What will your first experience of the New Year be?
In Japan, the New Year is the most important holiday, and several ‘firsts’ are celebrated in January.
Of course, there’s ganjitsu, the ‘first day’. And then there’s hatsuhi, the ‘first sunrise’. And waraizome, the ‘first laughter’ and the ‘first dream’, hatsuyume, which is auspicious (especially if it features Mt. Fuji, eggplants or hawks).
The most important ‘first’, however, is hatsumōde, the first visit to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple on New Year’s Day or in the first few days of the year. Japanese families, sometimes dressed in full traditional kimono, queue in long lines to make new wishes for the year and buy omikuji oracles and omamori charms, and burn last year’s at the shrine.
To be able to enjoy all these ‘firsts’, most people are off work from the 29th of December until the 3rd of January. During these holidays, people travel back home to visit with family and friends. New Year isn’t the festival celebration we know in the west, the parties and dancing. Instead, it’s a time to be with loved ones, clean the house, drink sake, play games and eat lots of traditional celebratory food.
Families enjoy foods with special significance called osechi. They’re packed in little boxes called jūbako, similar to bentō boxes. In them, you might find foods like:
• mikan (Japanese mandarins), representing prosperity and health
• kagami-mochi (rice cakes), symbolizing the renewal of light
• ebi prawns for long life
• kuro-mame (black soybeans) for health
• kazunoko (roe) for fertility and a large family
• kombu (kelp) to bring joy
• renkon (lotus root) to see through to the next year
• toshi-koshi soba (buckwheat noodles) as a food to help cross over to the new year
You’d eat this with symbolic chopsticks called iwaibashi made of willow, and wash it all down with spiced sake called otoso for positive energy and good health.
While you eat, you might look at the many greeting cards you receive on New Year’s day, which the post office will have held specifically until January 1 to deliver. Japanese people send out cards to friends, relatives and co-workers to send good wishes for the year. And if you’re lucky, your card may have one of the winning lottery numbers that will be announced national in mid-January!
Once the house is cleaned, the debts paid, the cards sent and the food prepared, a Japanese family may wish to attract the gods and positive energy to their home by placing pine and bamboo offerings called kadomatsu in front of their doors. The three-tiered bamboo shoots symbolize heaven, earth, and people, and draw good spirits to the household. The deities are believed to live in the pine until the end of the first week of January, after which the family will take them to the shrine to have them burnt, releasing the spirits back out into the world.
In terms of experiences, it doesn’t get more traditional than this!
So this year, when you wake up on January 1, make a new tradition of your own: take the time to enjoy and mark all your new experiences of the year!