Japanese New Year decorations

Oshogatsu Part 1 – Celebrate the New Year the Japanese Way

Across the country, people are starting preparations for the biggest holiday of the year – the New Year.

Out with the old, in with the new.  Japanese people value this New Year concept.

From deep-cleaning and temple-going to lucky bag shopping, the Japanese engage in all sorts of rituals around the end of the year. Here’s some insight into the unique traditions and festivities of New Years in Japan!

Kagami Mochi
Kagami Mochi Rice Cakes decorated for New Years

Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu! Happy New Year!

Introduced with Buddhism around the 6th century, New Year rituals in Japan are deeply connected with natural cycles, the yearly harvest, rebirth, and resolving the previous year’s debts.

Today, Japan’s New Year (御正月, oshogatsu) celebrations incorporate elements of Buddhist philosophy, Shinto tradition, and a dash of modernity and consumerism.

Intricate preparations are done in advance of a couple of very pleasant days.

It’s a public holiday celebrated until the 3rd of January, and very few services work around that time.
Ganjitsu (元日), New Year’s Day, is not the time to work, use knives, or cook (except for mochi soup zouni).
People preserve a belief that this day foretells their luck in the following year, so they relax and enjoy their holidays, munching on the traditional, elaborate food boxes prepared in advance.

The historic wooden houses of Shirakawago covered in snow
Shirakawa-go in the mountains, tranquil in winter months

Symbols of the New Year in Japan

It’s the time of joy! But, it’s also a time of busy preparations. These are the symbols of the New Year in Japan:

Toshigami (年神, year deity)

Once a deity of harvest, now a deity of New Year celebrations. It’s believed that Toshigami visits people’s homes on 1stJanuary. Toshigami brings luck to the homes he visits, so all of Japan is bustling with preparations for his arrival. Instead of balloons and confetti, most NYE decorations in Japan are focused on welcoming Toshigami.

The big cleaning (大掃除, oosouji)

One of the most important things to do before the year ends is thoroughly clean your home. It’s the best way to make it inviting to Toshigami, the year deity.
Somewhat similar to spring cleaning in the West, Japan’s year-end cleaning involves cleaning every corner of the house, especially neglected corners like storage spaces, vent hood filters, curtains, and the like. A clean house can help you start the year with a clean slate.

New Year foods (おせち料理, osechi ryori)

The preparations culminate in the kitchen, a few days before NYE.
Painstakingly prepared at home (completely or partially store-bought these days), osechi ryori is a neatly arranged lunch box with portions of 10 to 30 different dishes, ready to be munched on in the first three days of the year.
Every included ingredient comes with a symbolic meaning and wish for a happier and healthier future.

A Japanese New Years box loaded with many different courses
Osechi Ryori Traditional New Years Feast

Greeting cards (年賀状, nengajo)

A great way to send your New Year’s greetings to all of your friends, family, and coworkers to wish them a happy and healthy New Year – this old tradition lives on to this day in Japan.
The cards can be bought both with exquisite designs (often centered around the Chinese zodiac sign of the year) or blank to draw or print your own. While designs are printed, it’s important to write the message by hand.

Most people send out their nengajo before the 25th of December, but the post office holds them to deliver all at the perfect time – on the 1st of January.

Year’s firsts (初, hatsu)

At the end of the old and the beginning of a new natural cycle, the Japanese thoroughly clean their homes and settle their debts. The idea is to start the year with a clean slate.

As they ring in the new year, people get excited about their firsts of the year – first sunrise, first meal, first dream, first sale – believing these events predict their luck in the upcoming year. For example, it’s a good omen if eggplants, mt Fuji, or eagles appear in your first dream of the year.

Gift envelopes (お年玉, otoshidama)

A source of seasonal delight, Japanese kids get monetary gifts for New Years.
From parents to neighbors, many will prepare pochi-bukuro, little envelopes with gift money for the children they meet during the holidays. It’s a major source of pocket money for Japanese children, usually spent on toys or sweets.

