Are you preparing for Japanese New Year? Tokyo goes quiet this week as most Japanese travel back to their hometowns to eat, drink and relax for three days. I love the silence of Tokyo over the holiday – a great time to bike around due to far fewer cars, and relax at home. A lot of preparation goes into New Year’s celebration, so it will be too late at this point to pull off everything, but you can accomplish some today! Have a wonderful New Year Celebration!
Japanese New Year Preparations
#1 Send New Year Cards (nengajo 年賀状) – Japanese New Year cards are sent to all friends and family with photos of happy weddings, new babies and pets, and vacations. It is also quite common to include the Chinese zodiac for the coming year – 2019 is the year of the Pig. Companies also spend months preparing their nengajo lists and sending to all business associates. It is important to have the card delivered on January 1st so all cards must be mailed in Japan between December 15th to December 25th to assure arrival. You can make your own cards, have them printed at your local photo shop or order online. You also can buy lottery New Year cards at the post office and other locations that enable receivers to win prizes in a nation-wide lottery in January. Two etiquette points- 1. If you receive a card from someone you did not send one to, send one in return within the first week of the year. 2. Do not send a nengajō to a person if they have lost a loved-one in the previous year.
#2. Clean house (Oosouji 大掃除) – Starting the last week of December Japanese families conduct big house cleaning (Oosouji). You can liken this to spring cleaning in the West, but more intense. The entire daily is supposed to be deep cleaned; under furniture, washing windows, lights and hanging pictures, etc. The main reason for Oosouji is to cleanse the house and welcome in the new year with freshness and remove clutter to allow the gods to enter.
#3. Order or make Japanese New Year foods (Osechi-ryori お節料理) – Japanese people eat a special selection of dishes during the New Year celebration called osechi-ryori, typically shortened to osechi. This consists of boiled seaweed (昆布 konbu), fish cakes (蒲鉾 kamaboko), mashed sweet potato with chestnut (栗きんとん kurikinton), simmered burdock root (金平牛蒡 kinpira gobō), and sweetened black soybeans (黒豆 kuromame). Each item in the Osechi has a particular meaning. For example the kamaboko typically is shaped to look like the first sunrise and coloured red/pink and white which are auspicious colours, the golden sweet potatoes symbolise treasures and economic fortune in the new year, the burdock root grows deep in the earth which symbolises strength and a good harvest to come, and the black soybeans “mame,” also sounds like the word for hard work and good health. Typically the osechi is pre-made, and is pickled or dried so it can last without refrigeration for a few days. Most supermarkets are closed from mid-day on the 31st until the 2nd so shopping and preparations is done before the holiday. Most popular Japanese restaurants and department stores take orders for osechi months prior, however, you can get some last-minute deals in the department store basements before they close. Osechi is typically served with ozōni (お雑煮), a soup with mochi rice cake and other ingredients that differ based on various regions of Japan.
#4. Prepare gift money for kids (Otoshidama) – On New Year’s Day parents and relatives give children up to age 20 or so money called otoshidama. The money is given in small decorated envelopes called ‘pochibukuro’. The custom seems to have started in the Edo period when large stores and wealthy families gave out small bags of mochi and a Mandarin orange to spread happiness. The amount of money depends on the age of the child, and the relationship between adult and child, however, 3,000-5,000 yen per envelope is common.
#5. Buy an entrance decoration (shimekazari) – Most Japanese homes and also businesses hang a shimekazari from their front porch or entrance door to prepare for New Year. The decoration is made of a small rope of rice straws and decorated with zigzag paper strips called shire. The shimekazari is similar to the shimenawa which is hung at the gate of all Shinto Shrines to keep bad spirits away. However, the shimekazari is also decorated with good-luck items such as a small bitter orange, a lobster, pine twigs and fern leaves. The bitter orange (daidai) is considered good luck since daidai「橙」 if written with a different kanji「代々」 can be translated as “from generation to generation”, the lobster is lucky since it represents old age, the pine twigs represent power and longevity, and fern leaves represent hope and desire to have a happy family which continues to grow.
#6. Buy or make a pine gate decoration (kadomatsu 門松) – A kadomatsu is a traditional Japanese decoration of the New Year placed in pairs in front of homes to welcome ancestral spirits or kami of the harvest. Kadomatsu are placed after Christmas until January 7 and are considered temporary housing for kami (spirits). Designs for kadomatsu vary depending on region but are typically made of pine, bamboo, and sometimes plum tree sprigs which represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness, respectively. After January 15 (or in many instances the 19th) the kadomatsu is burned to appease the kami or toshigami and release them.
#7. Determine which shrine or temple you will visit on New Year’s Day (Hatsumōde 初詣) – Hatsumode is the first Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple visit of the Japanese New Year. Many visit between January 1-3 since people typically have no work on those days. People visit their local shrines and temples to make wishes for the new year and buy new omamori (charms or amulets), and the old ones are returned to the shrine so they can be burned. Remember to take back your omamori from last years visit. It is bad luck to keep them. Some shrines and temples have millions of visitors over the three days. Meiji Shrine, for example, has over 3 million visitors, while Narita-san, Kawasaki Daishi, Fushimi Inari Taisha and Sumiyoshi Taishi all have over 2 millions visitors. Other popular destinations include Atsuta Jingū, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, Dazaifu Tenman-gū, and Hikawa Shrine. A common custom during hatsumōde is to buy a written oracle called an omikuji. If your omikuji predicts bad luck you can tie it onto a tree on the shrine grounds, in the hope that its prediction will not come true. The omikuji goes into detail, and tells you how you will do in various areas in your life, such as business and love, for that year. Often a good-luck charm comes with the omikuji when you buy it, that is believed to summon good luck and money your way. Many major shrines and temples also sell omokuji in English.
#8. Prepare or find a restaurant for New Year Eve soba (toshikoshi soba 年越し蕎麦) – Many families eat toshikoshi soba together on New Year Eve. Toshikoshi (年越し) means “the closing of the year”, and Soba (蕎麦) is buckwheat noodles. It is believed that by eating soba the troubles of the year will be cut and let go. Also, many believe that the long thin noodles symbolise longevity. Either way soba is a delicious treat before going out at midnight for a temple visit.
#9. Steam the rice to pound on New Year’s Day (Omochi) – Many families or neighbourhoods gather on New Year Day or early in the New Year to pound rice at an Omochitsuki event. The first step, to making omochi, is to soak and cook polished glutinous rice overnight. The cooked rice is then pounded with wooden mallets (kine) in a traditional mortar (usu). Two people will alternate the work, one pounding and the other turning and wetting the mochi. The pounded rice is then divided into mouth size bits and usually soy sauce, sweetened soybean powder, or radish & daikon is used as a condiment. Absolutely delicious fun!
#10. Watch the 1st sunrise (hatsu-hinode) – January 1st is the most auspicious day of the year. The first sunrise of the year represents the whole New Year commencement. The first day of the year should be filled with love and joy, not yet tainted by stress and anger. For this reason prepare before hand, what the sunrise, and enjoy the first day or few!
Have a great New Year! I hope your Japanese New Year preparations are going well.
Japanese New Year Preparations
Living in or visiting Japan with Kids? Here are our favorite holidays and celebrations you should know about in Japan!
January – Coming of Age Day – Celebration of Adulthood for people becoming 18-20.
February – Setsubun – Devil Day
May – Boys Day or Kids Day
July – Tanabata
August – Obon
October – Sports Day
October/November – 7-5-3
December –New Years Celebration