Have you ever wondered when you can have the most authentic Japanese experience?
The perfect time is none other than New Year!
This season is a big deal in Japan, with beautiful decorations in the streets and shrines bustling with visitors for their first prayers of the year. The whole country gets into the celebration mood, making it the most uniquely “Japanese” moment you can experience all year!
In Japan, the New Year is celebrated during a period known as “Sanganichi,” from January 1st to 3rd, and the entire duration from January 1st to 7th is known as “Matsunouchi.” It’s important to be in Japan by the 7th to join the festivities, as decorations are traditionally taken off after Matsunouchi.
Usually, schools and workplaces are closed on the 31st and 1st, allowing families to spend time together and participate in many of the various holiday events.
The Great-Year God (年神様 – Toshigami sama), is a Shinto deity who is thought to visit house after house at New Year’s to bring happiness to people. Therefore, Japanese people decorate Kadomatsu, Shimekazari, and Kagamimochi to welcome the god. It is also a time for families to gather, eat Osechi, visit shrines for Hatsumode, receive Otoshidama (monetary gift for children), and enjoy a festival atmosphere.
Interestingly, until around 1945, there was a custom known as “Kazoetoshi” where everyone aged a year collectively. This tradition makes the New Year even more special, as it marks the significant Kazoetoshi and the arrival of the god.
Thus, this time in Japan continues to uphold unique traditions, passed down through generations, rooted in the belief that the New Year’s god brings happiness and prosperity. So let’s introduce some of the Japanese traditional customs.
Zodiac and New Year’s Day
The Japanese zodiac consists of 12 animal signs, each representing a year. It’s the Year of the Dragon next year!! The year after that is the Year of the Snake, which is my zodiac sign.
The Chinese zodiac calendar was introduced in Japan around the fourth century. The order of the signs is as follows: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar. According to a folk tale, the order of the 12 zodiac signs was determined by the animal that greeted God first on the first day of the year.
For a long time, people believed it was good luck to have a decoration of the zodiac animal of the year in their homes.
Here are the meanings associated with each animal:
- Rat: The highly fertile rat symbolizes the prosperity of descendants. It is also considered the emissary of Daikokuten, one of the Seven Lucky Gods, symbolizing both wealth and action.
- Ox: As an essential worker in farming and transportation, the ox symbolizes strength, perseverance, and sincerity.
- Tiger: Tigers represent courage and decisiveness, and are believed to ward off evil spirits, making them a perfect item for protective charms.
- Rabbit: The rabbit represents “safety,” and also symbolizes leap and progress due to its jumping ability.
- Dragon: POWER is the zodiac for 2024! As Japanese people often use Ryme, the word “Tatsu” (Dragon, to raise, and to cut ties in Japanese) links it to career success and purifying bad luck.
- Snake: Snakes, shedding their skin as they grow, symbolize life and regeneration. Additionally, they are believed to bring good fortune financially.
- Horse: Active in both agriculture and samurai battles, the horse means health and abundance.
- Sheep: Preferring group activities, sheep symbolize safety in the household. Moreover, their gentleness associates the Year of the Sheep with a peaceful year.
- Monkey: Intelligent monkeys, believed to be messengers of the mountain god, symbolize wisdom. Dexterous and adaptability are also conveyed.
- Rooster: They symbolize prosperity in business.
- Dog: Since dogs are such loyal animals, the meaning of the dog is loyalty, and are often said to ward off evil spirits.
- Boar: Boar meat is considered to have healing properties, and the animal symbolizes health and prosperous health.
In Japan, not only are zodiac decorations common, but they are also frequently used on New Year’s greeting cards. By drawing the zodiac animal of the year on it, people become aware of the beginning of the new year and express good wishes and happiness for the recipient. Therefore, the 12 animal signs play a crucial role in this holiday.
Do you often send postcards? As I mentioned before, in Japan, it’s common to send greetings in the form of postcards called “Nengajo (年賀状),” ensuring they arrive on January 1st. The word “Nenga” (年賀) in Japanese means “celebrating the new year.”
