Of course, there is more to it than that, but let’s start with what’s important, right?
Tradition dictates that dirt from the old year must not enter the new one, so the last weeks of December are spent furiously cleaning and decorating the house to please the gods of the New Year. They seem to be especially fond of mikan, a kind of orange, and mocha, sticky short grained rice that has been beaten with a mallet until it is the consistency of silly putty, and most houses offer this on the family altar.
(My in-laws are Christian so they don’t have an altar, but like most Japanese they cover all the religious bases just in case and set out the mochi and mikan on top of the TV. Seems like a logical enough place for the god’s to stop, I suppose.)
On New Year’s Eve, we eat long noodles in soup. This is supposed to bring luck in the year to come. Many people visit the shrine or temple at midnight. For the next several days, one can see a steady stream of Japanese, young and old, in fur-trimmed kimono unsteadily approaching places of worship, slowed down by the traditional flip-flop type shoes they wear. This is about the only time one sees people from so many different walks of life in their traditional finery. Kimono are reserved now mostly for highly ceremonious occasions.
New Year’s Eve dreams are supposed to be especially prophetic. Dreaming of Mt. Fuji is said to bring good luck.
In times past, much time before New Year’s was devoted to preparing traditional New Years dishes, known as Osechi. Since no cooking can actually occur on the New Year’s Day itself, these are foods that can be prepared ahead of time and left out without spoiling. Simmered veggies, pickles, fish sausage, pickled octopus, and mochi are popular choices in the region where we live.
These days, you can order your Osechi from the local supermarket. People also have sashimi, fish served raw, which is a new twist on an old tradition.
Families gather at daybreak on New Year’s Day. The patriarch gives a little speech, and everyone toasts the New Year with sake. (There is a non-alcoholic version for the little ones.) We eat the Osechi, which is served in tiered wooden boxes, bento style. Sometime in the morning, the postman will arrive with the New Year’s postcards. This tradition is a lot like the Christmas cards we have in America.
Families prepare dozens of postcards to send to everyone they know. Most people design their own and often include pictures and any exciting news that has occurred in the past year, as well as, anything new that is coming up (such as a child beginning school, or a parent retiring).
After perusing the cards, we often take the children to the park to join the hoards of other children there flying kites in the biting cold. This is a traditional New Year’s activity, though I don’t know why! There are other games to play, like karuta, a card matching game, and hane-tsuki, which is kind of like badminton.
Children are given gifts of money by relatives and neighbors to be spent however they like. Accordingly, toy stores and candy shops are open on New Year’s, but not much else! Remember to go the bank and the doctor before the end of the year, or you will be in for a long wait.
When places of business do re-open, they will be filled with the sounds of shamisen playing traditional Japanese music for a week or two. Shopping centers will have Chinese dragon performances to thrill the children; supposedly being “bitten” by one brings good luck, but my son did not appreciate being so lucky last year!
Everywhere friend’s and neighbors greet each other with the phrase,”Akemashite, omeditou gozaimasu”, which literally means, “It’s open, congratulations!”
But many people will understand the English, “Happy New Year!”, as well.
This is an original post to World Moms Blog from mother of two in Japan, Melanie Oda. You also can find Melanie writing on her personal blog, Hamakko Mommy.