How to spend your New year’s in Japan
New Year’s a big deal in Japan. It celebrated at the scale of Christmas maybe even bigger. Initially everyone’s on the move – trying to finish up everything and head back to celebrate with their families and then it seems as though the country comes to a standstill. A lot of businesses are shut down from January 1st to January 3rd – from banks to supermarkets.
Like with any other holiday, the way the Japanese celebrate Christmas is pretty unique. Here are some of the Japanese New year (Oshogatsu) traditions :
1. Sato-gaeri :
What is Sato-gaeri? Well – its basically a phenomenon that happens just before New Year’s ( and some other holidays) where MOST Japanese people return to their childhood homes to celebrate New Year with their families. As curious foreigners, we found it really interesting to watch this happen, however the U-turn traffic can be quite bothersome. If you plan on visiting Japan or even travelling within Japan and haven’t already booked tickets – Good luck!!
2. Try Osechi Ryori (Traditional New Year’s Food) :
Unless you are Japanese or a chef or you are simply interested in cooking, we suggest that you buy the Osechi Ryori from outside. Osechi Ryori are special food prepared for new year. They are packed in special lunch boxes called Jubako. The dishes in the Osechi ryori can vary depending on the area and family. The dishes of the Osechi Ryori are supposed to be auspicious – hence the highest quality ingredients are used to prepare them. Osechi ryori is eaten for the first 2 or 3 days of the new year instead of cooking any new food. We love the fact that there are many colorful dishes but Osechi Ryori bentos are generally expensive! You can get them if you really want to – its not a must if you don’t feel like spending that much money.
3. Kagami Mochi :
Kagami mochi is a new year’s decoration which literally means mirror rice cake. Its basically 2 mochi cakes ( shaped like old copper mirrors) of different sizes ( the smaller placed on top large one) topped with a daidai ( bitter Asian Orange) placed on a stand called Sanpo. It can be placed in different locations around the house or even just the alcove till the day of Kagami Biraki – usually on January 11th or the second Saturday or Sunday of January – when the mochi, which is quite brittle by now, is broken with a hammer or by hand and put in the ozoni or shiruko ( sweet bean soup).
Nowadays people generally buy pre-molded mochi instead of making them at home.
4. Osouji (Year-end Cleaning) :
Osouji is the ritualistic big end of the year cleaning where you clean your house or workplace – including the windows, the balconies and all of the outdoor spaces . It is quite a big deal in Japan because it symbolizes a new beginning as it rids our homes and workplaces of all the clutter, especially the soot and dust, which is known as susuharai. It is done to give thanks for the blessings of the previous year and to clear the space for the coming year. Cleaning up during the winters can be tough – but Osouji gives them the motivation to put on their gloves and get started.
5. Joya no Kane (The Bells on New Year’s Eve):
On New Year’s eve, temple bells are struck 108 times in Japan. According to Buddhist beliefs, humans are plagued by 108 earthly desires which can cause suffering. Hence, ringing the the bell a total of 108 times can drive away all those desires and bring you good luck. You can welcome New Year without any greed. We went to Osu Kannon Temple at 10 p.m new year’s eve. there were food stalls in the temple compound so we finished our dinner while waiting for the bells. When the bells first start to ring, there is absolute silence – its amazing!
6. Hatsumode (First Shrine Visit):
This is something you should definitely NOT miss out on – unless you hate crowds. Hatsumode means the year’s first prayer or the year’s first visit to a shrine or a temple. Watching a sea of people walking patiently to reach the temple or shrine to offer prayers is a sight to behold – unless you are the one in the middle of the crowd – well that’s a different experience ( we loved it :D)
7. Don’t forget to send out your New Year cards :
New Year cards in the west have a picture, maybe a message and some space to write you good wishes. The Japanese new year cards however are very different. They are known as nengajo and the use the current year’s zodiac animal as the design. THE post office generally stocks the nengajo that has been mailed and send it out at the end of December as the nengajo is NOT supposed to arrive at the intended destination before January 1st.
8. Try out Toshikoshi soba and ozoni before the year is out :
Soba is Buckwheat noodles. Toshikoshi soba are extra long, thin soba noodles served traditionally at the end of the year. These long noodles symbolize a long and healthy life and hence are eaten with family members. Ozoni on the other hand is a Japanese soup containing mochi. It is said to be the most auspicious food eaten during the new years. The base and ingredients of the ozoni vary depending on the region.
9. Kohaku Uta Gassen ( Red and white song battle) :
It is an annual music show broadcast on New Year’s eve by NHK – a Japanese Public Broadcaster. Kohaku Uta Gassen consists of 2 teams – an all male team – Shirogumi ( white team) and an all female team – Akagumi ( Red team). What makes it special though is the the people can participate in this show by invitation only, so only the best artists of the industry are allowed the honor to perform here – how exciting!
10. Gift yourself with a Fukubukuro (Lucky-Bags) :
We love this tradition. Fukubukuro are lucky bags which are filled with random products sold at a substantial discount. The lucky bags from many department stores are snapped up fast by the eagerly awaiting customers. Who wouldn’t want to – its a once in a year opportunity. We sure were happy with ours bigsmile . In a 10,000 yen lucky bag, we each got a winter coat, a sweater, a scarf and a shirt worth 40,000 yen – Awesome!
And here’s a BONUS for you guys if you like drinking. It might not be like any drink you’ve ever tasted but trust us you have to try it –
Don’t miss out on the spiced Sake (Toso) :
On January 1st, drinking special spiced sake is said to help with longevity and flush away last year’s bad luck. The sake is mixed with medicinal herbs to help protect us from certain infections like common cold. Traditionally, guests visiting during New Year’s are offered this sake as a way of extending good wishes for their health. When drink by members within the family, Toso is poured in 3 cups of different sizes called Sakazuki and then passed around to each family member, starting with the smallest cup, till everyone has finished sipping from each cup.
How do you celebrate your New Year’s in Japan or in your country? Let us know in the comments below!
Happy New Year!