Otoshidama envelopes are ornately decorated
Otoshidama envelopes are ornately decorated

Japanese New Year Decorations (お正月飾り)

What’s a celebration without some décor, huh? Japan’s New Year’s decorations are highly symbolic and they’re all parts of the ritual of the yearly welcoming of Toshigami.

  • Kadomatsu (門松) – Arrangements of upright bamboo and pine tied in straw. These self-standing decorations are placed in front of the front gate (or near the front door of an apartment), always in a pair to symbolize an entrance.
    A pair of kadomatsu is a symbol marking that your door is open for Toshigami.

Bamboo and pine are always found in kadomatsu, often further decorated with flowers and berries. By some accounts, bamboo symbolizes strength and healthy growth, while the spiky needles of the evergreen pine protect the home from evil spirits and bring longevity.

Kadomatsu are decorations made from bamboo. Here are two matching kadomatsu.
Ornate Kadomatsu Decorations are simple yet beautiful

 

  • Shimekazari (注連飾り) – Quite similar to Christmas wreaths in the West, Japanese hang a plant garland on or above the front door to invite the Toshigami in.
    Symbolically, the holy straw rope (shimenawa), pine branch, and a daidai bitter orange create a boundary between this world and sacred grounds, marking your home holy and ever more welcoming to the deity. Make sure to walk right under your Shimekazari for extra blessings.
A shimekazari wreath hangs in a doorway
Shimekazari wreath

 

  • Kagami mochi (鏡餅) – Loved for generations, the deliciously chewy pound-rice cake mochi is a winter delight – for the eyes too. Kagami mochi are two large, round mochi cakes and a daidai orange stacked in a shape similar to (yet completely unrelated to) a snowman.

Kagami mochi (literally – mirror mochi) is an offering to Toshigami displayed as decoration for about two weeks. So, you’ll need the shelf-stable type of rice cake called kirimochi.
Around January 11th, the hardened mochi is ceremonially broken and eaten, for good luck.

If, reasonably, you don’t want to keep your food out on display uncovered, get kagami mochi with a molded plastic cover on top – improving your mochi storage conditions without sacrificing its decorative touch.

Kagami mochi topped with an orange
Kagami Mochi are festive decorations made from mochi rice cakes

 

  • Mayudama (繭玉) – now somewhat obsolete, mayudama are colorful New Year’s decorations, put up in prayers for good harvest.
    Mayudama were usually cotton or silk cocoon balls hanged on a mulberry or oak branch. Later, mochi and rice cakes replaced cocoon balls, and people also started hanging all sorts of ornaments, lucky charms, messages, sweets, and even fish on tree branches.

The right time to decorate for New Years in Japan

Don’t put off decorating till the last moment – it’s considered rude to the gods to start decorating on oomisoka (大晦日) – New Year’s Eve (31st December). Instead, do the Toshigami the courtesy of decorating a few days ahead – especially putting out your kadomatsu.

The earlier, the better. Throughout history, Japanese New Year preparations started as early as December 13th. Even back in the day when Japan didn’t celebrate Christmas, schools ended on the 25th to allow children to help out with the cleaning, cooking, and decorating.

Thanks to history and superstition, decorating on the 29th and the 31st is a bad thing to do. The number “29” sounds like “hardships” in Japanese, marking a bad omen. The 31st is simply last-minute, thus considered rude towards the visiting deities.

The best time to put your Kagami mochi out is December 28th, and the right time to eat it is around January 11th.

Modern kagami mochi may seem all plastic, but you’ll find real rice cakes under the plastic cover – neatly protected from dust!

Celebrating New Years at Home in Japan

Ringing in the New Year in a shrine is a traditional way to celebrate, but most Japanese people prefer spending New Years Eve at home with their families.

