Kiyomi is a former Canadian pharmacist who is now living in Japan, where she enjoys being immersed in her Japanese roots.
When asked to describe New Year's Eve in the West, you may conjure up an image of a party with friends and a table lined with hors d’oeuvres or pizza. Many enjoy cocktails, beer and wine at an outdoor concert featuring a countdown to midnight. The celebration lasts one night, and many sleep in and try to recover from their hangovers the next day. Work often resumes again the day after that.
After having put in so much effort buying presents, sending out cards, putting up decorations and cooking up a huge feast for Christmas, New Year’s becomes a more casual event—one last time to enjoy the holidays and be free of the stress of the previous year.
On the other hand, in Japan, New Year’s takes precedent. Christmas is just like any other day; people go to work as usual. Maybe they eat a special bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken or pick up a Christmas cake on their way home to eat with their spouse and kids. Young couples may go out for a lavish and romantic course dinner, not unlike the West's Valentine’s day.
New Year’s, on the other hand, is an event that requires far more thought and preparation. It's a time of year when travel is up in the country as young families visit their parents or grandparents in their hometowns for the week. New Year's is celebrated on the same day as in the West, but it involves a number of specific and important traditions. 13 of these are shared below.
1. Cleaning, Decorating and Cooking Begin Days in Advance
One of the first things that comes to mind for the Japanese once December comes is osouji. This is similar to “spring cleaning” in the West when we take a little more time to clean every nook and cranny to make the whole house spic and span. While spring cleaning is done to feel refreshed and alive after winter passes, osouji is important so that the New Year’s kamisama (gods) can be welcomed into the home. These are the gods that bring happiness and good fortune in the coming year.
Once osouji is done, special New Year’s decorations are put up. This is so that the gods can find your house and be welcomed into them. Both osouji and the decorating are generally aimed to be done by December 28th, since the 29th is considered an unlucky day, and also because many companies make the 28th the last day to finish up the year’s work before the holidays. The latest day to do it all is on the 30th since the 31st is considered a little too late and rude to the kamisama.
Lastly, preparation for the New Year’s feast requires planning ahead as well, especially for those who are making their own osechi box. This multi-tiered box contains food that will last a few days so that no one has to cook on New Years day. Each part of the meal has a special meaning that will help bring the family good fortune in the new year (more on this later). It is quite elaborate with many different dishes and colours arranged in the box.
2. People Send Out New Year’s Postcards
In the West, it is common for people to spend time writing and sending Christmas cards, however, in Japan, nengajo, or New Year’s postcards are written. It is often a huge task because not only are they sent to friends and family, they are also sent to coworkers, bosses, and anyone else whom you are indebted to. These postcard greetings are submitted to the post offices before the New Year, then the poor postal workers deliver them all at once on January 1st.
3. People Attend End-of-Year Parties (Bounenkai)
Bounenkai, or end of year parties in Japan are much like the company Christmas parties or the December get-togethers you would have with coworkers or friends. Many restaurants cater to these bounenkai with special course meals and all-you-can-drink dinner packages. Like Christmas parties, they usually happen weeks in advance before New Year’s Eve actually comes. Rather than for ringing in the New Year, these parties are meant to celebrate the past year and to convey looking forward to seeing each other again in the new year.
4. People Give End-of-Year Gifts (Oseibo)
Head into any department store or even grocery store in Japan as the end of the year nears, and you’ll find special collections of boxed gifts (similar to gift baskets), being sold. It can be anything, but food items seem to be the most popular, from cans of limited edition beer to cookies and cakes, expensive fruits, Japanese rice crackers, a variety package of hams, instant coffees, etc. These are called oseibo, and are gifts given to people who you would like to thank for their support or help during the year. In the past, receivers were coworkers, clients, bosses and teachers, however more recently the list has been extended to friends and relatives, or just anyone you’d like to thank. It is customary to keep sending oseibo every year to that person once you’ve started. Many stores put out catalogues to make it easier to choose and search for the right oseibo.
