Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, January 03, 2011

New Year in Japan, 2011

I have posted about New Year celebrations in Japan before, but since I've made so many new friends - and reconnected with so many old ones - on Facebook recently, I figured it would be a good idea to talk about it again.

As in most Buddhist countries, in Japan the New Year is the biggest and most important celebration of the year. In many ways, it is actually like Christmas in the West in tone and scope. (On the other hand, Christmas in Japan is more or less just a date or party, like the New Year is in Christian countries.) The Japanese New Year celebrations also differ from those of mainland Asian countries such as China in that they are more somber and sentimental in tone, again like Christmas in the West. (Chinese New Year celebrations, in contrast, are filled with flashes and bangs...quite literally!) The festivities take place over a span of several days.

Pt. I In the Home
Just as there are traditional decorations for Christmas, there are some for the Japanese New Year, as well. The most basic is the kadomatsu, a standing ornament usually consisting of three bamboo posts cut into a wedge and hung with flowers and one or more pine (matsu) branches. It stands for purity and longevity, symbolized by the evergreen.

This is a typical example of a kadomatsu, taken from the E-Ibaraki Report English website. They come in all sizes, from small, table-top varieties to meter-high ones stood outside of homes or businesses. You can either buy them or make them yourself. My father-in-law, being the chronic cheapskate industrious soul that he is, always makes most of the family New Year decorations himself.

Japanese New Year 2011d
His homemade kadomatsu, as you can see, tend to be rather rough and simple. You can also see in the above pic that there is an ornament hung over his front door.

Japanese New Year 2011c
Here's our own front door, with one ornament that we received and another that we bought ourselves.

Japanese New Year 2011b
Here's another one inside our house, suspended from the hook that held our Christmas wreath just before. There is also a small talisman, crafted of twine, pine branches, and paper, hung on every single water faucet in both houses and out in the yard. (If I understood the explanation correctly, their function is to keep the water spiritually pure. Otherwise there is apparently a danger of being possessed if you drink or use it.)

Japanese New Year 2011f
This particular one is attached to the hand-washing basin on top of our toilet. The zig-zag paper strips, which have become a bit discolored, are a Shinto tradition and signify the presence of a kami (usually translated as "god", though I prefer to say "spirit" since Shinto is a lot like Native American shamanism).

Another important symbol of the New Year is mochi, or pounded rice cake. It is used both as a food item and as a sacred decoration. Rounded patties of mochi are often arranged in a stack atop a piece of paper and placed as an offering in a tokonoma (decorative alcove) or on a family altar.

Japanese New Year 2011a
We don't really have a family altar in our house, but mochi offerings were put in our upstairs tokonoma and in front of the little memorial for my mother-in-law. Again, my father-in-law prepared these himself. (Store-bought ones are usually bigger, more regular in shape, and prettier. Unfortunately, they are also increasingly being made of plastic.)

Mochi is not only a decoration, but also an important New Year food item. It is traditionally made by putting specially-prepared rice in a wooden pestle and beating it with a large mallet. There are more convenient, modern methods, but we never have to make our own. We always get more of it from relatives, acquaintances, and neighbors than we know what to do with...

mochi 2011
This is just some of the mochi we got this year. Most of it comes pre-cut into little blocks like the ones in the Ziploc bag at upper left. Store-bought types tend to come in sheets such as the ones in the package with a red rabbit (since 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit). The rest come in great, big blocks or logs like the one wrapped in newspaper at lower right. There are many ways of cooking mochi, whether boiled as zoni (dumplings in soup), baked, or steamed. The latter forms are usually topped with various things such as soy sauce, cheese, natto (fermented soybeans), or the kinako (soybean flour) and azuki (sweet bean jam) pictured here. It's a good thing there are so many different ways of preparing mochi, because, as with Christmas turkey, we wind up eating it for every meal over several days. Fortunately, it isn't the only thing we eat.

