Just a few more sleeps ’til New Year, that midwinter break that schoolkids, senators and salarymen are holding their breath for. Traditionally, New Year’s Eve was a sober occasion in Japan. But nowadays, modern young things are equally likely to live it up at a rock concert or on the ski slopes. We’ve gone retro in this issue, introducing our gaijin and younger readers to the timeless traditions of Japan’s real New Yearﾉ
aaaa New Year lead-up: Before December 30 bbbb
There’s no time to linger over Christmas bells and parties. Let the slog of New Year’s preparations begin!
aaaa Osoji – giant cleanup bbbb
Scrub every nook and cranny of your home, tossing out all piled-up junk. The sparkling results will make a proper welcome for the toshigami, New Yearﾕs god of happiness. And ditch any recent memories of heartbreak while you’re at it.
aaaa Nengajo – New Year’s greeting cards bbbb
Sent to say “thanks for everything last year” and to wish a happy new year to friends, family and colleagues. Mail them by December 25, to ensure delivery on New Year’s Day.
aaaa New Year’s Eve – Omisoka bbbb
The hard work over, you’re primed for a Japanese style all-night New Year’s Eve! Going to bed early is said to bring on wrinkles and grey hair, so bite the bullet and head for the markets instead. Time to prepare massive quantities of traditional o-sechi dishes so that no-one has to cook between January 1 and 3ﾉ
Osechi – Traditional New Year’s cuisine
Dozens of delicacies symbolizing good luck are arranged in lacquered boxes. Sweet beans and egg rolls are two popular ones.
TV time begins
Yes, you read it right TV! Watching NHK’s Kohaku Uta Gassen, a variety show, has been de rigeur for Japanese families on New Yearﾕs Eve for 50 years. The show is packed with live renditions of enka (schmaltzy folk) and pop tunes. It’s followed by broadcasts of crowded shrines around the land, and the ringing of joya no kane (108 bells), which ensure that humans’ 108 evils aren’t repeated in the New Year.
Eaten in hope of a life that’s “long” like a noodle, soba makes an ideal dinner. For good luck you should eat it before the New Year begins at midnight.
aaaa New Year’s Day – Ganjitsu bbbb
“Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!”
That’s the Japanese for “Happy New Year,” and is what you’ll hear everyone chorusing at the stroke of midnight. Time to get changed into a traditional kimono and head off to hatsumode, the year’s first visit to a shrine . Buses and trains run to special schedules all night – check out http://www.nishitetsu.co.jp (Japanese only) for most Fukuoka transport information.
aaaa Saying it right bbbb
Kneel on the tatami and bow deeply to your hosts. Say “akemashite omedetou gozaimasu” and thank them for their care that year.
You’ll need a late night or an early morning to watch New Year’s first sunrise, another popular custom. Sunrise will be around 7:22 am in Fukuoka. Go somewhere high up, like Fukuoka Tower, Atago Shrine or Aburayama Park. Then, hands clasped together, pray for good luck when the first rays peep from over the horizon.
For die-hard New Year’s traditionalists, there’s still no sleep after returning from shrines and hilltops in the chilly dawn. The family gathers for a breakfast of ozoni soup and osechi dishes before settling back to read their nengajo and the morning papers.
aaaa Otoso Spiced sake bbbb
The meal begins with a sip of sake infused with mirin and medicinal herbs, served in elaborate lacquered vessels. Otoso symbolizes more good health, luck and longevity.
aaaa Otoshidama Lucky money bbbb
The main event for kids is being given “lucky money” in colorful little envelopes called pochibukuro. Close family and friends give the tokens of cash, which vary in sum. Kids who get disappointed this year may be taught a new wordﾉ “recession”!
aaaa January 1 Nightfall bbbb
Nap in the afternoon if you like, but try to save your deep sleep for later that night, and if all goes well, your hatsuyume (first dream in the New Year) will contain auspicious imagery such as Mt. Fuji, hawks or aubergines.
aaaa Memo – Some practical points bbbb
Most banks and ATMs are closed during New Year, so make sure to take out enough cash in advance. You’ll need it for the New Year sales. There’ll be no trash collection between December 31 and January 3 – so make sure you’re not stuck with the detritus of your osoji cleanup!
aaaa Let’s Get Spiritual bbbb
Almost everything shuts down during the shogatsu break. It’s a time to gather and relax with relatives and old friends. For many Japanese it is also one of the few times of the year to visit shrines and temples. Foreigners are also welcome to visit these spiritual grounds, but you might want to study proper protocol before going. Here’s a few tips.
aaaa Invest in some good luck bbbb
The writings on these individual fortunes are said to be the words of the gods! After buying an omikuji and reading your fortune, tie it to a tree on the shrine grounds.
Wishes for the New Year are written onto these wooden plaques, which are then placed at the shrine.
These charms are for good luck, health, road safety and so on. Different shrines have omamori for different purposes, depending on the deities enshrined there.
aaaa One, Two, Pray! bbbb
We asked the head priest of Fukuoka’s Kego Shrine on how to get the gods’ attention when visiting a shrine. These are his words.
1. Nihai (two bows)
Wash your hands at the temizuya (stone basin) and cup your hands to rinse your mouth. Wash your hands again, then head to the shrine. Toss a coin for good luck, ring the bell and bow deeply twice.
2. Nihakushu (two claps)
Clap your hands together twice, your right hand slightly lower so the fingers reach the top joints of your left hand. Eyes shut and head bowed, express a silent prayer of thanks to the gods for last year’s fortunes.
3. Ippai (one bow)
Bow respectfully a last time.