The year 2007 is coming to a close and with New Year’s Eve a mere weeks away, most people all ready have their celebratory plans in place. Our Far East friends in Japan also celebrate their new year on January 1, having adopted the solar calendar in 1873, but for the Japanese, the day takes on a far greater importance. It’s also the commencement of Oshogatsu, one of Japan’s most significant holidays. How significant? Its festivities take place over the course of several days.
Oshogatsu rituals actually begin in December when homes are cleaned more rigorously than usual and decorations are displayed. One decoration, kadomatsu, is an arrangement of bamboo, plum and pine branches placed on businesses, houses, shrines and public buildings to welcome luck and prosperity. Many homes also feature traditional small pine trees placed on both sides of the door to represent longevity and constancy. Symbols associated with luck, longevity and happiness, like the turtle and crane, are also displayed. Many houses are decorated with origami cranes for peace and happiness. In between preparations, old debts are repaid and holiday postcards are written to friends and relatives to be delivered on New Year’s Day.
On New Year’s Eve, the more traditional of Japanese folks don their best kimonos and visit a shrine. Most people, however, are home with family, waiting for midnight when Buddhist priests will begin ringing temple bells. Buddhism belief maintains that man has 108 sins which can be relieved by ringing temple bells 108 times. Since the new year is a time of renewal, it is also the Japanese way of casting out the old and ushering in the new.
On New Year’s Day, the Japanese visit temples to pray for a prosperous and healthy new year. Hatsumairi, the first visit to the temple, is considered the most important. The Japanese believe it symbolizes the birth of the nation and that each year is a separate unit, beginning on the first day of the year and ending on the last day. The custom of giving gifts to business associates, teachers and neighbors is part of the Oshogatsu premise of giving thanks for the blessings received during the year. Most children receive Christmas presents, although it’s the otoshi-dama, or monetary gifts placed in little envelopes, they look forward to getting. Otoshi-dama means new year treasure.
Since the holiday itself is a time of rest from work, most meals are prepared ahead and packed in multi-tiered lacquered wooden boxes so that women may relax and enjoy their time off. These meals are called osechi- ryori and are comprised of foods representing prosperity, good fortune and health. These items include datemaki, an egg custard made with fish paste, kuromame, soft and sweet black beans, and seafood such as shrimp. Other special dishes served during the holiday season include mochi, a sticky rice cake made from sticky sweet rice that is often served in a stew called ozoni. Ozoni can be made with a variety of ingredients ranging from miso, kelp, fish cakes to mashed sweet potato with chestnut, burdock root and black soybean. The dish itself is thought to bring good fortune, much the same way the Japanese believe the long thin noodles used in soba dishes signify longevity and health. Otoso, a sweetened rice wine, is the preferred beverage for festive toasting.
Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu (Happy New Year)!
The festival is not without its games and fun. Children can often be found outdoors flying kites or playing badminton. Indoors, karuta is a popular card game played by both children and adults, as is fukuwarai, a game similar to our version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.
To the Japanese, the firsts of a new year are important and shouldn’t be missed, adhering to the belief that what happens on the first day of the new year sets the tone for the rest of the year. It’s not surprising then that most people return to work refreshed, secure in the knowledge their new year began the way they want the year to continue, surrounded by tradition, customs, family and friends.
OUR 2007 NEWSLETTERS
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Holiday Gift: The 2007 Way
The Enlightening Truth
Noodles: Asian Fast Food
Weddings and Marriage in Japan
Bento: The Japanese Lunchbox
Tools of Asian Cooking: The Hibachi Grill
How to Make the Perfect Fried Rice
Asian Desserts: The Tastes and Textures of Japanese and Chinese Sweets