7 Common New Year’s Traditions in Japan
New Year’s is likely the biggest event in the Japanese national calendar. Officially, only Jan 1st (元日 ganjitsu) is a public holiday, but most businesses and stores are closed between Dec 30th and Jan 3rd.
This New Year’s season is known as お正月 oshōgatsu. It’s a time filled with tradition and customs, where most Japanese head back to their hometowns to nestle in for a few days with food, family and spirit.
From the olden days, it was believed that the 年神様 toshigamisama or god of the new year, would visit each household and bestow health, happiness and blessings. In order to welcome the toshigamisama and receive good luck, Japanese families would prepare and celebrate in certain ways.
Many of these practices are alive and well in Japanese culture, although the significance of these customs have evolved over time.
Here are 7 of the most common New Year’s traditions in Japan today.
Unlike the regular old clean, ōsouji, which literally means ‘big clean’, is the occasion to dust shelves and clean out neglected corners of the house. That said, if you find yourself short on time, you’ll be forgiven for focusing on particular spots, for example, the kitchen, or bathroom.
Not only will you better welcome the new year spirit, you’ll feel just as refreshed to clean away remaining grime from the year that was.
A custom that has spanned hundreds of years, Japanese would send year-end nengajo greeting cards to relatives and acquaintances whom they couldn’t visit in person. This has now extended to friends, colleagues, or business partners, with most post offices accepting nengajo from early-mid December.
Shimekazari is a decoration for your front door that is said to guide the 年神様 toshigamisama into your home. With many varied designs, spotting different shimekazari on household doors is an enjoyable recreation in itself.
年越し蕎麦 Toshikoshi Soba
Toshikoshi aptly means year-crossing, as toshikoshi soba is usually eaten around midnight on Dec 31st or 大晦日 ōmisoka. The thin buckwheat soba noodles signify what is prayed for — an equally long and healthy life.
What once had a different form to symbolise strength for the new year, has simply become pocket money, often given to children from older relatives. Otoshidama tends to be packaged in a ポチ袋 pochi-bukuro or mini envelope, granting much excitement to children all over Japan.
Osechi is eaten on 元日 ganjitsu or New Year’s day. Osechi meals include stewed meats and vegetables, seafood, and seasoned or sweet side dishes, that are meant to last for a few days. These are carefully placed in 重箱 jubako or stackable boxes. While beautiful, beware — you might start getting a little over osechi after the 3rd or 4th meal!
The year-first visit to the 神社 jinja or shrine, is referred to as 初詣 Hatsumōde, where Japanese pray for health and luck for the year. While visiting local shrines is most common, some people also head out of their home regions to visit famous ones for Hatsumōde.
As a reference for this piece, and for more detail on New Year’s traditions in Japan, here’s a link to All About (in Japanese).