As the doctor prescribes: Come January 20th… DON’T KICK THE GINGERS!!!

Ichigo coke

Gashō! Happy New Year!

Well, it’s not January 1st, but I’d figured “what the hell, I’m going to do a New Years Blog.” For three reasons, mainly:

1. I did a Christmas blog, but New Years is actually the bigger holiday in Japan, so might as well do one on New Years too.
2. I’ve noticed that a lot of people, myself included, have a lot of misconceptions about the Japanese New Year. Hopefully by the end of this blog I will have corrected a couple of those. That being said, I’m no expert. If something is wrong here you can slap me soundly upside the head with a sturdy ruler (alliteration, ftw!).
3. Traditionally, the New Years is actually “new” until January 15, at which point the celebration officially ends. So I’m not technically that late. (This too, could be a misconception, *ahem* anyway…)

The Japanese New Year, known as Shōgatsu (正月) occurs on January 1 of each year, like it does in most places on earth. It is the most important holiday in Japan, and most businesses shut down from the 1st to the 3rd so families can gather to spend the days together. As a “year” is viewed as a completely separate span of time, each new one represents a completely fresh start, symbolized by extensive end-of-year-cleaning (all debts should be paid and duties should be completed on or before December 31… that’s right, “Give me all yer money, this instant!”) and bōnenkai parties (“year forgetting parties”), which are held to leave the worries and troubles of the past year behind. This year (2015) is the Year of the Sheep, good if you were born in the year of the sheep, or if you are a sheep, I suppose.

Sheep 2015


Now, I’ve decided to set the details up like a Q&A panel, to keep things as readable as possible. So, without further ado…

Q: Why all the fuss? What’s this all about anyway?

A: The Japanese New Year celebration can trace its roots many centuries back to China. While the ancient origins of the customs and traditions associated with this date may be unknown, the important thing here is that they eventually became well, customs and traditions (with ancient, unknown origins, that is). Once Upon a Time in China (sorry, had to use that) or at least according to a popular myth, it was around this time of year that Nian, a chimera-looking thing that lived under the sea, a mountain, or your bed (depending on the version), emerged from his cavernous cavern to make a spring visit, eating cattle, crops, people, and even the last piece of pizza. In order to protect themselves, people put food on their doorsteps so the monster would take that instead of them. Fortunately, they figured out that the color red and loud noises scared off the Nian, and the pizza was saved. If you want to watch a good reenactment, you can go see a Chinese Lion Dance somewhere. How is this relevant? Well, maybe it’s not, but it’s cool nonetheless…


Bow before me pitiful human! My form is perfect, my form is magnificent, my form is terrible to behold! Mwah hah ha—why aren’t you bowing? (A typical Nian).

Back on topic: By the time the New Years celebration got to modern-day Japan, it had changed significantly from its distant Chinese predecessor. According to the tradition of Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion, a kami (god) enters the house at New Years. Thus, a complete cleaning of the house from top to bottom—including the attic and the floors under the tatami mats—was required to welcome the god. The god is also welcomed with kadomatsu, traditional cut bamboo and pine twig decorations that are placed at the entrance of a house on December 28. Rice cakes, made by pounding steamed glutinous rice into disks, are also prepared as a way to usher in the Toshigami (New Year god), who is said to bring good luck.

If you ask me, I’d take a lucky and benign Toshigami over a dreadful and terrifying Nian any day, even if I have to clean my room for it.

Q: So, when DO you celebrate New Years?

A: Way back when the date of the Japanese New Year followed the Chinese lunar calendar, New Year fell sometime in mid-February. This was the turn over of the calendar and also marked the start of spring. China, Korea and Vietnam still celebrate New Years around February 15. The rest of the world may scratch their heads at this, but technically speaking their calendar is way older than your calendar, by at least, like four millenniums. Anyway, five years after the Meiji Restoration began (1873), Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar (which makes me think of monks and chanting… nevermind) and the first day of January became the official and cultural New Year's Day, and it has been so ever since.

New Years officially begins on December 31 in a celebration known as Ōmisoka, but preparations have been going on for several days before that, starting at roughly December 25th (if you’re old fashioned) or December 29 for a few days of cleaning and cooking frenzy. New Year celebrations officially end on January 15, a day known as koshōgatsu (“Little New Year”). Koshōgatsu is meant to commemorate the Lunar New Year that occurs a month later, and its main events include rites and practices praying for a bountiful harvest, taking down decorations, and perhaps a visiting a local temple festival.

