It’s December and almost time to bid this year good-bye. At this point, most of us have either already attended or been invited to bonenkai gatherings (忘年会, forget-the-year parties). If you are a Westerner living in Japan, you could enjoy certain Western-style celebrations such as the New Year countdown parties, the booze boats bay cruises in Tokyo, the New Year fireworks or simply gathering at the Shibuya crossing for more revelry and a rowdier affair. But, if you are like me and prefer a quieter, family-friendly theme then do celebrate the Japanese way this year! My family and I have been doing it for a couple of years now, and it’s tremendously gratifying! Here is a list of five things that you can do to usher in the New Year in a Japanese style.
1. Osoji (大掃除)
Or the big cleaning. As the name suggests, this process involves complete deep cleaning of your house. This might take hours or even days, but it’s a ritual that makes a lot of sense practically and symbolically. It is as if you were beginning the new year on a completely blank slate. Whatever bad habits, dirt or clutter you had must not leak into the next year. It’s a great wintertime activity and also an excellent way to organize your stuff and stay warm in freezing winters.
2. Oshogatsu kazari (お正月飾り)
After the osoji is completed, it’s time for the tradition to put up numerous New Year’s decorations around the house like:
Made of bamboo and pine leaves. It’s believed that this is a symbol of longevity, vitality and good fortune.
Two tiers of rice cakes called mochi with a tangerine on top
New Year’s wreath made with a twisted straw rope, paper decorations and tangerines. These are hung above doors to invite and welcome kami deities of good fortune and to ward off evil spirits.
These decorations are said to be temporary dwelling places of kami and are usually burned after January 15th. Also, it’s a common belief to put up these decorations well in advance and not to rush them, or else it would anger the kami and bring bad luck. You certainly don’t want that!
3. Toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦)
Or ‘passing of the year’ soba. Once you are done with the big cleaning and setting up decorations, the next thing to do is slurp some soba! These long delicious soba noodles are made from buckwheat and symbolize a general wish for long life and the concept of ‘letting it go’ (as you slip it down your throat and forget about it). Soba restaurants around the country are busy making soba on New Year’s Eve.
4. Joya no kane (除夜の鐘)
It is the traditional bell-ringing ceremony held across Japan on New Year’s Eve. Temple bells across Japan begin to toll slowly 108 times starting in the old year and finishing right as the clock strikes midnight. It is said that the temple bell tolls purify us of our 108 worldly desires and also symbolize the beginning of the New Year. It is usually done by a temple or shrine priest, but at many temples, visitors can also strike joya no kane. Although, you might need to arrive early and queue up to participate in tolling the bells.
5. Hatsumode (初詣)
This generally refers to visiting a shrine or a temple between January 1-3. It is the first religious visit of the year, and it’s done to pray for good fortune. We went to Nikko one year and the Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo the next year. Both times we witnessed large crowds and long queues of people waiting to pray, buy omikuji (fortunetelling paper strips) and write their wishes on ema (wooden plates) but despite the crowds, there was a general atmosphere of happiness and a strong feeling of oneness with family! I would suggest taking some food and drinks to keep you warm, but even if you don’t carry anything, you will find plenty of food and drink stalls.
There is so much more that you can do apart from these five things. You could send New Year’s postcards (nengajo, 年賀状) to friends and family, eat a celebratory dish (osechi ryori and ozoni, お節料理 and お雑煮), buy hamaya (破魔矢) or ‘demon-breaking’ arrows, go crazy and purchase one of those lucky bags (fukubukuro, 福袋) from your favourite retailer and most important of all – spend time with family! The Japanese way to celebrate the New Year is all about being with the ones you love the most.
Happy Holidays! Mata rainen!