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Holiday Season Traditions in Japan

As the holiday season approaches, we find the ancient New Year traditions of Japan to be so appropriate to these times and an uplifting influence on how we can choose to close out this year in preparation for the new year.

 

Oosouji
It is essential to start the new year on a clean slate, so across Japan each household removes the clutter accumulated over this past year, reorders, reorganizes, and cleans their home from top to bottom, to begin the new year with a fresh start. The same is true in business, where employees participate in cleansing their work environment before the year’s end, clearing out old inventory and readying their shelves and work spaces for an auspicious new beginning.

 

Joya No Kane
In addition to cleaning one’s home and work environment, it is necessary to cleanse one’s spirit, discard all the impure thoughts and feelings that have festered during the year, and begin anew with a clear heart and mind. In Buddhist tradition, each temple’s monks alternate in ringing their bell 108 times between 11:00pm and midnight, because of their belief that there are 108 different types of discardable negative emotions. Each clang of the bell is a clarion call to rid ourselves of those impurities and usher in a new chapter with purity of mind and spirit.

 

New Year Decorations

Kagami-Mochi

 

Shimekazari are ornamental wreaths made of straw, bitter oranges, fern leaves and strips of Shinto ritual paper woven together and hung on the front door of homes and shops to ward off evil spirits and invite the favourable deity of the New Year. Kadomatsu are a pair of ornamental arrangements of pine branches, bamboo stems and plum tree twigs that flank either side of a home or shop to welcome ancestral deities and the harvest god. Kagami-Mochi is a dessert of two differently-sized round mochi cakes called “mirror rice cakes.” The smaller cake is set atop the larger one. Underneath is a skewer of dried persimmons placed on a sheet of konbu kelp, and on top it is crowned with a bitter orange with its leaf still attached. The two rice cakes symbolize the old and new year, and is said to entreat deities to protect the home from ruin.

A traditional Kadomatsu

 

Toshikoshi Soba
The last meal of the year should not be extravagant, but a simple one of humility. Toshikoshi soba is a bowl of noodles representing the crossing of the year. These long buckwheat noodles symbolize strength and long life. Because they are easy to eat and break apart while eating, doing so symbolizes breaking away the passing year. However, this dish must be fully eaten before midnight, lest we break apart the new year.

 

Otoshidama
As older generations seek the best for younger generations, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and even friends and neighbours give money to children. The amount depends on age and relationship, and is neatly placed in decorative envelopes called otoshidama bukuro. This tradition originated in the Edo period when children received bags of mochi and Mandarin oranges, symbolizing sustenance and sweetness, to spread happiness and excitement for the coming new year.

 

Yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai - Please have a good year

 

(Written by Adam Waxman for JNTO)

 

Adam Waxman is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine, and has written for several travel guides from Fodor’s to Lonely Planet. Adam has lived and worked in Kyoto and Tokyo, and is passionate about Japan travel.  For 2 consecutive years, he has been appointed by the Commissioner of Japan Tourism Agency, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Tourism, as the member of Advisory Board

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