No other holiday in Japan rivals Shogatsu (the New Year, also called Oshogatsu) in importance, and although it is celebrated according to the western calendar it has few similarities with New Year celebrations in the west. Rather than lively parties followed by an alcohol-lubricated countdown, New Year’s a somber occasion, and it doesn’t end there: while the party is over for westerners as soon as the New Year’s Day hangover sets in, Shogatsu goes on for days.
It also begins early: by Shogatsu all the loose ends of the year must be tied: debts paid, favors returned, promises kept, and homes and offices cleaned. The first signs of the approaching New Year are often in November, with housewives taking advantage of the occasional warm day by cleaning up windows and screens and tidying up around the yard. This is the beginning of osoji (the great cleaning), the equivalent of the west’s Spring Cleaning, and it will continue until the end of the year, until the entire home is spotless. Usually on one of the last days of the year the entire family will pitch in but the work done is mostly symbolic, since everyone knows that the real cleaning has already been done by mom.
Another word for December is shiwasu, which literally means “senseis run around” and refers to the frantic business of priests, teachers, and others with the “sensei” title, who are assumed to have an especially heavy load of duties and obligations to fulfill before the New Year. However, it’s really the women of Japan, especially the housewives, who are busy running around. For in addition to osoji she has plenty of other duties, and if you’ve ever wondered why Christmas remains a minor holiday here, the answer may simply be that Japanese moms have enough on their plates already.
One of these duties is the making and addressing of nengajo (New Year postcards), which are sent to friends, family, colleagues and other acquaintances much like Christmas cards in Christian countries. The design of the nengajo usually incorporates a New Year’s greeting and the New Year’s junishi (zodiac animal) as well as other seasonal images like matsu (pine) and ume (Japanese apricot blossoms). 2009, by the way, is ushi-doshi (year of the ox), so you’ll be seeing cows on this year’s cards. In the past many people either had their nengajo made at a commercial printer or made the cards themselves with stamps. This was for the design side only, and the address side was usually hand written, along with a brief personal message on the design side (often in beautiful calligraphy). These days, however, most people print their postcards themselves using home printers and special nengajo software, and although good manners still calls for addresses and personal messages to be hand-written, many people ignore this rule and let their printers do the addresses (often skipping the personal messages entirely). For some people even that is too much trouble, so nengajo are emailed instead.
Another housewifely duty is the sending of oseibo (year-end gifts). Often bought from department stores, these gifts are sent as tokens of appreciation to bosses, teachers, and people who have been of assistance during the year (or sent gifts that have yet to be repaid). Old-fashioned gifts like household and cooking necessities (think soap, towels, rice, cooking oil and soy sauce) are falling out of favor, replaced by gift certificates and fancy edibles like ham, sausage, crab, cookies and beer. Both the amount spent and the place of purchase are important, with a 20,000 yen present from a top department store showing far more appreciation than 3000 yen gift from the local convenience store, no matter what the gift itself is.
One more household job is setting up New Year’s decorations, which can only be done once the osoji is finished and the home considered pure enough for to host the toshigami (New Year’s deities), who are thought to reside in homes over the holidays. Shimekazari, a wreath-like decoration consisting of a twisted rope (similar to the shimenawa found at Shinto Shrines) shaped into a ring and adorned with auspicious seasonal items like fern leaves, ume blossoms and pine boughs. More traditional homes will place kadomatsu (three freshly-cut pieces of bamboo adorned with pin boughs, straw rope and other decorations) on either side of their gate or front door, with the size of the kadomatsu often reflecting the family’s wealth and importance. These decorations are not reserved for the home: businesses display them as well (after employees put in a few hours of osoji), with major companies seeming to compete with their rivals to see who can afford the largest and most ostentatious decorations (banks and department stores often feature kadomatsu enormous enough to make the news). In addition to homes and businesses, it’s not uncommon to see sparkling clean cars sporting shimekazari on their front vendors, and people will even decorate their bicycles.
