New Year celebrations are a time to reflect on the past, shed the bad, and move forward into a brighter future. Japan celebrates the New Year on January 1st following the Gregorian calendar, but that wasn't always the case. Until the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, Japan still followed the lunar calendar and celebrated the Lunar New Year. While the Lunar New Year is still an important celebration in many Asian countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Vietnam, Japan no longer celebrates Lunar New Year as a public holiday. However, even though Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar, Japanese people have maintained their local New Year's traditions that make New Year in Japan a truly unique experience!
The first New Year's tradition actually happens at the end of December. Osoji (大掃除) means "big cleaning" and usually takes place right before the new year. People do a deep clean of their house by discarding anything old, unnecessary, or broken that may have piled up in the past year. A clean house is a clean slate for the new year. These last few days are also when people start to prepare homemade bountiful Osechi Ryori (more on this later).
The ringing of the bells! This spiritual tradition makes the night air ring on New Year's Eve. At midnight on December 31st, Buddhist temples across Japan strike the temple bells 108 times to solemnly welcome the New Year. The number of rings comes from the Buddhist belief that there are 108 worldly desires that lead to suffering, so ringing the bell 108 times will rid Japanese citizens of these negative emotions to purify them for the New Year. The name translates: Jo (除) "to throw away", ya (夜) "night", no kane (の鐘) "of bells".
On December 31st, the traditional year-end meal is toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦) or “year-crossing noodle”. The noodles for toshikoshi soba are long and symbolize longevity and long-life, but they’re also easily cut. Cutting the noodles can represent cutting off the hardship of the past year in preparation for the new year to come.
The first few days in January are a busy time for Japan's shrines. The traditional first shrine visit of the year called hatsumode (初詣) is the yearly pilgrimage many Japanese people make during the first week of the New Year. People travel to the local shrine to pray, stock-up on omamori (お守り) lucky charms, and draw omikuji (おみくじ) fortunes. Some shrines and temples even partner up with local businesses and have food stalls on the grounds for visitors!
Mochi is one of Japan's most famous confections, and it plays a significant role in New Year's celebrations. At the start of the New Year, many communities will have a mochitsuki taikai (餅つき大会, “rice-pounding tournament”). The word mochi sounds similar to the Japanese word for "to hold" or "to have" and so eating mochi is thought to help you attain good fortune in the new year. Hand-making mochi is a laborious, multi-person job that can take all day. First, glutinous rice is soaked, usually overnight, then steamed in bamboo baskets before being poured into a mortar called an usu (碓) and pounded until it's smooth and shiny. One person pounds with the mallet and another folds or turns and adds water to the mochi on the upswing until not a single grain of rice shows. People attending a mochitsuki taikai will get a chance to enjoy a variety of freshly made mochi such as traditional New Year's kinako mochi (きな粉餅) covered in roasted soybean powder and eaten for good luck. You can try an innovative modern version of kinako mochi from our Market in the spirit of the New Year: Kinako Mochi Puff!
Mochi is also used as a New Year's decoration. Called kagamimochi (鏡餅), this offering is placed in the household’s Shinto altar and takes a specific form. Usually, two round mounds of mochi are stacked, and a bitter orange sits on top. Kagami means mirror, and the name comes from the kagamimochi's resemblance to old copper mirrors that likely had religious significance. The reason for the name and shape has been lost since its inception during the Muromachi period (14th-16th centuries), but many theories abound. The bitter orange on top is called a daidai (橙) in Japanese and is a homophone for daidai (代々) meaning "many generations" and is an auspicious symbol.
Osechi Ryori (おせち料理) means New Year's food and is a collection of dishes traditionally eaten in the new year that represent wishes for the future. Typically presented in a 3 or 4-tiered bento called a jubako (重箱), they are spread in the center of a table to be shared by friends and family. Even our 2-tiered Bokksu Signature Bento Box can serve as a jubako for a more humble osechi ryori meal!
Besides being a rather impressive affair imbued with meaning, osechi ryori is unique compared to most Japanese food because it does not include rice or any other carbohydrate-based dishes. The tradition began back in the days before refrigeration, so many of the dishes are pickled with various methods to preserve them. Since this meal is usually enjoyed over the course of 3 days, the ingredients themselves help safely and naturally preserve it. Common dishes you might see are sweet, rolled omelettes mixed with fish-paste called datemaki (伊達巻き) that represent scholarship because they resemble rolled scrolls; Tai (鯛) red snapper associated with the word medetai meaning "celebration" and used for auspicious events; and shrimp, which symbolize longevity because their shape suggests an elderly man with a bent back and long beard. Both the red sea bream and shrimp have a red color which also prevents evil spirits. In our January '18 Bokksu, we included our own variation on osechi ryori with snacks like Tai Chocolate and Red Snapper Crackers.
You probably have a lot of wishes for the new year, which is exactly why osechi ryori has so many small dishes. It's a labor of love for those who choose to make their own osechi ryori, but it's now common for many families to buy pre-made feasts from department stores and restaurants.
For people who like mail, New Year's Day in Japan is the best day ever. Every year families will send a card filled with good wishes for the New Year to relatives, friends, and acquaintances. If posted by a specified date in December, Japan Post will guarantee their delivery on January 1st. The traditional opening lines for a Nengajo are:
Happy New Year.
Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu.
Thank you again this year.
Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
It's an excellent opportunity to let distant friends and relatives know how you're doing and spread holiday cheer. And as a parent, it’s the perfect time to brag about your kids with family photographs!
This is just a short introduction to the many unique New Year's Traditions celebrated in Japan. They also have magnificent firework displays across the country and special New Year's Eve TV programs for people to watch as they count down to midnight.
Our Bokksu community is spread all over the world, so we want to know: how will you spend your New Year?