5. New Year's Decorations Have Important Meanings
New Years decorations in Japan aren’t just to get everyone in the mood for the celebration, they have a special purpose. There are three main decorations that are used throughout Japan (in addition to the ones that depend on the region).
Shimekazari looks like twine that is twisted and tied in a circle like a wreath. The story goes that Amaterasu okami, a powerful sun goddess, got angry at her younger brother one day. She was so fed up that she hid herself in a dark cave, and the whole land went dark. The other gods, in an attempt to lure her out started dancing and pouring each other sake in front of the entrance to the cave. Their plan worked, and when the sun goddess came out to see what all the commotion was about, the other gods blocked the entrance and tied a rope, which looked similar to a shimekazari, to make sure she couldn’t go back in. Now the shimekazari is hung at the entrances of homes in Japan, they keep out bad fortune and invite the Toshigami (the New Year’s kamisama) into the home for the New Year's celebration.
Next is the kadomatsu, which usually consists of an arrangement of standing bamboo and pine on a base. Matsu, or pine, is a tree that grows well and strong all year around and therefore is a sign of long life. Matsu is also the word for the verb ‘to wait’, and in this case is the wait for the gods to come to the house. It is also associated with the verb matsuru, to pray or worship. Bamboo grows strongly and lasts long as well, but it also grows quickly so it is considered a sign of prosperity and vitality. When the deities come to reside in the kadomatsu it is believed it is a sign of success, strength and good luck.
Because both these items represent the household deities that protect the family throughout the year, the kadomatsu and shimekazari should not be thrown in the garbage after the celebration is over. They are usually kept on display for about a week before they are burned in a ceremonial dondoyaki (it may be called something different depending on the region). By burning them, the spirits and gods are sent off up into the celestial world, and calamity and evil spirits are driven away. Doing this ensures a full year of good health and prosperity.
Lastly is the kagami mochi. This decoration is my favourite because it is eaten after the New Year’s celebration has ended. It consists of two stacked rounds of mochi (glutinous rice cakes), and a daidai citrus fruit at the very top. Its purpose is also to act as a place where the welcomed gods can reside during the celebration. It represents their spirits that they share with the family, and all the happiness and blessings for the new year. These are the spirits that provide one with willpower and vitality.
As the mochi sits there over the holidays it hardens (store bought ones already come in the hardened state), so some say the mochi brings about strong teeth. With strong teeth one can eat anything and achieve good health for the year. The daidai is a symbol of prosperity for generations to come in the household since the word daidai means 'generation after generation'.
Kagami in English means mirror, so why mirror mochi? Long ago, mirrors were round, copper items that would reflect sunlight. Now remember that one of the important kamisama was the god of the sun. It was believed that the gods could reside in these mirrors, therefore the shape of the mochi resembles that of the copper mirrors. The reason that there are two mochi (a big one and a small one) stacked together is that they represent the moon and the sun, the shadows and the sunlight, in other words harmony. Traditionally the mochi is placed on an offering stand called a sanpo along with other objects of meaning, however these days it’s easiest to buy a set that includes the mochi, daidai (usually plastic), and a red and white ribbon, all on a stand.
In some regions, smaller stacks of mochi are placed alongside the larger one to represent the whole family. Beside that lies some charcoal to represent a fire that never dies (fire and heat are important in everyday life). Kuri or chestnuts are placed so that debts can be kurimawashi or paid. Konbu (kelp) is for happiness since it resembles the word for it, yorokobu. Some regions of Japan have kazarizumi where the charcoal is wrapped with konbu.