Another important decoration is the kagami-mochi, two fat discs of mochi (pounded glutinous rice, or rice cake) atop a small wooden altar, adorned with specially folded paper, fern leaves and tiny daidai oranges. This is placed indoors, usually in front of the kamidana (Shinto altar), and will remain until mid January. In rural areas the mochi will be from a mochitsuki taikai, a mochi-making event held by large families, neighborhood groups, companies and other associations. Freshly steamed mochigome (glutinous rice) is added to a large mortar and then repeatedly smashed with a large wooden mallet. When the rice reaches a smooth and sticky consistency it is made into snacks for the participants as a reward for everyone’s hard work before being shaped into kagami-mochi and smaller discs and slabs for eating during the holidays. In cities mochitsuki taikai are rare, and the kagami-mochi usually comes from the supermarket. These days it is almost always coated in plastic, since modern homes tend to heated better than traditional houses, and uncovered mochi tends to get moldy.
Bonenkai are another important year-end event. Literally “forget-the-year meeting”, bonenkai are parties held by groups of people, such as coworkers, club members, and neighborhood associations. Somewhat similar to office Christmas parties in the west, bonenkai are lively affairs that involve great quantities of food and drink, usually held in izakaya or restaurants. Bonenkai can be a simple get together arranged by friends but are more often highly organized, and company bonenkai can be major events. Organized by a special committee, they are attended by the entire workforce and held at fancy restaurants, with lavish food and unlimited drink.
Another lead-up to Shogatsu is toji (winter solstice) around December 22nd. The shortest day of the year is celebrated by eating kabocha squash, most often as azuki-kabocha (kabocha simmered with azuki beans), followed by a dip in the yuzu-buro. A few yuzu citrus are added to the evening bath, and as they bob around in the hot water they release a lovely fragrance, said to keep the bather free of illness in the coming year. Some sento and onsen will fill their tubs with dozens of yuzu, and some homes skip the expensive fruit and use yuzu scented bath salts instead.
In the last few days of the year housewives are busy preparing special New Year’s foods called osechi. These symbolic and strongly flavored delicacies are prepared ahead of time in order to let the women of the household relax for the first three days of January, their only break of the year. Osechi dates from an age before refrigerators, and in order to last throughout the holiday were packed with high in sugar and salt, which acted as preservatives. These days osechi is often kept in the fridge and thus is seasoned a little more lightly, but even so many people dislike it and dread having to eat it during the New Year. Women also dread the hard work involved in the preparation of osechi and are increasingly ordering it from department stores and supermarkets. This store-bought osechi is notoriously expensive, costing tens or even hundreds of thousands of yen.
Omisoka (New Year’s Eve) is the time to eat the last fresh food of the holiday: a bowl of soba noodles called toshikoshi soba. Literally “year-crossing noodles”, toshikoshi soba is eaten late in the evening on New Year’s Eve, and the long shape of the soba is said to promote longetivity. Toshikoshisoba can be eaten at home, either from regular ingredients or special packs of New Year’s soba and broth sold by soba restaurants, but for those heading out to greet the New Year at temples and shrines, the done thing is to stop off for toshikoshi soba at a favorite soba restaurant. Two of the most famous soba restaurants in Tokyo, Kanda Yabu Soba and Kanda Matsuya, stay open late on New Year’s Eve (Matsuya until 10:00 and Yabu Soba until 11:30).
After the last noodle is slurped up, people head for a temple to quite literally ring in the New Year. Joya no Kane (midnight ringing of the temple bell) starts as soon as the clock strikes midnight, with monks ringing the giant temple bell a total of 108 times. The number is important in Buddhism (you may have noticed some temples are reached by 108 steps), representing the many bonno (variously translated as passions, sins, or earthly desires) that afflict people. Each ring of the bell erases a bonno, and by ringing the temple bell 108 times all 108 earthly desires built up over the previous year are removed, allowing a fresh, pure start to the year. The bell is struck from the outside, rather than inside, with a large wooden mallet hung from the ceiling by ropes, which makes a dramatically loud and deep sound. The ringing of the bells can be heard all over the country, even by those who have stayed at home. Often the bell can be rung by regular people (or those regular people who have donated generously to the temple), but for most people just being at the temple and witnessing the ringing is enough. Popular temples to visit in the Kanto region include Sensoji, Zenpukuji and Ikegami Honmonji in Tokyo, Heikenji in Kawasaki, Nikko-san Rinnoji in Nikko, and Narita-san Shinshoji in Narita.
