I wasn’t in Japan this year to join in the relatively quiet celebrations but I was here a few years ago and I enjoyed the whole deal (well, close to it, anyway).
The New Year is probably the most important holiday in Japan. Preparations begin sometime in mid-December, when people have forget-the-year parties called bonenkai (忘年会), and when they order or make their own New Year’s cards called nengajou (年賀状). These nengajou have to be sent out early so they make it to the addressees exactly on New Year’s Day.
Immediately after the Christmas holidays, the trees and Santas disappear during the Osouji (お掃除, the general cleaning of one’s home) to make way for the New Year’s decors: the Kadomatsu （門松）and the Shimenawa (しめ縄). New Year’s Eve is called Omisoka (大晦日）and Japanese people eat Toshikoshi Soba (年越し蕎麦), literally across-the-years noodles. These are eaten to ensure longevity. New Year’s Eve is relatively quiet, with the exception of the 108 tolls of the temple bell. It is rung 108 times to banish each of the 108 sins.
On New Year’s Day, people gather together with family for an intricate lunch of O-sechi Ryouri (御節料理). Each of the dishes included in the Jubako (the O-sechi Ryouri box) has a special meaning, each having a special wish for the New Year. For example:
Datemaki (sweet rolled omelette mixed with fish paste or mashed shrimp) symbolizes good fortune.
Kazunoko (herring roe) symbolizes fertility or prosperity.
Kuromame (black boiled beans) symbolizes being hardworking.
Gomame (small dried sardines) symbolizes a good harvest.
Konbu (a kind of seaweed) symbolizes joy.
On the first three days of the year, families flock to temples and shrines for the first visit of the year called Hatsumode (初詣）. Omikuji and Omamori are purchased at this time. The lines leading to the Temple Hall are often long in bigger temples. Famous shrines like Meiji Jingu or Narita-san receive about two million visitors during this time.
While many people still observe the New Year traditions, I’ve found that in my classes, only half of the kids do. A lot prefer to go skiing, shopping or talk about their Otoshidama (お年玉), which is money given to children on New Year’s. A lot watch the New Year Eve Show, Kohaku Uta-gassen, which in its own way has become part of the New Year festivities. Then the next day, many watch the Hakone Ekiden, a long-distance university marathon. Then of course, people rush out to the bargain sales, and to get Fukubukuro (福袋), the surprise shopping bags sold by most stores. Also, only half of the kids spend time with their families, with some of them even attending Juku (塾, cram schools) and Juken (受験) classes, preparation courses for big tests.
According to a friend of mine, the true meaning of the New Year holiday, the chance to spend time with family, is slowly being replaced by consumerism and materialism. 20 years ago, stores closed for the New Year holidays and people stayed home. People looked forward to playing games like Karuta or Hanetsuki, and everyone knew who the Shichifukujin were. But then he’s also a really old guy and his sentiments probably still lean on the more conservative. Some things have to change, right? Hopefully, all change will be for good and wouldn’t it be best for it to come during the New Year?
Happy New Year to All!