There is also "o-seichi" food, or celebratory New Year fare. There are usually a lot of different dishes, many of which would qualify as fish bait in the US, but they are both delicious and very colorful. Again, we eat it over the course of several days...which seems fitting considering how much time and trouble it takes to make it! (More and more people, especially younger families, have started buying pre-made o-seichi or doing without it altogether, which is a shame. The making of it has been an important tradition bringing family members together since antiquity.)

One other important New Year tradition is the nengajo, or New Year card.

Nengajo 2011
Here are some (of the very few) that I got this year. They are similar in principle to the American Christmas card, but they are always printed on a special, pre-paid postcard that includes a lottery number for a cash prize drawing. People either buy them or make them at home. There are some excellent and easy-to-use software applications for making them, like the one we use at home. That is a very good thing, because people often send hundreds of them in a single season. (My father-in-law always sends at least several hundred, which is why I bought him a copy of perhaps the easiest-to-use software for making them. Naturally, he won't even try to use it himself.) Unfortunately, sending nengajo has become more inconvenient in recent times because of the increasingly draconian privacy laws. For example, Ye Olde Academy used to give every member of the faculty a staff directory, which made it easy to send everyone a card. They stopped doing so in 2001 out of "privacy concerns". Hence, I'm now only able to send cards to a few select individuals. It makes things easier for me, but it has also weakened the workplace bond.

Pt. II In Popular Culture
As with Christmas in the US, New Year in Japan is heralded by a barrage of TV specials. Many if not most of these are celebrity competitions. There are also programs that go over the highlights of the previous year. There are virtually no traditional New Year songs (which some might consider a very good thing), but there are New Year singing contests.

Another important custom in popular culture is shopping. One reason is that most businesses offer special New Year sales. Most also sell traditional gift grab bags. The prices can vary widely depending on the business in question and the type of merchandise. Usually the contents of the bags are secret, making it a gamble to get one, but they are unquestionably a bargain. For example, this year my wife got talked into buying a grab bag at a DAKS of London store. It cost 50,000 yen (about $600 at the current exchange rate). When she brought it home and opened it, she found a suit with a skirt, a blouse, a sweater, and a muffler whose total price added up to more than 200,000 yen (about $2400), or four times what she paid!

Pt. III Observances
Most Japanese say that they have no religion. However, on the designated calendar dates, the overwhelming majority will visit a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, perform the appropriate rituals, and buy the appropriate items. New Year is important in both Shinto and Buddhism (which are compatible and have co-existed for around 1600 years), but Shinto seems to be given the most attention. When the hour of midnight arrives on New Year's Eve, the Buddhist temples start ringing their bells. Meanwhile, the more devout individuals go to visit their neighborhood shrine and leave offerings. It is considered significant to see the first sunrise of the New Year, especially from a holy place. However, even if one doesn't do either of these things, it is considered a must to observe hatsumode, the first visit to a shrine or temple to pray for the New Year.

Although some go to Buddhist temples for hatsumode, the overwhelming majority go to Shinto shrines, particularly the bigger and more important ones. Famous shrines such as Meiji Jingu in Tokyo are invariably packed to overflowing during the first three days of the New Year. As for my family, we are lucky(?) in that we have a significant and historically famous shrine in our area, Kashima Jingu. This year we took a chance and paid our visit on New Year's Day.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011a
Here's a view looking toward Kashima Shrine's red mon, or Chinese gate, one of its trademark features. It's unusual for a Shinto shrine to have such a gate, which is the only remaining structure from the era when Kashima Shrine served a dual role as a Buddhist/Zen monastery. It's also unusual to see bare gravel on a day like today. Behind me was a solid mass of people.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011b
This is the view while standing in line in front of the reiden, or worship hall, of the outer shrine. It's hard to see in this pic, but the building is quite colorful. The honden, or main hall, which is only entered by the high priest and the spirits, is even more vividly painted, but I couldn't get around to photograph it. The bright colors identify it as a shrine structure dedicated by the Tokugawa Shogunate in the late 17th century, though they say the shrine itself has been in use for almost 3000 years. Shinto shrines are supposed to be torn down and rebuilt every twenty years, but since this one is a national treasure, only its thatched roof is replaced. Incidentally, the pic also shows a torii gate, a traditional entrance to a Shinto shrine.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011d
Here's a closer view. You can see the giant offering box. Each person tossed a coin into the box and prayed. There was a group doing a special worship service inside the hall, but I hear those cost a lot of money.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011e
Here's a quick, from-the-hip shot while walking down the avenue from the outer shrine to the inner one. Even a lot of Japanese don't really understand that the shrine is not really the buildings so much as the forest around them. It really is quite a forest, too...and right in the middle of a city! Incidentally, on the right side of the pic you can see people tying their omikuji fortunes for the year to strings set up for that purpose (so they don't tie them to the rapidly-filling trees). If you draw a bad fortune, you're supposed to tie it somewhere in a shrine so the shrine's power can help protect you and then try again to see if it helps. (As for me, I drew "kyou" which is second worst. My wife tied it to a tree, and I tried again...drawing "han kichi" - literally "half fortunate". That means that the year will probably start out bad but get better.)

