How Does Japan Celebrate New Years

Posted by Mina Nishisaka on Jan 1, 2019 11:40:32 PM

Oshōgatsu, or New Year in Japan, is a time for custom and tradition even in modern Japan. 

Japan has always had a special place for Oshōgatsu, the most auspicious celebration of the year.
Oshōgatsu is typically celebrated the first three days of January, but preparations for the celebration start early. Soon after Christmas decorations are set aside, the entrances to many homes, stores, and buildings in Japan are decorated with Kadomatsu, a decoration made of pine and bamboo that welcomes the Shinto deities, especially the Toshigami-sama (the deity of the New Year). The Kadomatsu is a symbol that each house/building has been cleaned andpurified and that they are ready to welcome the Toshigami-sama. The evergreen pine and bamboo embody the vitality and strength to overcome hardships. 

The Start of Oshōgatsu

The official start of Oshōgatsu is midnight of December 31st, as the new year approaches. As midnight nears, the solemn air is filled with the deep, slow sound of a local temple's bell being rung, and many people gather to their neighborhood temples to offer their first prayers of the year. The temple bell is rung 108 times as the old year passes and the new year arrives, along with a prayer to renounce the 108 different earthly desires that humans suffer from. A bonfire is started at many temples and shrines for people to bring in old charms and amulets that were used in the previous year - they are burned with prayers by Buddhist and Shinto priests to express gratitude for the protection provided. 


The morning of January 1st is a very special one for Japanese people. Many people take a bath in the morning to purify themselves and start the new year afresh. Then, the entire family gathers around Osechi dishes, special foods prepared just for the New Year. Osechi foods were originally offerings to the Shinto deities that come floating into households to celebrate the New Year and bring in good luck for the year ahead. There is a meaning to each dish such as happiness, good health, prosperity, and longevity, and the Osechi dishes are set in lacquer boxes called Ojyu-bako. Traditionally, there are five layers to an Ojyu-bako, and the top fifth layer is left empty so that the Toshigami-sama can come in and celebrate together. 

So, what exactly goes in the Ojyu-bako?

Osechi dishes can vary according to the region, but many dishes are universal, such as Kuromame, sweet black beans, because the word “mame” contains the meaning of health and well-being. The kazunoko, herring roe,  symbolizes a prosperous family with many offsprings.  This delicacy has a unique crunchy texture and it’s one of the most popular dishes among the Osechi cuisine. 
Made of roasted baby sardines and coated in a sweet soy sauce glaze, Tazukuri is another popular dish for Osechi. Tazukuri symbolizes rich harvest, literally meaning “making rice paddy,” as sardines were used as fertilizers for rice fields in the old days.
Shrimp is another common dish that is served in Osechi. Can you guess why?
Because a ship’s back is curved like the back of an elderly person, it symbolizes longevity. 
The Osechi are prepared in advance and made to last for the entire three days of Oshōgatsu, not to bother the Toshigami-sama with cooking sounds, so traditionally, there was lots of cooking done on the 31st. Today, as more families have both parents working, it is difficult to go through such extensive preparations for many families, and pre-prepared Osechi are sold online and at department stores, many under renowned restaurant names, some of which can cost as high as a few hundred thousand yen!
Even in Japan where you can get almost kind of food anywhere, the Osechi is only prepared during the New Year’s. 
Enjoy bringing in good luck and prosperity with Osechi dishes this Oshōgatsu!

Topics: Japanese Culture

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