6. Celebrations Consist of Quiet Time Spent With Family
Lively parties are the image of New Year’s Eve in the West. Whether it be at a restaurant, friend’s house or at a concert, many people like to ring in the new year with a bang. The Japanese on the other hand, consider New Year’s an important time to spend with family, much like the West thinks about Christmas. While there are special New Year’s gala concerts such as the long running Kohaku Uta Gassen, (a competition between female and male musicians), most families watch this on TV in their own homes, along with many other New Year’s specials from music concerts to comedy and variety shows. Most stores and restaurants are closed so the only option is to spend the night celebrating with loved ones.
7. Money (Atoshidama) Is Given and Received on New Year's Day
In the West, only Christmas is associated with gift giving, however in Japan, money gifts, or otoshidama are also associated with New Year’s Day. Money is put in a little envelope and is usually given to children, but some companies may also give otoshidama to their employees, especially if bonuses are not handed out.
8. New Year's Eve Is Celebrated With a Bowl of Noodles
Typically soba, or buckwheat noodles, are the noodles of choice for this. There are two reasons why it is thought that this tradition came about. The first is that soba noodles break easily after boiling, so eating them is thought to ‘break’ the continuation of any bad luck from the past year, and the New Year can be welcomed with a clean slate. There is a lot of individual preference as to whether it should be eaten in the afternoon, for dinner, or just before midnight, however as long as it is eaten on December 31st, it is said that bad luck will not continue on to the next year. The second reason for eating noodles is that they are long and symbolize long life. In this case the noodles eaten do not have to be soba and some people opt for ramen instead.
9. The Heart Is Cleansed With the Ringing of a Temple Bell (Joya no Kane)
Buddhist temples can be found all over Japan, and the larger ones are busy on New Year’s Eve with a long-held tradition of ringing a big bell 108 times right before midnight approaches. If you’ve visited many temples in Japan you’ve probably noticed a large bell and perhaps even rang one yourself by swinging the heavy hanging wooden pole into the metal bell. It produces a huge “gong” that echoes and resonates throughout the body. The reason temples will ring this bell 108 times on New Year’s Eve is because it is believed that there are 108 worldly passions; the 4 main ones being desire, anger, jealousy and obsession. All of them cause suffering and trouble throughout life, so the ringing of the bell is said to rid oneself of the suffering and to start the New Year with a clear mind and body.
10. New Year's Day Foods (Osechi) Have Specific Meanings
Food eaten on New Year's day usually includes osechi instead of the leftover pizza you may see in the West. This is food that is eaten with the visiting deities as an offering to the gods, while making wishes for the next year. Sharing with the deity helps the wishes to be fulfilled. With such an important purpose, you would want to pick foods with special meaning. In the olden days osechi was also eaten also as appreciation for the crops and harvest. It comprised of local food, but as the times changed, osechi became more gourmet using the best ingredients both domestic and imported. Traditionally, the first three days of the year were holidays for everyone including housewives who would be free from doing housework. After all, you wouldn't want to use a knife if it means you'd be cutting away your good fortune, and you wouldn't want to do laundry if it means you're washing away your good luck! This is why osechi is mostly food that can be prepared beforehand and will last a few days.
Osechi foods are usually stored and presented in a multi-tier box to symbolize the piling up of happiness or things to be celebrated. Each holds a variety of dishes that have their own meanings (traditions may vary with each region).
Top Layer: Hors d’Oeuvres
- Red and white kamaboko (fish cakes): the colour red is believed to get rid of evil, and also symbolizes happiness. White means purity, holiness and sacredness. The half moon shape is fitting since it looks like hatsuhinode (the first sunrise of the year). Since this sunrise only happens once a year it is celebratory and represents hope for good health and good luck for the year.
- Datemaki: looks like a rolled cake but is actually a rolled omelette made from slightly sweetened egg and fish paste. It looks like the shape of a scroll used long ago, holding information for the scholars to study. Therefore datemaki is said to increase wisdom and knowledge. Students will eat datemaki in hopes of getting good grades in school. The word datemaki is thought to come from datesha, the word for a stylish person. The datemaki is a bit more gourmet and extravagant compared to the regular rolled omelette or tamogoyaki, just like datesha are more fashionable compared to the regular person.