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011g
A quick shot of the wife and spawn next to one of the hinoki (Japanese cypress) in the shrine.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011h
And a quick swap...

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011i
This is the enclosure where Kashima Shrine's famous deer are kept. The name "Kashima" means "deer island", and the deer are considered sacred. They ran around free until the early 1970's, when the area's sudden industrial growth brought increased traffic. People were able to buy food for them at a nearby stand and feed them through the gap in the chain-link fence until just a month ago, when the wooden fence in the foreground was put in.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011j
The sign at left explains why feeding...or even approaching...the deer is no longer permitted. Last summer some dumbass or dumbasses apparently fed the deer bits of torn-up plastic shopping bag, and seven of them died. Leave it to a few idiots to wreck a centuries-old tradition.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011m
And yet another line...this time to pray at the inner shrine. The building is smaller and simpler than the outer shrine, being constructed of plain, unpainted wood. It is also both older and more sacred. It, too, is a national treasure and thus only has its roof replaced at intervals rather than being totally rebuilt. The line was long but not as wide as the one at the outer shrine, and it went very quickly.

I didn't take any pictures to show it, but another main point of hatsumode is to buy charms and talismans for the new year. These range from tiny, colorful, cloth ones for success in study or work or safety while driving to big, fancy, expensive ones for safety in the home or company. Usually there is only one, main stand for selling such items, but during the New Year season they set up a few more, and all of them have long lines. Also, people bring the charms and talismans they bought the year before to "return their spirits", i.e. burn them, in a large fire built for the occasion in a special place safely apart from the other shrine buildings. Every year it's burn & buy, burn & buy, burn & buy. I'm sure the cycle is very good for the shrine's coffers.

We were in a bit of a hurry this year, since we had other things to do, so we didn't buy roast dango (rice dumplings) like we usually do. However, we did get to enjoy a performance by a guy playing an ocarina over in the gazebo in the shrine's lower garden as we came in. Another New Year, another visit to Kashima Shrine, and so the cycle continues.

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. Happy New Year, everybody!


  • You get all that culture and tradition and we get Ryan Seacrest and noise. That explains why I slept through New Year's this year.

    I think my New Year's in Japan with you guys all those years ago was probably my best. Thanks!

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:51 PM  

  • Happy New Year! So nice to see all the pictures that you share :)

    Wow... you daughter is so tall now! She even looks taller than you ;)

    By Blogger Selba, at 7:15 PM  

  • Omedetou gozaimasu...
    You are getting to be quite an expert in things Japanese... in Kagawa, our ozoni has sweet red bean mochi inside... and I am looking forward to having some this weekend...

    By Blogger Lrong, at 3:39 PM  

  • Happy New Year. Nice post and pics. We were at Kashima Jingu too. Wow it was crowded this year.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:43 PM  

  • Very nice post, MM. Thanks for sharing.

    You said.."(Chinese New Year celebrations, in contrast, are filled with flashes and bangs...quite literally!) The festivities take place over a span of several days."

    It's fifteen days actually, from first day thru fifteenth day of the first lunar month.

    Best wishes for another wonderful year!

    By Blogger Sharon, at 12:57 PM  

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