The main entertainment for people staying at home on Omikosa has long been NHK’s long-running music show Kohaku Uta Gassen. Literally “Red and White Singing Battle”, the show pits the red team, composed of female singers, against the men who make up the white team. It used to be a fair fight, but in recent years, perhaps thanks to the success of SMAP and other male singing groups, the odds are in the white team’s favor: in the last thirteen years the men have beaten the women nine times. The show was once so popular that most people had no idea what other channels broadcast, and for the curious it was unthinkable to change the channel, since NHK has no commercial breaks. Now people seem to be tiring of the show (SMAP might have something to do with this as well) and other channels are competing successfully against NHK. Whatever the programming, all channels will have a countdown to midnight, and then will show celebrations around the country. Here NHK is again the channel to watch, with gorgeous live footage of temples and shrines throughout the archipelago. The views will have you wishing you went out for New Year’s, until a shot shows crowds of shivering people, and then you’ll be happy you stayed at home in the warmth of your kotatsu (heated table).
Now that Ganjitsu (New Year’s Day) is here, it’s time for hatsumode (the first prayer of the year). This is done not at a temple but a shrine, and particularly eager folk will line up at famous shrines as soon as they’re finished their toshikoshi soba on New Year’s Eve. Most people, however, wait until daylight for hatsumode, going on one of the first three days of the year. Hatsumode involves praying for health, luck and happiness for the New Year, and many people take this opportunity to buy engimono (good luck talismans). The most popular are omamori (protective charms), which bring good luck in very specific categories, such as business success, driver safety, passing tests and exams, and safe pregnancy and delivery. Hamaya are decorative arrows said to destroy evil, while daruma (dharma dolls) are sold, usually with blank eyes: the idea is to fill in the eyes once you’ve fulfilled your resolutions. Shrines will often have large bins set up where you throw away the engimono you bought last year; they will all be burned in mid-January.
Hatsumode is also the time for ema and omikuji. Ema are wooden votive plaques on which shrine-goers write their prayers and wishes for the coming year; available all year long, those sold during the New Year are distinguished by having a design featuring the year’s junishi (during the rest of the year ema usually feature a picture of a horse). Ema are hung at the shrine rather than taken home, so that the gods can read them and grant the wishes. Omikuji (fortunes) are also available year-round, but the fortunes told during hatsumode take on a special significance, forecasting the luck one will have in the New Year. Fortunes are written on a piece of paper, chosen completely at random, and range from daikichi (great luck) to daikyo (great curse). The omikuji will also have detailed predictions about health, romance, business, and even the chance of recovering lost items. Traditionally bad fortunes are folded lengthwise and tied onto tree branches at the shrine while good fortunes are kept, but these days most people tie their fortunes, good or bad, to poles set up for the purpose.
There are many other hatsu (firsts), the first being hatsu-hinode (first sunrise). Some people will stay up all night, or wake up early, to see the first sunrise of the year. The view from home is sufficient, but the sunset from a famous peak is better. In Tokyo two top spots are Takao-san and Hinode-yama. Only the most hardcore mountain climbers attempt to see the sunset from Mount Fuji, as winter conditions are dangerous (injuries and deaths are not uncommon), but the first sunset from Fuji-san is considered the ultimate hatsu-hinode. Hatsu-yume (first dream) is also important, but dreams on New Year’s Eve don’t count: it’s the dreams on the first full night of the year, starting January 1st, that foretell the coming year. The luckiest thing to dream about is Fuji, followed by taka (hawk) and nasubi (eggplant). Other hatsu include hatsu-keiko (first training, usually of martial arts) and hatsu-renshu (first practice, for hobbies and sports).
Meanwhile, it’s time for the first meal of the year, which of course is the osechi that was prepared by the hard-working women of the house. Osechi is served beautifully arranged in a three layer jubako box, with every item of food representing a wish for the New Year. Often it’s a pun in the food’s name that brings good luck: an example is kobu-maki (kelp rolls), as kobu, the word for kelp, also means joy. Other symbolic foods are ebi (shrimp or lobster) which represent long life, kazunoko (herring roe), with the hundreds of tiny eggs representing prosperity and fertility, and kuro-mame (black beans) representing good health. Osechi is eaten together is otoso (sake infused with sugar and medicinal herbs), which is meant to promote health and drive away evil. The medicinal odor and sickly sweet flavor of otoso makes it one of the least-loved parts of Shogatsu, but only a small sip is necessary.