- Konbumaki (rolled and stuffed kelp): konbu can also be called kobu, which is part of the word yorokobu meaning to be happy. Eating konbumaki is supposed to bring good fortune.
- Kurikinton (sweet chestnut paste): the golden colour is important here, representing luck in battles of winning and losing, money, wealth and riches.
- Nishikitamago (made by separating the whites and yolks of boiled eggs, grating each, seasoning with salt and sugar and steaming in a terrine of layers): The word nishiki has two origins, one meaning two colours (in this case although yellow and white, they represent the auspiciousness of gold and silver), the other coming from the word for gold and silver threads used in rich brocade fabrics. Thus nishikitamago is also eaten to increase wealth and riches.
- Kazunoko (herring roe): herring roe is made up of a conglomeration of several tiny eggs representing the continuation of family through the birth of many healthy children.
- Tadzukuri (little dried and candied anchovies): Japanese sardines used to be added to rice fields as fertilizer, so eating this dish was a wish for abundant crops. This day in age however, it is eaten as a wish for prosperity.
- Kuromame (black beans simmered in a sweet and savoury broth): because of the dark colour, eating these was said to darken the skin which was a sign of a strong and healthy body for farmers who worked out in the sun all day. Kuromame today is said to bring good health.
- Tatakigobou (burdock root): gobo is a root vegetable that grows straight into the ground and is solid and strong, so eating this is to ensure a strong foundation for your house.
Second Layer: Umi no Sachi (Treasures of the Sea)
The character for sachi has the meaning of good luck, happiness and fortune, so you can see why seafood makes its way into the New Year’s menu. Japan has so many New Year's fish dishes that vary depending on the regional fish, but here are some of the common ones.
- Buri (yellowtail): yellowtail fish are only called buri once they are grown up and matured (they have other names according to the stage of life). Eating buri represents getting a promotion or making your way further in life.
- Tai (seabream): this is not only eaten at New Year's, but can be seen at any big celebration. The word tai is part of the word omedetai which means auspicious and happy.
- Shrimp: they grow long antennas and have a rounded backs which was compared to the men with their long beards long ago, and the elderly with their rounded backs. The most widely known meaning of having shrimp is as a sign of longevity. Shrimps also lose their shells, so they may also represent rebirth and the continuation of life.
Third Layer: Yama no Sachi (Treasures of the Mountains)
This often includes vegetable nimono (veggies simmered in a flavourful broth) with ingredients such as:
- Renkon (lotus root): this vegetable has several holes running straight through the entire length, representing an unobstructed future, and a hope that things will go smoothly.
- Sato-imo (taro): grows in bunches of little potatoes, representing an abundance of offspring and continuation of family.
- Gobo (burdock root): this was explained previously but in addition to a strong foundation for the house, it also represents the continuation of generations and family happiness because it grows long into the ground.
- Kuwai (arrowhead bulbs): prepared with a portion of the sprout still attached, this signals a hope for growth and getting ahead in life.
Fourth Layer: Yo no Ju
The character for the number four is substituted with another character of the same pronunciation since the one for four is bad luck (written as 与の重 instead of 四の重). This layer contains pickled or preserved foods.
- Kouhaku Namasu (thin strips of daikon and carrot pickled with salt, sugar and vinegar): the colours and strands look like those that make up a mizuhiki, a Japanese decorative cord seen at special occasions. This dish represents a wish for peace and tranquility.
- Kikka-kabu (Japanese turnip): it is delicately cut such that it resembles a chrysanthemum (a celebratory flower) and is dyed with a bit of red so that it includes the colours red and white which are found in decorations at many auspicious occasions.
- Kohada Awadzuke (pickled fish garnished with yellow millet); kohada is the name of the konoshiro fish when it is still small just after birth, so this dish is eaten in hopes of a promotion or getting ahead in life. The millet is dyed yellow to represent prosperity and abundancy.
