Just as we celebrate Christmas in the West with traditional food, festive music and an exchange of cards, Japan has a number of different customs to welcome in the New Year. This post explores some of the best-known Japanese New Year traditions, from the tasty (osechi
) to the tuneful (Kohaku
Top 7 Japanese New Year Customs
Osechi. This is a traditional selection of food for Japanese New Year, presented in compartmentalised boxes similar to bento. Dishes vary from one region to the next, but often include things like boiled seaweed, fish cakes, mashed sweet potato with chestnut, simmered burdock root and sweetened black soybeans.
Mochi. Made from boiled sticky rice formed into dumplings, mochi are traditionally eaten during the beginning of January. They are also used to make New Year decorations (kagami mochi), where two mochi discs are stacked one on top of the other with a bitter orange right at the top. The precise symbolism behind kagami mochi is disputed, and the two mochi discs are variously believed to represent the coming and going of the years, the human heart, yin and yang, and the moon and the sun. The orange is generally agreed to symbolise the continuation of a family down the generations.
Bell ringing. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, each Buddhist temple rings its bells 108 times. This symbolises the cleansing of the 108 human sins or ‘defilements’ committed during the previous year.
Exchange of postcards. Just as we send Christmas cards in the West, people in Japan send New Year’s postcards to family and friends, especially those who they don’t see very often, to let them know that they’re alive and well. These often display the Chinese zodiac sign for the New Year.
Otoshidama. This is the New Year custom of giving money to children, which can often be in excess of ¥ 10,000 (around £55). The money is usually placed in pochibukuro, small decorative envelopes similar to shugi bukuro.
Japanese New Year Games. Traditionally, a number of games would be played over the New Year season. These might have included hanetsuki (similar to badminton but with a rectangular wooden paddle instead of a racket), takoage (kite flying), koma (spinning tops), sugoroku (Japanese board games), karuta (a Japanese card game) and fukuwarai (in which a blindfolded person places paper facial features, such as eyes, eyebrows, a nose and a mouth, on a paper face).
Kohaku Uta Gassen. Often shortened to ‘Kohaku’, this annual music show is aired on New Year’s Eve and ends just before midnight. The year’s most popular musicians compete with each other in teams of red (women) and white (men), and the winner is selected by means of a vote from the audience, the viewers and a panel of judges, rather like in the X-Factor. First aired in 1951, Kohaku has become an integral part of the Japanese new year celebrations for many families.
Now, all that’s left to say is Kinga Shinnen
(Happy New Year)! We wish you all the best for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.
- The Japanese Shop
(Source: Wikipedia – Japanese New Year