Japanese New Year traditions to usher in a good year
Shōgatsu (正月), one of the most important holidays in Japan, will soon be upon us. The traditional festival is held over the first few days of January, complete with customs and rituals to ensure a proper beginning to the new year. Here are 20 Japanese New Year traditions, food, and decorations that are associated with the festive season, explained.
– Traditions and customs –
1. Deep cleaning with osōji (お掃除)
Image credit: @hinatalife
While December marks a time for celebration for many places around the world, it’s a time for deep cleaning in Japan. Osōji (お掃除) is an annual deep cleaning ritual that takes place just before the new year. Families will thoroughly clean every corner of their house, including commonly neglected areas such as the top of shelves and ventilation vents.
This is to keep their house spick and span to welcome the arrival of Toshigami (年神), a Shinto deity who visits houses on New Year’s Day to impart blessings.
2. Joya no kane (除夜の鐘) – bell-ringing ceremony
Image credit: @chion_in
Every New Year’s Eve, devotees toll bells in temples for a ritual called joya no kane (除夜の鐘). According to Buddhist beliefs, humans have 108 worldly desires. In order to eliminate these unwanted desires, a bell has to be rung 108 times in order to purify the heart and to welcome the new year on a clean slate.
Image credit: @fixed_in_nara
The bell-ringing custom is held in many temples across Japan, but the best place to experience this tradition is at Chion-in in Kyoto. Due to the sheer size of the bell, which weighs over 63,500kg and stands at 3m tall, 17 monks are mobilised to ring it.
3. Belt out high notes with the Kōhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦)
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Kōhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦) is a singing contest held annually on New Year’s Eve, where artists with the biggest hits of the year will be invited to perform.
Invited singers and groups are separated into red and white teams – the red team comprises female singers, while the white team consists of male singers. After the performances, voting will take place to determine the winning team.
As the program has a long history dating back to as early as 1951, it has become a prestigious music show and an indispensable part of New Year celebrations. Many consider an appearance on the program to be an honour and testament to an artist’s success.
4. Hatsuhinode (初日の出) – catch the first sunrise of the year
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If you’re someone who likes to sleep in, you might want to wake up early for once on New Year’s Day. In Japan, the new year is ushered in with hatsuhinode (初日の出), the first sunrise of the year. In Shinto tradition, it is believed that Toshigami, the New Year god, arrives with the first sunrise. Catching the first sunrise is thus akin to greeting the Shinto god.
Most people go to the rooftop of high-rise buildings or the summits of mountains to wait for the dawn of the new year.
5. Hatsumōde (初詣) – first shrine visit
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After you’ve caught the first sunrise, it is customary to visit a shrine or a temple within the first 3 days of the new year, though there are some who’d prefer to pay a visit after that to avoid the crowd. The traditional event is called hatsumōde (初詣). It is done to express your gratitude for the previous year, and to pray for safety and good fortune for the upcoming year.
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Don’t forget to buy a slip of omikuji (お御籤; fortune slips) after you’ve made your wishes and prayers. Bring the paper slip home if you’re granted “excellent luck” (daikichi; 大吉). If you get anything inauspicious, such as “terrible luck” (daikyō; 大凶), tie the slip of paper to a pine tree or a designated rack at the shrine.
Now is also a good time to bring along your old omamori (お守り; good luck amulets) from the previous year and discard them in boxes provided at the shrines. The old omamori will be burned as a sign of respect to the deities.
6. Send nengajō (年賀状)
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Text messages may be speedy and convenient, but handwritten cards make the new year extra special. Nengajō (年賀状) are greeting cards sent at the start of the year to express one’s gratitude for the previous year and exchange well wishes.
The postcards are often embellished with New Year motifs and can be purchased at post offices, convenience stores, and stationery shops. To ensure that your nengajō will be delivered on time, it is recommended that you mail them between 15th and 25th December.
7. Tune it to the Hakone Ekiden (箱根駅伝)
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There’s nothing like starting the year by watching a riveting race. Feel a rush of adrenaline by tuning it to the annual Hakone Ekiden, which is held on 2nd and 3rd January. The Hakone Ekiden is a 2-day relay marathon race, and over the course of 2 days, university teams – each made up of 10 runners – compete to finish the 218km relay race.
The race starts from Ōtemachi, Tokyo, to Hakone on the first day. It then follows the same route in reverse and back to the starting point on the next day. Due to its sheer distance, Hakone Ekiden is considered the most prominent marathon relay race in Japan.
8. Give otoshidama (お年玉)
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Otoshidama (お年玉) is the custom of adults giving children money. Its origin can be traced back to the age-old ritual of offering kagami mochi (鏡餅; rice cakes) to Toshigami. After the ritual is over, the rice cake will be portioned and distributed to children. Over time, it became more common to gift money in pochi bukuro (ポチ袋; small decorative paper envelopes) instead of rice cakes.
9. Play a game of hanafuda (花札)
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Gaming giant Nintendo may be better known for its video games, but the video game purveyor was actually founded in the late 1880s with the intention of producing hand-crafted hanafuda (花札; Japanese flower cards).
The deck consists of 48 playing cards which are divided into 12 sets, with each set representing a month of the year. As such, you’ll see seasonal motifs such as maple leaves and cherry blossoms on the cards. Hanafuda can be used for a variety of games including koi koi (こいこい), which is a popular game where players compete to collect specific sets of cards.
