In the West, Christmas is usually spent with family and New Years with friends. However, in Japan it is often the reverse. During the time leading up to New Years, many return to their hometown.
Before New Year’s Day
One New Year custom in Japan is Osoji (大掃除), literally meaning big cleaning, where the whole family comes together to clean the entire house. It is usually done sometime in late December to New Years.
It derived from the custom of Susuharai (煤払い) during the Edo Era (1603 - 1863). Susuharai translates to cleaning of the soot, a practice done on 13th December whereby people would perform purification rituals to ward off any evil or disaster to welcome Toshigami (年神) or New Year Deities.
Together, the family will make osechi ryori (御節料理) which refers to the selection of Japanese New Year foods, often served in a 3 or four layer bento box for the family to share. Each ingredient is carefully prepared and often are processed in a way so that they don’t need to be refrigerated. This is because the tradition of osechi ryoru dates back to the Heian Era (794 – 1185). Each food item represents a particular wish for the new year, though the foods vary vastly region to region.
Kadomatsu (門松) are decorations made out of pine, bamboo and plum tress. They are put up after Christmas until 7th January and are believed to provide temporary housing for deities to ensure a prosperous year ahead. Pine, bamboo and plum symbolise longevity, prosperity and sturdiness.
New Year’s Eve
In Australia, we have fireworks at midnight to celebrate New Years. In Japan, there is Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘) which is the ringing of the Buddhist temple bells. The bells are struck exactly 108 times, as Buddhism believes there are 108 earthly desires and thus each strike will remove one from you.
Toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦) is the Japanese custom of eating soba (buckwheat noodles) on Christmas Eve which became common practice in the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). There are many theories as to why soba exactly for example one is the long, thin shape of the noodles represents a long and healthy life. Or that, because soba has a firm texture that can be bitten off easily, it symbolises the cutting away of the past years misfortunes. Therefore, some believe that its bad luck to eat toshikoshi soba at midnight, as you can’t break off the past year misfortunes properly as the old year turns into the new.
Welcoming the New Year
Similar to sending Christmas cards, in Japan they send postcards called nengajo (年賀状). They generally arrive on 1st January and are sent to friends and family friends. They often feature designs of the upcoming zodiac year. This year is the year of the Dog.
Hatsumode (初詣) is the first visit to a shrine or temple during the first couple days of January to pray for a fortunate year ahead. There is actually a set conduct- first, throw some coins into the offering box, ring the bell using the ropes hanging down, bow twice, clap hands in front of the chest and bow one last time.