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Japanese New Year's Traditions


Heading into a new year, let's take a look at some traditions observed in Japan over the oshougatsu (New Year) period. This is a time for family, much like Christmas is in the West, and a time for renewal, a time to give thanks, and time to pray for the year to come.

Let's start with some of the food enjoyed at New Year. 

 

Toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles) is traditionally eaten on the evening of December 31st. However, depending on the area or on family traditions, this may vary. That said, as toshikoshi soba is believed to cut away bad luck, it's not considered a good idea to continue eating it from New Year's Eve into the early hours of New Year's Day. Not only that but leftovers of the dish are also said to have a negative impact on one's luck with finances, so perhaps cut down on the portion size if you're planning on partaking in some leftovers!

Then there's osechi ryori (often shortened to just osechi). What's New Year's in Japan without it?! It's a New Year's feast of delicately prepared food, enjoyed with family or friends and usually served in beautiful, stacked lacquer boxes known as jubako.

 

Now, don't for one moment think that this is some hotchpodge of food thrown together. No way! Osechifeatures food that is auspicious, and every item has a symbolic meaning. And, because the custom of eating osechi began before the advent of refrigeration, many traditional osechi staples can be preserved and kept for several days–for example, nimono, vegetables simmered in sugar, soy sauce, and mirin (rice wine used for cooking), as well as items cured in vinegar or salt. 

There are too many osechi items to list here but a few include kazunoko (pickled herring roe) 

 

kohaku kamaboko (fish paste cake) whose colors of red and white are supposed to bring good luck and happiness.
kurikinton (candied chestnuts mixed with sweet potato), a dish representing wealth and prosperity because of its golden color.

 

 

Not only is osechi a feast for the stomach but one for the eyes too! It really is a delight to look at due to its beautiful and colorful presentation. 

Now, before tucking into this feast, one needs to make sure their nengajo–postcards sent as a New Year’s greeting–have been sent.

Nengajo for 2022 will most likely be adorned with tiger images, with 2022 being the Year of the Tiger. And also, be sure your osoji (“big cleaning”) has been completed before the clocks tick over into 2022. Osoji involves discarding anything old or no longer necessary. With a nice, clean home one can begin the year afresh–a clean home adorned with traditional New Year decorations including a kadomatsu(three bamboo shoots with pine and plum branches, placed at the entrance of homes, serving as a temporary abode for Shinto gods who come to bless humans); a shimekazari (a wreath-like decoration hung on doors to attract good fortune and ward off evil spirits);

and kagami mochi (a rice cake with white paper under it called shihoubeni–yes, that “beni” is, indeed, our namesake!).
Now, if you’re an early bird, why not find yourself a scenic spot and watch the hatsuhinode, the first sunrise of the year? Of course, this too, it goes without saying, is symbolic and welcomes in another year with wishes for a bountiful harvest, plentiful food, and blessings from one’s ancestors. Before or after hatsuhinode you might enjoy another “hatsu”hatsumode. The first few days of January see Japan’s shrines and temples bustling with people making their yearly pilgrimage for their first shrine or temple visit of the year, hatsumode. It’s a time to pray, to purchase omamori (lucky charms), and draw omikuji (fortune slips). And, while at a temple at this time you may hear the joya no kane, the ringing of the bells. At midnight on December 31st, Buddhist temples ring their temple bells 108 times to welcome in the New Year. Why 108 times? Well, according to Buddhist belief there are 108 worldly desires that lead to suffering. So, it’s believed this many rings will remove these negative emotions and purify people for the New Year.

Speaking of desires, whatever they may be, we wish you all the best for 2022 and send you a heartfelt akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!


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