Q: How is it celebrated?

A: Around 11:00 pm on Ōmisoka, people typically gather at their homes one last time in the old year to have a bowl of toshikoshi soba (or udon) together. “Toshi-koshi” means “crossing over from one year to the next”, and for that reason (I suppose) eating long noodles have become associated with that. Another typical feature of Ōmisoka in the modern world is NHK’s broadcast of Kōhaku Uta Gassen, an end-of-year singing contest featuring pop stars that starts at 7:30pm and ends at roughly 11:30. It’s one of the country's most-watched television programs, but truthfully, I’d rather be eating soba.

Midnight is when the celebration really begins, no-holds barred. At this time many visit a shrine or a temple for hatsumōde, the first visit of the year. This is the time when wishes for the year ahead are made, old good luck charms (omamori) are exchanged for new ones, and detailed fortunes (o-mikuji) are bought. If the fortune is bad you can tie it onto one of the shrine’s trees in hope that the prediction won’t come true. Additionally, Amazake (a traditional sweet, fermented rice drink made using koji mold) is consumed and shimenawa (those paper-charmed rope things) are hung across doorways. During the hatsumōde you can see men in full kimono garb, but this is generally a rare, once a year occurrence so men-in-kimono fangirls take note.

Crowds gather as midnight approaches, and the largest shrines (such as the one at Meiji) can bring in thousands, if not millions of visitors. On the other side of town (figuratively speaking) the Buddhist temples have their own way to mark the new year. A large cast bell, known as a bonshō, is struck once for each of the 108 earthly desires believed to cause human suffering. The ringing of bells is believed to rid one of their sins during the previous year. After the tolling of the bells has ended, they feast on soba noodles. That is, if they haven’t already feasted on soba. Maybe you eat it twice? Or perhaps you just have to have a large stomach. I’m not sure…

It's customary to spend the early morning of New Year's Day in domestic worship, (although this in generally quite brief and individual) followed by a special New Years sake and special celebration food. New Years Day is traditionally spent with family members and close relatives, who gather to eat, drink, talk, and play games. Traditionally, these games included hanetsuki, (a kind of badminton), takoage (kite flying), koma (top spinning), sugoroku (backgammon), fukuwarai (pin the nose on a paper face while blindfolded, basically) and karuta (a card game). It is also at this time that people give kids money, which come in envelopes called pochibukuro. This practice is known as otoshidama (お年玉), and unless I got the kanji wrong it means “lottery.” (Heh. Seems pretty accurate.) The amount of money given depends on the kid’s age, but if you are giving otoshidama to a bunch of ‘em they are usually the same so no one feels slighted, because I’m sure we can all remember how that felt. It’s not unheard of to find an amount of ¥10,000 (US$100) or greater in a pochibukuro. (Wish my grandparents gave otoshidama.)

While we’re on the subject of kids, traditional belief holds that engaging in a lesson or hobby on the second day of the New Year will improve your skill in it, and so on that day kids usually have to do their first calligraphy of the year to show to their parents. The can write auspicious words, New Year's resolutions, or just words they like, and the calligraphy is displayed in the house until the 15th, which I think is kind of cute, *ahem* now that I’ve bored you all to death…

Q: Did someone say “food?”

Osechi ryori

Yeah, this looks really good, even if I don't know what it is.

A: Traditional food eaten on New Years is known as osechi-ryōri, which has a long history stretching back to the Heian period. Originally, it was considered unlucky or taboo to cook meals on a hearth during the first three days of the New Year, so stackable boxes filled with long-lasting food items were prepared by December 31 to be consumed during those days. Today there are no problems associated with cooking during the holiday, but many families still enjoy osechi-ryori because of its tradition and auspicious associations. Way back when it was thought that the cause of this bad luck would come from a dude known as the Kitchen god, and no that is not a Food Network show. (But it should be, I would watch it at least.) Osechi-ryōri typically consists of boiled seaweed, fish cakes, mashed sweet potato with chestnut, simmered burdock root, and sweetened black soybeans. Many of these dishes are sweet, sour, or dried, so they can keep without refrigeration, in case you don’t have a refrigerator. Osechi has many variations and are often regional, with some foods even being considered unfortunate or even banned in some places. Today, osechi can even include sashimi and sushi, as well as non-Japanese foods. If your stomach gets overworked, seven-herb rice soup is prepared on the seventh day of January (jinjitsu, not to be confused with anything from Naruto) to give it a rest. Here are some traditional ingredients found in osechi:

