Ringing in the New Year Japanese Style
Japanese New Year, Oshogatsu, is the most important holiday in Japan. It can be likened to Christmas celebrations when families come together from near and far to usher in the New Year. As a Japanese-American my husband has been ringing in the New Year Japanese style all his life. Oshogatsu is a cherished cultural tradition we practice in our home so that our children can enjoy the rituals passed on from generation to generation. Oshogatsu is seeped in beautiful traditions that symbolize the “new” brought by the New Year. We sit in gratitude as we reflect on the year that has passed and prepare ourselves mentally and physically for the year ahead.
Here are some of our favorite Japanese New Year traditions:
On the days leading up to the New Year and on New Year’s Eve the entire family participates in a “big” cleaning of our home. This is the time when all the Christmas decorations are put away, floors are vacuumed and mopped, all surfaces dusted, and walls and cupboards cleaned. This is also the time we throw away anything that is old and broken that has been cluttering up our space. We remove the dirt and broken items so we don’t carry these over to the New Year.
With the house clean it is then time to decorate and make the traditional kagami mochi. In Japan beautiful decorations made of Shinto rice, pine, and straw are purchased and hung on the front of the door similar to wreaths to ward off evil spirits. Inside the home we take two rice cakes, mochi, one larger than the other and place the smaller mochi on top. An orange adorns the the very top. The mochi symbolize the year being left behind and the new year ahead while the orange represents the continuation of family from generation to generation. Then on the 2nd week in January we eat the mocha to release the ancestral spirits that have celebrated the New Year with us.
All our friends that have spent New Year’s Eve at our house know we eat soba before midnight. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat. Eating these noodles represents living a long, healthy life. Buckwheat is a very tough crop that can endure difficult conditions and still thrive. The use of buckwheat symbolizes resiliency and strength for the New Year.
On New Year’s Day children receive money from their parents, grandparents, and relatives. The money is given in appreciation of how hard children work to help the family unit and in appreciation for the effort they give their studies at school. We purchase beautifully decorated envelopes for each one of our three kids to hold the money and give it to them at breakfast on New Year’s day.
In Japan it is traditional to send New Year’s Day cards to family and friends. These cards are specifically for the New Year and typically include words of gratitude and appreciation. Families that have experienced a death in the past year would not be given a card out of respect for their loss.
In addition to sending nengajo to family, one of my favorite rituals includes our New Year’s Eve intention setting tradition. We spend time thinking about what we want the New Year to bring and how we can be of service in the coming year. We write these intentions on stationary that is decorated and folded several times. The folded intentions are then hung on our Christmas tree. We remove all the Christmas ornaments from the tree, but keep the tree lights on to enjoy the sparkle as we hang the intentions. The intentions from the previous year are then brought out from storage and burned or released to make way for the new intentions.
New Year’s Day Food
On New Year’s Day we start the New Year by eating traditional foods including osechi ryori, an assortment of different foods arranged in a bento box. Each item represents a specific New Year’s wish like the lotus root which represents good fortune. We also make traditional foods like ozoni, a delicious mochi soup, futomaki rolls, sweet black beans, and drink sake. New Year’s sake is called otoso. Sake is infused with specific herbs that make it festive and meaningful for the New Year celebration.
A Visit to the Buddhist Temple
The last tradition we have involves a trip to Little Tokyo and a visit to a Buddhist temple where we light incense and purchase our omamori, good luck charms symbolize various blessings like good health and good fortune for the New Year. All the temples in the area have New Year’s Day services and ring their temple bell 108 times at the onset of the New Year. This is known as Joya no Kane and is one of the most important Buddhist traditions in Japan. At the temple we offer a donation and sprinkle incense at the shrine while making wishes for the coming year.
We then join our friends and the local Japanese community in a lively celebration featuring mochi pounding at Weller Court along with performances that include Taiko drumming, Kendo demonstrations, and traditional Japanese folk dancing. Many attendees wear their beautiful Japanese kimonos and there is also a fashion show. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic we will not be traveling to Little Tokyo this year as we typically do, but instead will stay home and stream the New Year’s Day service on Zoom.
Thank you for learning about the Japanese New Year traditions our family loves. From our family to yours, we wish you a wonderful New Year filled with blessings and good fortune.