The osechi and otoso are followed by ozoni, one of the most beloved of all New Year’s food. This is a soup made with mochi (often the mochi made at the previous year’s mochi taikai) that varies tremendously between the regions of Japan. Generally households in Eastern Japan make an ozoni with clear broth and square-cut mochi while those in Western Japan prefer miso in the broth and use round mochi, but there are many more variations.
The first three days of the year are spent at home (and “home” usually means one’s parent’s home, so most Japanese will return to their hometowns during this time) with family, with occasional visits from friends. Visitors customarily give otoshidama (New Year’s money), folded up and placed in special little envelopes, to children, and woe be those with large families and many friends, as the standard amount given to a fairly close (niece, nephew, or a child of a best friend, for example) grade school-aged child is 5000 to 10,000 yen.
Visitors will be invited to join in favorite New Year’s pastimes, which include drinking (startin in the morning and lasting until late at night) and playing games. Two popular karuta (card games) are hyakkunin isshu (one hundred poets), in which lines from one hundred famous poems are matched, and hanafuda (flower cards), a game with beautiful cards and complex rules. Hanetsuki is a badminton-like game played with decorative paddles, and if the weather is right children head outside for tako-age (kite flying).
Once upon a time all shops remained closed on the first three days of the year, but now department stores open on the second day and some businesses, like convenience stores and supermarkets, never close at all. Stores are usually packed with people looking for bargains, as this is one of the two yearly sale periods. Another attraction, fukubukuro (literally “lucky bags”, similar to grab bags in the west), are sold at a fraction of the price of the mystery items inside, but unfortunately most of the items are usually junk that failed to sell the previous year.
Thus the first three days of the year pass, and soon it is time to return to regular life. But celebrations continue: during January shinnen-kai (“New Year meeting”, the New Year’s equivalent of bonen-kai) are held, and nengajo may continue to be sent until January 15th, after which you can still send winter greetings to people you forgot to include on your nengajo list. On January 7th, a special meal of nanakusa-gayu (rice porridge with seven herbs of spring) is eaten to ensure health during the year. Prepared with the seven herbs of spring, these were traditionally gathered wild but are now sold in sets at the supermarket.
On January 11th, the kagami-mochi is broken in a ritual called kagami-biraki. Literally “breaking the mirror”, kagami-biraki involves breaking the mochi with a wooden mallet. This makes sense since the mochi, after sitting on its altar for a few weeks, is dry and brittle and thus can’t be cut easily, but there is a deeper reason why the mochi is smashed instead of sliced: knives symbolize cutting off ties (the reason a knife is never to be given as a gift). Ironically, the mass-produced, plastic encased mochi that most people use today must be cut with a knife, as it stays so fresh that it can’t be broken with a hammer. After it is smashed or cut the mochi cooked and eaten, most often as oshiruko, a sweet soup with red beans and mochi. Finally, around January 14th or 15th, shrines hold a ceremony called sagicho. Also known as dondo-yaki, it involves making a large bonfire out of the previous year’s engimono. And with that the New Year’s celebrations are over.
If you think it all seems like a lot of work and very little fun, you’re not alone: more and more Japanese are choosing to skip Shogatsu. Vacations, both domestic and overseas are increasingly popular. Some folks prefer to stay home and follow most of the traditions but opt for a western-style New Year’s Eve, complete with champagne and a festive countdown. In Tokyo, a plethora of bars, restaurants and hotels offer a wide range of festivities with enticements like intimate luxury meals, dinner shows, and dancing. A popular place to see in the New Year is at the Park Hyatt, where the New York Grill is having a 6-course New Year’s Dinner for 42,000 yen, while New York Bar offers live jazz with champagne and hors d'oeuvres for 10,000 yen at its New Year’s Celebration. Another favorite is Disney, with a Countdown Party at Disneyland and a New Year’s Eve Celebration at Disney Sea. Both feature fireworks, parades and special shows, a passport is 15,000 yen. For those wanting a little more excitement, many of Tokyo’s clubs will open and holding countdown parties. Good ones to try are Liquid Room’s 2009Liquid (5000 yen at the door) , Womb’s New Year Countdown 2009 (5000 yen at the door), club asia’s 2009 All Stars (4000 yen at the door) , and ageha’s Countdown 2009, really several parties in one (tickets from 5000 to 150,000 yen) . Then again, looking at some of those prices, a quiet Japanese-style Shogatsu doesn’t sound so bad after all.