They enjoy their clean home and the large selection of food they prepared in advance, drink sake or amazake (a sweet, low alcohol variety), and watch a New Year’s music special on TV called NHK Kohaku uta gassen (NHK Red and White Singing battle).

Around 11 PM, an hour before ringing in the New Year, families will eat the simple toshikoshi soba or udon noodles(toshikoshi = year crossing) together, as the last meal of the year.

On January 1st, they will eat ozouni (soup with mochi), excitedly await the delivery of nengajo greeting cards, and plan their hatsumōde, the first visit to a shrine of the year.

Temple-going for New Year in Japan

Most Japanese people visit a temple or a shrine in the first few days of the new year, observing a tradition called hatsumōde (初詣). It’s a busy time for many houses of worship, as New Year is the time of many intricate ceremonies on top of the crowds.

Both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples have rituals to cross over to the New Year that you can attend on New Year’s Eve. You’ll be welcomed with a festive atmosphere, food and drink stands, and an array of lucky charms to buy for the next year.

  • Shinto shrines serve hot amazake (low- or non-alcoholic rice drink) to warm you up while you wait for your turn to ring a large bronze bell, throw a coin as an offering, and say your prayers.
  • Buddhist temples perform a ritual to ring in the New Year on a large bell – joya no kane. This interesting ritual draws crowds that watch as monks ring a huge bell 107 times before the New Year arrives, and once more at the stroke of midnight.

In the first three days of the New Year, people visit shrines and temples to say their prayers for the next year, but also to purchase new charms and amulets, and return their old ones.

Daruma dolls are often bought in this season, as the eyeless figure is a great way to keep track of your New Year’s resolutions. When you complete your resolution, the daruma goes back to the temple.

Later in January, temples “cremate” old and used amulets, a ritual of expressing gratitude for their service and the good luck they brought.

First visit (hatsumoude) to a shrine
First visit (hatsumoude) to a shrine

More Events for New Year in Japan

Shopping for Lucky Bags

The Japanese view their “firsts” of the year with particular significance. The tradition applies to the first sale of the year, so starting January 1st, shops try hard to draw in customers.

Fukubukuro (福袋), or “lucky bags” are mystery packs of store’s goods, an assortment of the store’s goods usually sold for a higher cost. From electronics stores, clothes places, to cafes, many businesses in Japan prepare and sell lucky bags around the New Year holidays.

They’re sold as New Year’s gift bags, pre-packaged and without a preview of their contents. You can’t choose what you get, but with a little luck, you can get quality goods for far less money than if bought individually.

Lucky bags are a treat both for customers who want to try their luck, and for shops that get to clear out their stock and get ready for a successful new year.

Fukubukuro are lucky bags filled with New Years gifts
Fukubukuro are lucky bags filled with New Years gifts

Celebrating Out with Friends/Colleagues

Getting drunk is definitely one of the fun ways to forget the sorrows of the previous year, and New Years is just the occasion! At bonenkai parties (忘年会, literally “year-forget gathering”) friends and co-workers gather to socialize, drink, and connect in celebration of the passing year.

These year-end parties usually take place earlier in December, before the public holiday and its more formal New Year celebrations.

The Emperor’s New Year’s Greetings

The role of the Emperor is mostly ceremonial these days, and the current Reiwa emperor Naruhito upholds the tradition well. Around January 2nd every year, his highness and the royal family make a public appearance at the Tokyo Imperial Palace, gathering crowds.

Kadomatsu and Shimekazari
Kadomatsu and Shimekazari

Out with the Old, In with the New

From meticulous preparations and hours upon hours spent in the kitchen, to deeply thoughtful decorating and prayer, the end of the year is a time of purification, letting go, and opening up for new experiences.

The unique blend of joy, anticipation, and bustling streets is felt anywhere you turn, and while quite different from the wild parties of the West, Japanese New Year is also a time of warmth, love, and sharing hopes for a better future.

Next up, I’ll dive deeper into the various foods that make New Year’s celebrations so memorable – the osechi ryori.

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