  • Ebi (shrimp): the long beard and bent apparently looks like an old person, and symbolizes a wish for longevity. (I will never look at shrimp the same way again).
  • Kazu no ko (caviar): a cluster of bright herring eggs represents the kind of healthy offspring that one wishes for their family.
  • Kuro mame (black soybeans): “Mame” can also meaning “health”
  • Tai (sea bream, whatever the heck that is): Fortuitous as it forms part of the word “medetai,” meaning “auspicious.”
  • Konbu (kelp): “Konbu” sounds like “yorokobu” somehow, which means “happiness.”
  • Renkon (lotus root): The lotus root has many holes, allowing one to “see through” to the future year. (And I just now realized that Ichigo basically named Kon “spud”)

Another custom is making and eating rice cakes, called mochi. Mochi can also be used as a decoration (called kagami mochi), which makes you kind of wonder about its edibility. The round shape of the kagami mochi is an homage to one of the holiest items in all of Japan: the mirror of the sun goddess Amaterasu. According to Japanese mythology, the earth went dark when Amaterasu retreated from the world and hid in a cave. The sun goddess was eventually drawn out from the cave with a mirror, ultimately bringing light back into the world. With its round, mirror-like shape, Kagami mochi symbolizes the renewal of light and energy present at the start of a new year. (Didn’t know it was so complicated, but there you go.) Traditionally, mochi was made from whole rice, in a labor-intensive process. It's even got its own pounding-ceremony known as mochitsuki. Kinako mochi is a dish that is made for luck, and is essentially roasted and sugar and flour coated mochi. To make your own mochi, follow the three simple steps below: (hah)

Step 1: Soak your polished glutinous overnight, then cook it.
Step 2: Pound the rice with a wooden mallet (kine) in a traditional mortar (usu). Two people will alternate: one pounds while the other turns and wets the mochi. Be sure to keep a steady rhythm, otherwise you in accidentially injure one another with the mallet, and probably won’t get much mochi made in the subsequent fight.
Step 3: Form the sticky mass into a disc-like shape.

Mochi can be dangerous to eat too. Suffocation deaths are caused by mochi every year in Japan, sending more than 100 people to the hospital every year in Tokyo alone, with 18 deaths reported in 3 years. This stuff is intense man.

You can use sweet red bean paste (anko) and mochi to make an easy soup too: dissolve the anko in hot water and plunk a mochi in. Viola. Not sure how that tastes exactly though… let me know if you try it.

Q: Okay great… but where’s the sake?

A: I mentioned bōnenkai ("forget the year gathering") earlier. A bōnenkai is an end-of-year drinking party, generally held among groups of co-workers or friends. Basically, the goal is to forget the woes and troubles of the past year, which obviously involves copious amounts of alcohol. Bōnenkai don’t have to take place on a specific day, but they are typically held in late December; and they are not an official part of the New Year celebration proper. But, meh, who cares about being “proper” anyway.

Another type of party is known as shinnenkai, and this one literally means "new year gathering." This is where you welcome in the New Year, also with copious amounts of alcohol. Shinnenkai are also generally held among friends and co-workers, sometime during early January. Like most matsuri (festivals and celebrations) shinnenkai is a way to get together, celebrate the new year, make promises to each other to do your best, and to wish everyone good luck and fortune. Like the bōnenkai, the shinnenkai is not considered among the official New Years celebrations, but distinctive shōgatsu festivities can carry over to the party, such as the making of mochi or the breaking open of sake barrels. The tradition of both these group celebrations started during the Muromachi period as a means to express mutual gratitude towards employers and their employees. As a result this type of party is seen as a time for “bureiko” (letting one's hair down) and forgetting for a time about formal relationships determined by age and rank divisions, allowing people to publically express their feelings for their friends. Today, bōnenkai and shinnenkai are usually hosted by the business or office. Usually, these parties are held at traditional izakaya restaurants/drinking establishments, although they can be sometimes held at the workplace to cut down on the cost. An interesting stat is that more people attend bōnenkai than shinnenkai. I will leave you to form your own conclusions about that.

