New Year Traditions in Japan

New Year at a Shrine

Visitors at Ryusenji Shrine ©Danny Choo/Flickr

The Japanese New Year (or Shogatsu) is a very special holiday in Japan. It is celebrated on 1-3 January, according to the Gregorian Calendar; though in Okinawa prefecture the cultural New Year is also celebrated. It is very similar to Chinese or Korean New Year.

The celebration lasts for three days, so the days following New Year’s Eve are also celebrated. Although Japanese people have ‘borrowed’ a lot of Western traditions, they kept several ones from their own culture. The aim of my article is to present some traditions related to New Year in Japan.

Celebration and gathering

New Year's Eve at Ryusenji Shrine ©Danny Choo/Flickr

New Year’s Eve at Ryusenji Shrine ©Danny Choo/Flickr

On New Year’s Eve, bonenkai (year forgetting) parties are held in order to get rid of the old year’s bad luck. In Japan it is very usual that families gather together to celebrate New Year. On January 1, thousands of Japanese people watch the first sunrise of the year, because it is believed to bring good luck. This day is also supposed to be calm and happy and no work should be done.

One of the most beautiful traditions related to Japanese New Year is to visit a shrine or a temple. In these three days, especially on New Year’s Eve millions of people visit the nearby shrines, where the bells are rung at midnight. The temples ring their bells 108 times, symbolizing the 108 human sins and to get rid of the 108 worldly desires, according to Buddhist beliefs.

Traditional foods

Foods served at a Bonenkai ©jetalone/Flickr

Foods served at a Bonenkai ©jetalone/Flickr

On New Year’s Eve a large number of traditional dishes are served in Japanese households. One of these foods is the toshikoshi soba (wheat noodles), which symbolizes longevity. An other dish representing Japanese New Year is the osechi ryori (sweetened rice wine), or ozoni (soup with mochi).

Other dishes served on New Year’s Eve are: kamaboko (fish cake), kurikinton (mashed sweet potato served with chestnut), kinpira gobo (simmered burdock root), kuromame (black soybean) and also sushi. The majority of these foods are sweet or sweetened, but sour foods are also served. To rest their stomach, on the 7th day of January(jinjitsu), Japanese people prepare a seven-herb rice soup called nanakusa-gayu.

Decoration

Kadomatsu

Kadomatsu ©&_yo/Flickr

Japanese houses and the entrances are often decorated with ornaments made of pine, plum tree and bamboo. The ornaments made of bamboo and pine are called kadomatsu. According to some traditions, these are signs for the New Year God to come down to their houses. An other decoration, called shime is put on the doors, to keep misfortune and evil spirits out from the house. This object is made from daidai, a variety of bitter orange.

These decorations are taken down usually on the 7th of January, because the days between 1-7 January are known as the period when Toshigami (New Year’s God) stays on the Earth.

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