After the busy time in December (cleaning, cooking, writing New Year cards) and then finally celebrating New Year’s Eve (Omisoka), what’s happening next? The first day of January is the most important holiday of the year. It is called “Shogatsu” (正月).
On Shogatsu families come together, eat expensive food and visit shrines. It’s a little bit similar to our Western-style Christmas in my opinion.
While it might vary from family to family there are a few traditions that still remain until today. These New Year’s Day traditions are:
1. Shogatsu Food: Osechi Ryori
The best thing about Japanese New Year’s Day (Shogatsu) is the food. Traditionally people eat “osechi ryori” (お節料理), but as it is expensive or takes a lot of time if you make it yourself, a lot of people go for sushi or even Western-style food nowadays.
Osechi ryori consists of many different types of dishes put into compact boxes (jubako, 重箱) that resemble bento boxes.
The tradition of osechi ryori started in the Heian Period (794-1185). The food might vary from region to region, but each dish has its own meaning.
Kohaku Kamaboko (紅白蒲鉾, red and white kamaboko): Red and white are the festive colors in Japan. Red has a celebratory meaning, white is a holy color. Kamaboko stands for the first sunrise of the new year.
Kuromame (黒豆, black soybeans): The word “mame” also means health. Eating black soybeans will make sure you’ll stay healthy in the new year.
Kazunoko (数の子, herring roe): Kazu means “number” and ko means “child.” If you eat a lot, you might be blessed with children in the new year.
Daidai (橙, Japanese bitter orange): Daidai can also be written with the kanji “代々” then meaning “from generation to generation”. Just like “kazunoko” it symbolizes a wish for children.
Datemaki (伊達巻き, sweet rolled omelette mixed with mashed shrimp or fish paste): This food originally comes from Nagasaki. During the Edo Period the “castella kamaboko” was said to look like the fashionable people in their beautiful festive kimonos (伊達者, datesha) and so it was called “datemaki”. It symbolizes the wish to be fashionable.
Kuri-Kinton (栗きんとん, mashed sweet potato with sweet chestnuts): The golden color of the food symbolizes a wish for wealth and success in competitions.
Konbu (昆布, a kind of seaweed): It is associated with the word yorokobu (喜ぶ, joy). Thus, konbu is not only used as food, but also as a New Year’s decoration.
Tai (鯛, red sea-bream): Tai is associated with the Japanese word medetai (めでたい, auspicious), so it’s just the perfect dish to celebrate the start of a new year.
Tazukuri (田作り, dried sardines cooked in soy sauce): Tazukuri (田作り, lit.: rice field maker) are small fish that were used to fertilize rice paddies. It symbolizes the wish for a rich harvest.
Ebi (エビ, shrimp): The shrimp symbolizes a long life “until your hips bend” (= until you get very old).
These were just a few dishes that are part of the osechi ryori on Japanese New Year’s Day (Shogatsu).
Another traditional food for Shogatsu is a soup called Zoni (雑煮). It consists of mochi (rice cake) and vegetables. It’s a very delicious soup and I personally like it a lot.
However, because of the stickiness of the rice cake, there are some choking accidents every year. It happens especially with older people.
So just a word of warning! Always eat your mochi slowly and chew well!!
2. The first shrine visit of the year: Hatsumode
Hatsumode (初詣) is something you can experience yourself if you visit Japan in early January.
It’s the first shrine visit of the year and a very important custom. Some people go right after midnight, but the majority visits a shrine on January 1st (Shogatsu 正月) and the following days.
After they spent a calm morning together, eating delicious osechi ryori, Japanese families go to their local shrine to pray for good fortune in the new year. Some go to the big and famous shrines, but it’s extremely crowded there!
Even I experienced it once together with a Japanese family. We had to stand in line in the cold for many hours. A lot of police officers had to take care of the situation.
The first shrine visit is also used to get rid of old fortune and protection charms and to buy new ones, often with the zodiac of the new year.
After praying to the deities of the shrine, people line up to buy new lucky charms or omikuji.
Hamaya (破魔矢, demon exorcism arrow) with the zodiac of the year 2012, the dragon. Most people will buy one to protect their house from evil spirits.
Some people wear traditional clothes and come in their festive kimono to the shrine.
Apart from the first shrine visit, there are a lot of other “firsts” of the new year. One that is still seen as very important is the “first sunrise of the year” (初日の出, hatsuhinode). On Shogatsu some people get up very early and go to a place from where they will have a great chance of seeing the first sunrise (e.g. on top of a mountain).
3. No presents, but money: Otoshidama
For me Japanese New Year’s Day is a lot like Christmas. Thus, there have to be presents!
And there are! Japanese children get a present from their relatives (sometimes even from neighbors), called “otoshidama” (お年玉).
Otoshidama is just money, but usually quite a lot, and is handed over in a special envelope called “otoshidama bukuro” (お年玉袋).
How much money a kid receives depends on many factors such as age, the number of siblings or the income of the person who gives the money.
Usually elementary school kids can expect 1000-5000 yen per envelope while high school students might receive 10.000 yen. To prevent jealousy between siblings they often get the same amount nowadays despite their age.
I think this is a great tradition and better than giving a (possibly unwanted) present!
4. New Year’s Decoration:
As New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are the two most important holidays in Japan, it goes without saying that it also involves a lot of festive decoration.
A lot is already put out at the end of December such as Kadomatsu or Kagami-Mochi. Please have a look at the blog post about Omisoka – Japanese New Year’s Eve for more information about New Year’s Decoration.
5. Traditional games vs. lucky bags
January 1st (shogatsu) was traditionally supposed to be a very calm day spent together with the family.
You are not supposed to do any chores or work which is why Japanese people are always so busy in December. They need to get done before January 1st hits.
There are a lot of traditional games that will bring the family together on that day such as:
Hanetsuki (羽根突き, Japanese badminton), takoage (凧揚げ, kite flying), karuta (カルタ, a card game), koma (独楽, top) or sugoroku (双六, a board game).
Fukuwarai (福笑) is also a traditional Japanese game. A blindfolded person needs to put eyes, eyebrows, a nose and a mouth on a printed poster face. It’s a lot of fun! Above you see the one that I “created” when I couldn’t see what I was doing.
As everything (shops, restaurants) used to be closed on January 1st (shogatsu), it was easy to spend a calm day together with the family.
Recently, though, this tradition is changing more and more.
Huge sales are taking place in big department stores – even on New Year’s Day.
Nowadays a lot of people stand in line twice: once for their first shrine visit and then in the department stores.
Something that has gotten quite popular are so-called “fukubukuro” (福袋, lucky bags) that you can find everywhere in early January. Not only big department stores, but also small outlet stores or even Mr. Donuts offer those bags that contain a variety of the shop’s products, but you won’t know what is inside until you actually buy and open it.
That’s how a lot of Japanese kids spend their otoshidama money!
Talking to some middle-aged Japanese people showed me that they don’t really like that change. They are sad that the traditions slowly disappear and that “shogatsu” is not spent quietly with the family, but is turning into a hectic day just like any other.
How about you? What do you think about the recent changes? Is it something good or bad?
Or is it just inevitable?
One word of warning for people who think about traveling to Japan during winter vacation:
A lot of tourist attractions and also tourist information centers are closed from the end of December to the beginning of January. The time span to look out for is December 29th – January 4th!
(akemashite omedetou gozaimasu, “Happy New Year!”)
Happy New Year, everyone!