Jan 06

Japanese New Year



O-Shogatsu (New Year’s Day) is the most festive occasion of the entire year for Japanese citizens . While we are scrambling for deals over the post-Christmas season, Japan is “closed for business”.  The Emperor’s birthday is celebrated on December 23 followed by traditional ceremonies and customs that last for several days.  Most Japanese people spend a week or more making preparations to get ready for the big day.

O-Shogatsu is a traditional festival to celebrate the new year. People in Japan believe that a proper beginning to the year will ensure that the entire year is happy and prosperous. There are many customs and rituals that help to ensure that the coming year will be a good one. The first thing that needs to be done is O-soji (housecleaning). All the dirt that accumulated over the previous year needs to be cleaned away.

While many are cleaning the house from top to bottom, the cooks begin to prepare food for the O-Shogatsu meals. It is supposed to be bad luck to cook food on the first few days of the year, so people prepare all the food that they need for the holiday season a day or two in advance. The first few days of the year will be a time for lots of eating, drinking and entertaining, so in the days just before the holiday, the whole house is filled with the smell of delicious food cooking.

Everyone gets up early in the morning of the final day in the old year making haste to the market to buy more special foods needed for the O-Shogatsu feast. The first thing that you need to buy is tai (red snapper). This fish is a part of most O-Shogatsu meals, and people eat it on other special occasions, too. Tai fish is a pun for the word mede-tai, which means “good luck”, so people think that eating tai will help bring them good luck in the new year.

There are other foods that are also important for the New Year’s holiday. For example, people eat cooked quail eggs to symbolize the birth of a new year and they also eat soba noodles, and hope that their life will be long, just like the noodles. The main food for the O-Shogatsu meal, though, is mochi (pounded rice).

You don’t need to buy any mochi if you want to make it yourself Making mochi is lots of fun, but it is also hard work. You have to pound the soft rice with a heavy wooden hammer until it turns into a smooth, sticky, dough-like paste. Mochi-pounding is a big evert.  The men take turns pounding the sticky rice with the heavy hammer, while the women turn the lump of pounded rice over and over to make sure that it gets completely smooth and well pounded.

After all the food has been prepared, everyone gathers together in the house to prepare for the new year. The last meal of the year is very simple — plain soba noodles — but everyone drinks warm amazake (sweet rice wine) and takes turn singing songs or dancing. The celebration continues long into the night.

At midnight, the huge bells in the temples all over the city start to ring to announce that the new year has begun! The low, booming sound of the bells  is heard 108 times. The most important part of the O-shogatsu celebration is a visit to the nearby Shinto shrine to pray for a happy new year. The hatsu-mode (first shrine visit of the year) is so important that many people do not wait until the morning. They leave the house as soon as the bells begin ringing and make their way to the nearest shrine or temple to pray. Only after they have completed their hatsu-modedo people go home to bed.

On the first morning of the new year, everyone greets you by saying “akemashite omedeto gozaimasu” (literally, “Congratulations in the new year”). After a light breakfast, everyone goes out again to visit temples and shrines, or to visit friends and relatives in the city. Since O-shogatsu is a holiday for everyone, you are free to go wherever you like and not have to worry about work duties. Most people travel to some of the larger and more famous temples in Japan. Although everyone visits their local shrine first, the O-shogatsu celebrations at some of the city’s main shrines and temples are very elaborate and exciting, so nearly everyone visits more than one site during the holiday season.

The first few days of the year are also a time to visit friends and relatives who live in other parts of the city, dressed up in their brightest and fanciest clothes.

Though you enjoy the excitement of the O-shogatsu celebrations, your thoughts often drift back to your parents, and their O-shogatsu celebrations in your small village back home. You can’t help but wonder how they are greeting this wonderful New Year. Though you may be far from loved ones, your thoughts will always be close to them at this time of the year

 Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu


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