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Happy New Year to all our readers.  Thank you very much for taking an interest, and for your time taken to read about what goes on in Japan.

Time of the Year Reserved for Family

For Japanese people, the New Year celebration is the most important family occasion of the year.  All members gather on 1st of January to celebrate the new beginning together, thanking ancestors for the peace, prosperity, and health that they bring.

So, what is the rule and what do you do?

The focus on the media during the festive period is on traffic congestion.  It starts around 30th December and then re-starts on 2nd January.  This is because family gatherings start on 31st December.

The tradition is to spend the change of the year at midnight together.  Often it comes with eating soba noodle (to wish for longevity by consuming long food), watching the annual year-end song battle on television, and listening to 107 gongs of the bell at the temples, which is broadcasted on the television as well, right after the song battle.

Some families go to the local shrine at the stroke of midnight, but the official celebration starts at the first sunrise – “Gantan”.

Everything is NEW for Divine Visit

The god of the new year, “Toshigami”, appears with the first sunrise.

All efforts of cleaning and decorating the houses, shrines, and temples at the end of December are for this divine visit.  For this visit to happen, all the places need to be clean and marked with special decorative items made of ropes, pine tree branches, and tied ribbons.

To welcome it, the New Year’s Day starts with cleansing the body, dressed in a new or freshly cleaned and pressed Kimono.

The first meal of the year starts with sharing ceremonial spiced sake, infused overnight, called Toso.  This is served with lacquered special serve ware.

This is followed by the feast, Osechi.  This consists of food items full of lucky wishes.  The most important three items are:

Kazunoko (herring roe), to wish for fertility and good health

Kuro-mame (black soybeans), to wish for health

Tazukuri (dried sardines) to wish for a good harvest.

Others are Datemaki (sweet rolled omelette) to wish for success in studies because of its resemblance to a scroll of text, Kinton (chestnut paste which is golden colour) to wish for luck with money because of its golden colour, and Ebi prawns with head and tail to wish for longevity, because of its long “beard” and bent back.

They are packed in beautiful lacquer boxes before New Year’s eve, and presented to the in-house god first.  This feast is a special meal as the God and people share the same food.  Even the chopsticks used are special:  Both ends are carved so that one end is used by people and the other by the god.

Another unmissable item is Mochi rice cake.  It is very glutenous and sticky.  When eaten, it stretches a very long way.  It is considered a good sign for longevity, although it is a very infamous choking hazard.

Celebrations Continue for Three Days

The celebration continues for three days.  During these three days, people are not supposed to use water (so as not to wash away divinity), knives (so as not to cut off family ties), and stove (so as not to upset the god of fire who protects the house), not to eat four-legged animal meat, not to spend money, and not to fight.  They are not strictly followed these days, although pizza delivery services are very popular during the second and third day.

The first three days of the year are public holidays in Japan.  During this time, there is much spare time for everyone to enjoy time together.  Some people do “Kakizome”, first calligraphy brush of the year, by writing the New Year’s resolution.  Children receive special pocket money (or gifts) from the visiting god, through their parents and grandparents.  They get to play with relatives who are usually living far from each other, visit local shrines and temples together, visit neighbourhoods, and keep eating and drinking.

After these three days, things slowly start to get normal.  On the seventh day (or the fifteenth in some areas), the decorations get tidied up, and on the eleventh day a special decorative rice cake gets to be eaten.

Things Are More Convenient Now

These traditions are very much alive in Japanese society.  But in recent years, especially with the advance of train and road networks in the 20th century, it has become more leisurely, taking opportunities for breaks from usual daily lives.

Families visit famous shrines rather than local ones, hoping to be granted special wishes, or just to take the opportunity for a nice day or overnight trips.  Younger generations cut short traditional ceremonies and go abroad, avoiding the hustle and bustle.

Despite all the changes, the advantages and conveniences of technology are utilised to make sure that close family members stay together, physically or otherwise.  The spirit of New Year’s Day, what it means to individuals and society, has not changed and keeps coming back every year.


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