Sake, is of course, a staple. There is a special spiced kind known as O-toso that is traditionally served on New Years Day, and it is said to expel last year’s bad luck and help with health and longevity in the new year. The kanji used for O-toso include 屠 (defeat) and 蘇 (evil spirit), and the medicinal herbs used in this mixture are said to assist digestion and protect against colds, perfect for the winter feasts of the New Year. The sake is served from a lacquered pot and poured into three different-sized shallow drinking cups which each family member sips from, in order of smallest to largest. Guests who visit in the New Year are also offered the special sake as a way of extending the wish for their health in the new year. For generations it has been said that "if one person drinks this his family will not fall ill; if the whole family does no-one in the village will fall ill." *Shrugs* Sounds good to me. Kampai!

Q: So, what’s with the fireworks and oranges and stuff?

A: Here are some odd-and-end pieces of trivia that didn’t fit anywhere else, so I stuck them here:

Gintama kotatsu

This is what it means to "fail at life."

  • Mandarin Oranges: I first noticed this in Gintama. The cast was sitting around under a kotatsu, eating a huge stack of Mandarin oranges and basically just loafing their lives away. Made me wonder: do oranges actually have anything to do with New Years? Turns out they do. In the Edo period, large stores and wealthy families gave out a small bag of mochi along with a Mandarin orange to spread the wealth, so to speak. Remember the kagami mochi decoration I talked about earlier? Two mochi are placed on top of one another and the stack is topped with an orange. This is because Mandarin oranges closely resemble daidai, a native and bitter citrus fruit that was originally used for the decoration. Daidai are considered auspicious as the meaning of the word can be translated to “generation after generation”, representing the family’s wish for a long and prosperous bloodline.
  • Festive Chopsticks: Iwaibashi are made using wood from the willow tree, which has been considered sacred since ancient times. The thickness of the middle is said to represent a full straw bag, which suggests a bumper crop of rice, while the tapered ends indicate that the chopsticks can be used to eat with from either side. When using the chopsticks, however, only one end should be used for eating as the other is reserved for the gods present at the feast.
  • The Color Red: At this point, red is associated more with the Chinese New Year, but nevertheless it is the most predominant color used in New Year celebrations. Red is symbolic of staving off evil and bringing in good luck.
  • Firecrackers: Most people also associate fireworks with the Chinese New Year, where people light firecrackers to scare off the Nian. But hey, what’s more festive than fireworks? There is an impressive amount of incredible firework displays in Japan to welcome in the new year, which puts America’s own Fourth of July shows to shame.
  • Postcards: I didn’t even mention these, but they are pretty important components to the new year. The original purpose was to send far away friends and relatives tidings of yourself and your family, letting them know you were alive and well. Postcards are sent sometime in December, and are marked specifically with red ink on the side so the post office can easily distinguish the New Year cards. The post office delivers the greeting cards to their recipients on the 1st of January, but never before as that is considered bad luck. To deliver the cards on time, the post office usually hires students part-time to help. Many of these cards have the Chinese zodiac of the New Year incorporated into their design, conventional greetings or both. Famous characters like Snoopy and Mickey Mouse were especially popular in their corresponding zodiac years. Addressing is generally done by hand, so it is important to demonstrate your best handwriting.
Shu kira taiko

What do you suppose they're doing, exactly?

  • Taiko Performances: Festivals of any kind in Japan often include traditional folk music. I doubt Shuhei and Izuru appreciate that, however. I hear it’s a pretty strenuous activity.

Speaking of Bleach, there is an actual New Year Special where the gang in the human world visits a shrine, while all the knuckleheads back in the Soul Society play a game of (rather deadly) karuta. Episode 303, in case you are interested.

To wrap things up, the spirit and significance of New Years is still going strong in Japan. At its core it's a time for people to get together with family and friends, give thanks for the past year, and to heartily wish each other good feelings and luck. While shōgatsu may seem complicated and strange at first, there is obviously a lot here that anyone can identify with. I’ve sure learned a lot here, and I hope you have too. If you have any facts and comments about the Japanese New Year of your own, they are more than welcome. Sorry that this post is so long, I sort of got carried away with the details. But anyway, thanks for reading.

For mukashi no kako (“auld lang syne”).

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