in a ritual called kagami biraki and broken into bite-sized pieces. It is important to note that one must not cut the mochi as that has bad connotations of severing ties.
Kagami mochi is not the only New Year’s decoration. Kadomatsu is another common one, usually placed in pairs in front of one’s home or business to welcome the kami. Kadomatsu is made up of three diagonally cut bamboo shoots of differing heights. The tallest represents the heavens while the lowest signifies the earth. Humanity is represented by the mid-length stalk. The bamboo itself is a symbol for strength and prosperity. The bamboo is tied to pine twigs, a symbol for longevity, with a straw rope. Kadomatsu are usually placed in front of the house by the 26th, where they will stay until January 7th.
Joya no Kane
Countdown parties are not as popular as they are in the West, and fireworks are even more rare; many Japanese people instead go to temples to literally ring in the new year. Joya no Kane is a Buddhist tradition where the temple bell is rung 108 times: 107 times on the 31st with the final chime coming as the year changes. This number corresponds to the number of human sins. It is believed that ringing the bell will cleanse you of your sins. There are many temples you can visit to listen to the bells and some even offer people the chance to ring it themselves. In Tokyo, Asakusa is a popular option, and in Kyoto, Nanzenji Temple gives visitors the chance to ring the bell. Chion-ji in Kyoto is another popular choice as it houses Kyoto’s largest bell, which is rung by a team of 17 monks. I visited Osu Kannon in Nagoya, which was packed and festive but offered plenty of food stalls to help pass the time (and to fight off the cold). Osu Kannon is located close to the Osu shopping arcade, which has many stores catering to anime and idol fans. Due to this, there were even some bell ringers dressed in cosplay, which I found to be a delightful mix of traditional and modern Japanese culture. It is a fun way to celebrate New Year’s Eve, especially if spending the night out in a bar isn’t your ideal way to celebrate.
While you may be ready for sleep after staying up late and braving the cold, the festivities aren’t over yet. Hatsuhinode is the first sunrise of the year, and many Japanese people will get up early (or stay up all night) to welcome the new year by witnessing the first sunrise. Many sites and observation towers will extend their hours in order to accommodate those who wish to see the sunrise. I experienced my first hatsuhinode at Kumamoto Castle, which opened its doors at 5 AM. While I was sleepy and freezing, the festive atmosphere was certainly enjoyable. I must admit, as I stood among throngs of people waiting for the sun to rise, part of me was questioning whether this had been a good idea after all. However, seeing the amazing view of the sunrise from the top of the castle while taiko drums and Japanese flutes played made it all worth it. Unfortunately, Kumamoto Castle was heavily damaged by the recent earthquake so it is currently closed. However, there are many other places where you can enjoy hatsuhinode. Tokyo Tower, Kyoto Tower, Nagoya TV Tower, and Osaka’s Umeda Sky Building are all open early and, of course, Mt. Fuji is an extremely popular spot to see the sunrise.
If you don’t want to get up before the crack of dawn, why not try hatsumode? Hatsumode is the first temple or shrine visit of the new year, and it can be experienced at any temple or shrine in Japan. Most visitors will take the opportunity to buy omamori, a type of good luck charm, and return the ones they bought in the previous year so they can be burned. It is also a good chance to pick up an omikuji, a slip of paper that predicts your fortune for the year. If it is bad, you simply tie it to a tree on the shrine grounds to prevent it from coming true. Additionally, it’s the only chance you have to buy hamaya, a decorative arrow that brings good luck, as these are only sold during the New Year holiday.
Hatsumode can be done anytime within the first three days of the new year, but, of course, the 1st is the most popular time. Naturally, the popular shrines are packed, with some of the biggest welcoming millions of visitors. It can be a daunting experience. However, I think it’s a wonderful chance to see the realities of Japanese religion and culture for yourself, and joining the throngs of worshippers in the festival-like setting leads to an interesting experience. Popular shrines are Ise in Mie and Atsuta in Nagoya, for they are two of the most sacred and important Shinto shrines. Other popular options are Meiji Shrine and Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto, and Sumiyoshi Taisa Grand Shrine in Osaka. If you want something a bit quieter, you can also try a local, less famous shrine.
Kakizome is the first calligraphy of the new year, typically done on the 2nd. Traditionally, people would write out Chinese poems that included auspicious words or phrases, but nowadays, most people simply shorten it to auspicious words or a poetic, often seasonal phrase. Other customs, such as using water that had been drawn from a well on New Year’s day and facing a fortunate direction determined by your zodiac, have similarly decreased in popularity. Still, many students will be assigned kakizome over the winter holidays. In the area where I work, all of the students spend two periods on the first day back writing their assigned word or phrase. When I tried my hand at it, the 6th graders were writing kibou no michi, or "path of hope." Additionally, there are events for kakizome, and the most famous one is held at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo. Typically, these writings are burned around the 15th, and it is said that the higher your paper flies as it burns, the better calligrapher you will be.
These are just a few aspects of Japan’s rich New Year’s culture. While traveling in Japan during this period can be a hassle as many museums, tourist spots, and restaurants are closed, it’s also a good chance to learn more about Japanese traditions. Many of these customs are accessible even to foreigners who speak no Japanese, so if you are in Japan for the holidays, why not spend New Year’s the Japanese way.