In the US — and also in most western countries — we have just finished with the Christmas holiday… arguably the most important “family” holiday we have in the US, with so many traditions attached: the decorating, trees, lights, music, food (lots and lots of food!), sending Christmas cards, and giving Christmas presents. It is the holiday that everyone anticipates all year long.
But here in Japan — though they do have an appreciation for the fun aspects of Christmas — Christmas is more along the lines of Halloween or the Easter Bunny. The main “family” holiday here is New Year’s (Oshogatsu), which is celebrated from New Year’s Eve, and through the official national holiday days January 1st through the 3rd. Families travel to gather together for the holiday, and they have many important traditions that they observe during this special time of year:
Decorating. Since Christmas Day (which was just another work day here — no national holiday), New Year’s decorations have been going up everywhere, outside homes and businesses. Traditional decorations — kadomatsu — include bamboo, pine boughs, and ume (plum tree) sprigs, to represent prosperity, longevity, and steadfastness. They function to honor and receive the Toshigami deity, who brings blessings and prosperity for the new year. 2019 is the Year of the Boar according to the Chinese zodiac, so many of the signs and decorations also include images of a pig or boar.
Traditional foods. Soba (a soup broth with buckwheat noodles and toppings) is often eaten at New Year’s, as well as Osechi-ryori (a Bento style meal including many pickled, dried and preserved foods that require no cooking or preparation), and ozouni soup with mochi rice cake. Sashimi and sushi have also become popular for holiday meals, and soothing warm nabe pot stews are always available during the cold winter weather as well.
Sending New Year’s postcards. Instead of Christmas cards, Japanese tradition is to send a postcard to arrive on New Year’s Day. These are prepared and taken to the post office early, but Japan Post holds them and delivers them all on New Year’s Day.
New Year’s Ringing of the Temple Bells. Shortly before midnight on New year’s Eve many of the Buddhist temples all over Japan will begin ringing the temple bells 108 times. Ringing 108 times for each of the 108 worldly temptations. Many will try to finish 107 chimes before midnight, and finish the 108th chime just after the New Year arrives. Many people visit the temples on New Year’s Eve for a last visit for the old year, and may participate in the ringing of the bell.
A Visit to the Temple for the New Year. It is also traditional to visit the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines again during the first three days of the January, offering prayers for the New Year. Lines are long at the major temples of Sensoji and Zojoji, and at Meiji Shrine, in Tokyo, as people wait for their turn to pray and give a small offering. It is also a chance to buy new charms and amulets (Omamori) at the temple or shrine to provide luck and protection in the coming year.
These are only some of the traditions that we have observed here in our three years in Japan. I am sure there are many more things that are traditional to certain families, or to certain regions of Japan. We have learned so much about this fascinating culture in our time here, and continue to observe and learn new things every day.
Wishing you all a Wonderful and Blessed New Year in whichever country and culture you call home.