Fifth Layer: Wildcard
The fifth layer can be filled with anything such as the family’s favourites, or can be left empty to house the luck given from the gods.
Although these days many osechi boxes contain only 3 layers and there is no clear distinction of what is put in each layer, the meaning of the dishes and the aesthetics of each box remains important.
One more important dish eaten on New Year’s day is ozoni. Depending on the region in Japan the ingredients in this soup differ, however the one thing that remains constant is that it contains mochi or rice cake (even the shape of the mochi depends on the region). It is said that the simmered ingredients are an offering to the New Year’s gods and that eating ozoni made by the first fire (first stove use of the New Year) is good luck. For the farmers it is eaten as a symbol of gratitude for the previous year’s crops and of hopes for an abundant crop in the coming year.
Often to accompany the osechi, families will splurge on some good wagyu and eat it sukiyaki style or buy crab legs to eat as shabu-shabu (both are types of hot pot dishes). Sushi (delivery or take out) is also a common New Year's feast.
The chopsticks used to eat the New Year's meal also have special meaning. They are tapered on both ends (regular chopsticks are tapered on just the end that goes into mouth). One side is for us to eat and the other end is meant for the New Year’s gods.
11. New Year’s Day Is Not a Day to Sleep In
New Year's is the day when you celebrate becoming a year older so it represents a milestone, which is why it’s such an important day; a new start or a rebirth. In Japan, there are many events that may take place. For example, the Japanese have a word for the first sunrise of the year, hatsuhinode. Some people will make a special trip out right before sunrise so that they can witness the beautiful event. Hatsumode is the word for the first shrine visit of the year. This is important so that one can pray for a good year. Although this visit doesn’t have to be done on New Year’s day, many shrines make it a special event with New Year’s décor and at some of the bigger shrines there are food stalls similar to a matsuri or festival.
12. There Are Traditional New Year’s Games
These traditions are slowly getting lost as kids spend more and more time playing indoors, however there may be some families that still do take part in takoage (flying a kite), or hanetsuki (a game using a decorated paddle and a ball with feathers similar to a badminton birdie).
13. The Celebration Continues Even After New Year's Day
The New Year's traditions don't end after January first. For example there is the fukubukuro. When stores reopen in the new year they often have big sales where they may sell fukubukuro, bags sold at a set price that contain a variety of the shops products. The price is significantly cheaper than what you’d pay compared to buying the products individually. The only catch is that you cannot see what’s in the bag before purchasing it.
Shinnenkai is an event that can happen anytime in January (and sometimes even February) and may occur more than once. It is basically a get-together with co-workers, friends, club members, etc for a party to welcome the New Year. Success for the company or club, and continued good relations with friends are hoped for.
Nanakusakayu is a dish that is made at home and eaten on January 7th. It is a rice porridge containing 7 Japanese herbs. It is said that eating it drives away the evil from the first buds of early spring and is a hope for good health. The herbs are actually known to be good for the gut and the dish is fairly light, which makes it perfect after indulging in rich food during the holidays.
The kagami mochi decorations placed in the homes before New Year's are finally opened and eaten on January 11th (this date may vary depending on the region). The New Year’s divine spirits were living in the mochi during the holidays so by eating the mochi the power of the spirits is shared and it represents good health for the family of the household. When opened (the word ‘broken’ is not used because it is considered bad luck), a knife is not to be used since cutting the mochi would be associated with seppuku (ritual suicide) and represents bad fortune. Instead a hammer like object is used to crack it open, or these days there are small versions that can be heated up and eaten as is.
Happy New Year!
If you ever get a chance to come to Japan during the New Year’s celebrations, be sure to visit your Japanese friends or do a homestay so that you can get the full experience of this important occasion in Japan, otherwise you’ll find yourself out alone in the untypically quiet streets of the city where few shops are open. It really is a joyous family event that people get excited for just as Westerners feel about Christmas.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.