On the 25th of December the good old Christmas tree is packed away to make room for the most important holiday in Japan: New Year's! Japanese celebrations include incredible food, meaningful ornaments, and fascinating traditions. That's the time of the year when people head back to their hometowns, families get together and spend some quality time. It kicks off in the second half of December when people start resolving all unfinished business and cleaning their households to start the new year with a clean slate. That’s when ‘bounenkai’- end of year parties are organised, borrowed items returned, and new year’s cards sent to all friends and acquaintances.
Once everything has been dealt with it’s time for some new year’s decorations! The one that you can spot everywhere (and has its own emoji 🎍) is called ‘kadomatsu’. It’s a decorative set up consisting of three bamboo pieces combined with pine tree branches and other elements, usually displayed in front of buildings between the 1st and 7th of January.
Take a step inside people’s houses and you will notice a mysterious item in the ‘tokonoma’- familial Shinto altar. It’s ‘kagami mochi’ which can be translated as mirror rice cake and consists of two rice cakes placed on top of each other with a bitter orange called daidai on the top! This decoration symbolises the family’s progression through generations. There are countless other ornaments related to the passing of the year in Japan but what happens with them once the festive season is over?
Surprisingly, the ornaments are not packed up and put away for the year but have a farewell party! Or at least something similar which happens when the festivities end. The decorations are brought to local Shinto shrines and burnt! This tradition is called ‘dondoyaki’ and it’s goal is to spiritually purify all of the participants. People bring their decorations, old daruma dolls, omamori charms and throw them into the fire! Keeping the adornments at home and any old charms means that we are holding on to the past and disposing of them at home would bring bad luck upon the culprit!
Going back in time to the 31st of December let’s undercover what people eat and do on this joyous day. It’s the season for osechi ryori: sets of different types of food nicely presented in a box called juubako resembling our good old bento boxes. Each small side dish symbolises something different, for example the hidden meaning of prawns is the wish for a long life!
Another delicious tradition is eating Toshikoshi soba, meaning ‘year passing buckwheat noodles’. They symbolise the passing of the year and longevity, two key themes of the Japanese new year. Soup called ‘ozoni’ is an inherent part of New Year’s Day too, consisting of a broth filled with vegetables and mochi rice cakes.
Are you feeling overwhelmed by all of the hidden symbols? Don’t worry even Japanese people don’t know about the meaning behind all of the traditions and foods but it really keeps you on your toes!
One special broadcast is on everyone’s minds on New Year’s Eve and it’s not the Emperor’s speech if your mind was going in that direction. It’s the Kouhaku Singing Contest, a competition between two teams - red with female vocals, and white with male vocals. The audience and judges decide on the winning team after an eventful evening with Japan's greatest musicians. This epic song contest gets millions of people fired up each year. Kouhaku ends just before midnight when it’s time to head to a local shrine or temple for ‘hatsumode’!
‘Hatsumode’ is the first visit of the year to a spiritual place to pray for good luck in the upcoming year. It’s incredibly popular on the night between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day so some people choose to go a little bit later just to avoid the crowds. Once the prayers are done people get 'omikuji', fortune-telling strips, to see how lucky they will be in the upcoming year. It's a random draw so not everyone goes home with the greatest blessing! The most favoured places in Tokyo for a new year visit are the Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shibuya Sensoji Shrine in Asakusa.
An hour before the new year temple bells ring 108 times which is called ‘joya no kane’. The final bell is supposed to ring exactly at midnight and their goal is to make people forget about the 108 worldly desires and start the year with a clear mind!
Japanese new year is filled with celebrations of all first experiences of the year, and wishing for good luck and longevity. Some people choose to stay up and watch the first sunrise of the year called ‘hatsuhinode’. It really gives you the impression that something old has ended and a new year has begun. People believe that appreciating all the firsts will bring you good fortune in the upcoming year. That's why some want to start it with a bang and hike Mt. Fuji to see the first sunrise!
The final New Year’s activity for some is queuing for the shops to open and getting a lucky bag called ‘fukubukuro’. They are mysterious goodie bags you can purchase for a set price from your favourite shop with unknown items inside, usually worth more than the price suggests! Some ‘fukubukuro’ enthusiasts start queuing hours before the shops’ opening time.
You can try celebrating Japanese New Year at home as at its heart lies the appreciation of new life experiences and positive wishes for the future. This way January can evolve from a dull and grey month into a spiritual celebration of a variety of ‘firsts’!