New Year, or Oshogatsu, is the most important holiday period in Japan for families to spend time together and keep traditions alive.
All around the world, New Year is celebrated with fireworks, countdown and cheers with champagne. In Japan, New Year’s Eve is a quiet and familiar moment.
Actually, fireworks in Japan is more of a summer tradition. If you’re visiting Tokyo during summer season, you must absolutely can’t miss the summer fireworks matsuri.
On New Year’s Eve, Japanese families eat toshikoshi soba (year-end soba), a dish of long buckwheat noodles in hot broth. Slurping up a bowl is considered auspicious and a way of letting go of the past year. Due to soba being easy to chew while eating, it’s seen as a symbolic way to cut away the hardships of the past year. The length of the noodles signifies longevity. You better finish your bowl though, as leaving some behind could mean the continuation of bad luck.
Joya no Kane
Around midnight on New Year’s Eve in Japan, you may hear the sound of bells for about 1-2 hours. It is the Buddhist tradition of Joya no Kane, when the bell is rung 108 times.
In Buddhism, it is believed that human beings are plagued by 108 types of earthly desires and feelings like anger, adherence and jealousy. Each strike of the bell will remove one troubling Bonnou from you.
Japanese people attend this ceremony in temples to leave their old self behind and commence the new year with new resolutions and a clear head. In some temples, you’re allowed to line up to ring the bell once and be part of the purification process.
Hatsuhinode is the first sunrise of the New Year and Japanese people believe that the viewing of this new beginning brings you good fortune. People gather on mountaintops, observatories, beaches, and anywhere else with a good view of the horizon to catch the sunrise and pray for happiness in the coming year.
During the night between December 31th and January 1st, Tokyo trains and subways continue as usual, this makes it easier to go to places like Mount Takao or Enoshima beaches to enjoy the Hatsuhinode.
Osechi ryori is the traditional Japanese food eaten at the beginning of the new year. It consists of several pieces served in beautiful lacquer bento boxes placed in the middle of the table and is shared by families or friends. Each food item in osechi represents a particular wish for the new year.
For example, two antennas of the shrimp that looks like a long beard and has a bent back is a wish of long life, literally until you yourself have a bent back and long beard. The red color makes the osechi look appealing and colorful, but it’s also said that it’s red to scare evil spirits away (even though the color is commonly associated with longevity).
One of the more traditional New Year’s customs is Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the New Year. Many people go to visit a shrine on January 1st, 2nd, or 3rd, in order to pay their respects and also to wish for a happy and healthy new year. The shrines tend to get very crowded and families tend to go together, often dressed in sophisticated kimono. It’s also common during this visit to buy a Hamaya, an arrow made by the female monks of the shrine, said to protect your house from the evil if you put it in the North-East area of your house.
Well, now you’re ready to celebrate New Year in Japanese way, Happy New Year to everyone!