Friday, August 5, 2011

Japanese Holidays: お正月 Oshougatsu, New Year Traditions in Japan

As apposed to America, where Christmas is the big event and New Year is rather anti-climactic, In Japan, お正月 Oshougatsu, New Year is the biggest event of the year and has a rich tradition of customs, decorations, and food.

Yuzu Bath Day

Yuzu is a citrus fruit similar to a mandarin orange and looks somewhat like a grapefruit. It is not usually eaten as a fruit, but is well-known in Japan for its medicinal qualities. People traditionally take a bath with yuzu on the winter solstice around Dec. 21st, known in Japan as Toji. Yuzu baths are said to warm the body, ward off colds, and soothe the mind. In addition, yuzu can be cut and soaked in honey to make a marmalade-like syrup that is a folk remedy for colds and a sore throat.


 1. Omochi (rice cakes)

Pounded rice cakes are made from sticky, gluttonous rice. They are traditionally made with a large wooden mortar and mallet. One person pounds the rice while another pats and turns it with water. It soon becomes a sticky dough. They are a favorite around New Year’s, but can be eaten any time. Many people make them at home with a mochi machine or bread maker. However, they should never be made on Dec. 29th, it’s considered bad luck “Mochi” sounds like the word for “to have” and 9, “ku” sounds like the word for “trouble”.

2. Soba (buckwheat noodles)

These dark grey noodles with a mature taste are near the heart of traditional Japanese cuisine and are eaten on New Year’s Eve.

3. Osechi

These are traditional New Year’s dishes. There are many small dishes served cold in a large square box. Each dish has some good luck meaning. One original purpose of osechi was to give housewives a break from cooking on New Year’s day, however preparing it the day before is quite and undertaking, taking all day, so many people buy osechi from department stores.


1. Kadomatsu

Literally “gate pine”, these are placed in pairs, representing male and female on either side of the door in front of homes and businesses. They are considered home for the “Kami” spirits and bring good luck. The main part consists of three bamboo shafts representing heaven, humanity, and earth with heaven being tallest and earth being the lowest. They are seen around New Year’s until Jan. 7th.

2. Shimenawa
This is a traditional holy rope woven of straw, twisted and hung above the door. They come in all shape and designs, usually with a small winter orange and white zigzag lightning papers or “gohei”. These ropes ward off evil and bring good luck to the household. There are also small shimenawa made especially to hang on the front of your car.

3. Kagamimochi

Literally “mirror rice cakes”. It usually consists of two, large, round mochi, one smaller on top of a larger, with a mandarin winter orange on top. They are traditionally displayed on a wodden stand called a sanpo. Sitting exposed to the cold, the outside of the mochi become hard and cracked. It is broken open and eaten in a ceremony called kagami biraki(mirror opening) on the second weekend in January.

Traditional Customs

1. Hatsumode 
This is visiting the temple or shrine for the first time of the year. Many temples and shrines are crowded on New Year’s Eve. People offer money, count down the new year, and buy good luck charms. At New Year, the temple bells ring 108 times to signiy the 108 temptations of man according to Buddhist belief. People also buy “omikuji” good luck fortunes. These small pieces of paper, picked randomly from a box, tell your fortune in great detail for the coming year. People read them and then tie them to a tree on the temple grounds.

2. Otashi dama ( New Year’s gift money)

This is a favorite among children. Kids receive money from parents and relatives in small colorful envelopes.

3. Suruharai (house cleaning)

In America, we have spring cleaning, but in Japan this is done before the new year. Japanese people open up all the windows and clean the whole house, in the middle of winter! The whole atmosphere around New Year’s is a new beginning. The concept of getting a fresh start is very important in Japan and everyone is in a rush to finish everything before Jan. 1st.

4. Bonenkai/Shinnenkai

Bonenkai (end-of-year parties) in December and shinnenkai (New Year parties) in January are very popular. There is a lot of eating and drinking going on and it’s common to go to many such parties, especially with co-workers.

5. Traditional games

There are several games traditionally played on New Year’s day like takoage( kite flying), hanetsuki(Japanese badminton), and Karuta( a card game).

Modern Traditions

1. Nengajo (New Year’s cards)

Christmas cards are not so popular, but everyone sends New Year’s post cards. Some people may make their own, but most people order them from photo shops with their picture and a New Year’s message. Cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh are favorite themes. People send and receive dozens, even hundreds of cards. Reciprocating is very important. It’s made even more popular by the post office holding a lottery-like contest drawing. Each card has a serial number. Numbers are drawn and posted in the newspaper. There are a number of prizes including a big cash prize, TV, and so on..

2. Kohaku uta Gassen

This is the biggest TV event of the year. It’s a four hour songfest extravaganza. All the most popular singers in Japan, as well as foreign guests like Enya or Susan Boyle perform. They are divided into two teams, red and white, these being traditional colors of celebration in Japan. There is a lot of hype over which singers will attend, but also the hosts, who change costumes many times during the show. A panel of celebrity judges decides the winning team. Nearly every TV in Japan is tuned into this special on Dec. 31st, which is supposed to end just around midnight.

3. Fuku bukuro (grab bags)

Every department store and shop in Japan offers these special bags. They come in all range of prices and usually contain much more inside than the cost of the bag. It’s a time for stores to give something back to shoppers and reduce their end of year inventory.

Happy New Year

To wish people a good holiday season before Jan. 1st, you say "Yoi otoshi o"
To say Happy New Year after Jan. 1st, say "Akemashite omedaeto gozaimasu" or "Ake o me" for short.

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