10. Sweat it out with hanetsuki (羽根突き)
Image adapted from: Wikipedia
Grab a partner and have a game of hanetsuki (羽根突き). The traditional New Year game is similar to badminton, sans the net, which means you can play it anywhere.
To play, simply hit the hane (羽; shuttlecock) with the hagoita (羽子板; wooden paddle) back and forth. There are no strict rules surrounding the game – just do everything you can to prevent the hane from landing on the ground. The person who drops the hane will have their face painted with ink as punishment.
11. Score yourself a deal with fukubukuro (福袋)
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Start the year with a bang by scoring a good deal with fukubukuro (福袋). Literally translated to “lucky bags”, fukubukuro are grab bags sold by shops during the holidays. In these bags, you’ll typically find a variety of products – often unsold or excess past season goods – sold at a heavily discounted price.
Often, the bags are sealed so you have no way of knowing the contents. Depending on what you get, it can be a sign of your luck for the rest of the year. That said, some brands reveal the contents beforehand so you might want to opt for those instead.
12. Use iwai bashi (祝箸) – celebration chopsticks
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Iwai bashi (祝箸) refers to special pairs of chopsticks that are used for festive and celebratory meals. Unlike the usual waribashi (disposable chopsticks) that come with takeaway bentos, iwai bashi is wrapped with decorative red and white paper. Both ends of iwai bashi are tapered as it is believed that the 2 ends are used by humans and gods respectively.
– Decorations to put up –
13. Decorate your entrance with kadomatsu (門松)
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As soon as Christmas is over, you’ll see kadomatsu (門松) popping up everywhere. The traditional New Year decoration is typically made of 3 diagonally sliced bamboo sticks, pine, and sometimes plum flowers, which are tied together with straw ropes. Placed at the entrance, the pair of kadomatsu welcomes the Toshigami into the house.
14. Hang shimekazari (しめ飾り) on your door
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Shimekazari (しめ飾り), an ornament hung on front doors, keeps evil spirits away and welcomes the gods. These hanging decorations consist of several auspicious components, such as shimenawa (しめ縄) – the same braided rice straw ropes you’ll find in Shinto shrines – and shide (四手), which are white pieces of zigzag-shaped paper.
A bitter orange is sometimes used as part of the decoration as its Japanese name, “橙” (daidai), is a homophone for “代々” (for generations). In short, it functions as an auspicious sign of long posterity.
15. Display kagami mochi (鏡餅)
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Don’t be tempted to dig in just yet as kagami mochi (鏡餅) is typically used as a decoration. The ornamental mochi comprises a large round mochi as the base, a smaller mochi in the middle, then topped with a bitter orange. Displaying the ornament is considered a sign of worship towards deities, and placing multiple kagami mochi around the house can bring you more luck.
On 11th January, it’s common practice to break the brittle kagami mochi in a ceremony called kagami biraki (鏡開き). The broken pieces of mochi will then be cooked in ozōni (お雑煮; mochi soup) or shiruko (汁粉; red bean soup with mochi).
– Traditional food and drink –
16. Slurp toshikoshi soba (年越しそば)
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Toshikoshi soba (年越しそば) refers to buckwheat noodles eaten on New Year’s Eve. As soba noodles are slim and long, slurping on these noodles is akin to wishing for a long life. Unlike other noodles, soba can be cut easily due to its relatively low gluten content, thus it symbolises a break from the hardship and misfortune of the previous year.
17. Feast on osechi ryōri (お節料理)
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Perhaps the most representative meal of New Year celebrations in Japan, osechi ryōri (お節料理) is an assortment of dishes eaten during the festive occasion. The delicately prepared dishes are arranged and presented in a jūbako (重箱) – multi-layered lacquered food boxes that resemble bentō boxes.
Every dish is laden with meaning and symbolism. For good health, enjoy the kuromame (黒豆black beans). Renkon (蓮根; lotus root) is associated with a happy future, and datemaki (伊達巻き; sweet rolled omelette) represents academic success.
18. Have a warm bowl of ozōni (お雑煮)
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Ozōni (お雑煮), an amalgamation of “mixed” (雑) and “boil” (煮), is a traditional soup dish that contains mochi.
Typically, it’s made with either a clear dashi or miso broth, then simmered with a mix of seasonal vegetables, protein, and mochi. Depending on the region or household, the ingredients and flavours may vary. As stretchy mochi symbolises longevity, ozōni is a must-have dish during New Year’s Day.
19. Drink otoso (お屠蘇)
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Otoso (お屠蘇) is a traditional spiced sake made by steeping a mixture of medicinal herbs and spices. Drunk during New Year’s Day, the sake drives away bad luck and keeps you healthy for the upcoming year.
Traditionally, otoso is drunk in special stacked cups called sakazuki (盃). The cup is passed around the family, starting from the youngest to oldest, as a symbolic gesture of the passing of vitality.
20. Finish off with nanakusa gayu (七草粥)
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After filling yourself with hearty meals, nanakusa gayu (七草粥) is the perfect dish to cleanse your palate and body. The porridge is made with 7 wild spring herbs and traditionally eaten on 7th January. Compared to other holiday meals, nanakusa gayu may be a tad bland, but the rice porridge is just the thing you need to relieve a bloated stomach after over-indulging on holiday food.
Japanese New Year traditions
If you get the chance to spend New Year’s Day in Japan, do as the Japanese do and immerse yourself in the festive spirit by partaking in these Japanese New Year traditions.
For more articles related to Japanese culture, check out these:
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- Japanese slang to know
- Acts of Japanese hospitality
- Japan then and now