The tradition of sending New Year’s cards became famous during the Meiji era when the postal network was established. At that time, the 12 zodiac animals had already become widespread, so it became customary to draw auspicious zodiac animals on Nengajo.
For Nengajo, it’s common to convey not only celebratory wishes, but also updates on personal achievements such as education, employment, marriage, or childbirth, along with expressing gratitude for the past year. However, when sending it to close friends, it can take any form. In my family, we used to create Nengajo to share updates on how we’re doing without necessarily expressing gratitude.
For those you don’t often communicate with, sending a New Year’s card becomes just a tool for sharing personal updates. Furthermore, writing messages for the cards and selecting photos, provides an opportunity for looking back on memories of the year gone by.
If you have lived in Japan for a long time, one day, you might receive a “mourning card” (Mochu Hagaki) at the end of the year. This card is sent to people who had a close connection with someone who passed away that year. To avoid being inappropriate, if you get it, you shouldn’t send New Year’s greetings to households in mourning. Conversely, if someone close to you has passed away, don’t send Nengajo that year just in case.
I remember that during my elementary and middle school years, everyone was super excited about the upcoming year. This was because they could utilize Nengajo as an opportunity to ask for addresses and foster relationships with their loved ones. If you ever have the opportunity to stay in Japan, I recommend you try sending one yourself!
In Japan, there are many local gourmet varieties of soba, such as Shinshu Soba, Izumo Soba, Kwara Soba, and Wanko Soba. Interestingly, soba is eaten on special occasions as a symbol of good fortune. So of course, there is a tradition of eating soba on New Year’s Eve, known as “Toshikoshi Soba.”
Do you know why soba is considered to bring good fortune? There are several theories. For instance, “Soba noodles are thin and long, symbolizing the extension of one’s lifespan and family prosperity,” and “Soba is easily cut, representing the cutting off of the tough period and bad luck of the past year to welcome in the new.”
While there is no specific time to have Toshikoshi Soba, it is better to finish eating before the New Year’s bell tolls, to put an end to the hardships of the previous 365 days.
Which region’s soba would you like to try? Enjoying Hegi soba in the snowy landscapes of Niigata or exploring traditional soba shops in Tokyo would also be wonderful choices. As you think about the past year and hope for the next, take it easy and enjoy a bowl of Toshikoshi Soba.
New Year Decorations
Now, let’s talk about festive decorations called “Shogatsu Kazari” in Japan.
Shogatsu Kazari serves as a symbol to welcome the Toshigami Sama. Generally, it’s okay to start decorating anytime after December 13th (with the exception of 2 days to avoid bad luck).
- December 29: The number “Niju-Ku” (二重 苦) is believed to lead to “double hardship.”
- December 31: 31st is considered a “one-night decoration,” bringing bad luck.
It is recommended to decorate on the 28th, as the number “eight” symbolizes prosperity. December 30th is another suitable day, being a nice round number, so if you can’t make it by the 28th, decorate on the 30th.
Here is what you are supposed to decorate:
Kadomatsu: Place it in front of the entrance to serve as a landmark for the god’s visit. Kadomatsu is made of pine trees and bamboo. Pine symbolizes vitality as it stays green even in winter, and bamboo symbolizes longevity and prosperity due to its fast growth.
Shime Kazari: Shime Kazari represents a barrier between the divine realm and the human world. The orange used in the center means the sun and life force. So placed at a high position, such as the entrance door or pillars, it acts as a sign for the Toshigami Sama to feel more comfortable.
Kagami Mochi: It is an offering to the god. In general, each grain of rice is believed to have spirits, and the “mochi” (rice cake) made from rice is known as a sacred food. After the New Year period, families gather to eat it, a custom known as “Kagami Biraki.”
Zodiac Decorations: These decorations can be displayed throughout the year. They are typically available in stores from the end of the year until around the 7th of January. As the Japanese often clean the whole house before the special day to purify the space, it’s recommended to put up the decoration after cleaning. The entrance or living room, where the family can see them is a good choice.
Unlike Zodiac Decorations, Shogatsu Kazari should be taken down after January 7th “Matsunouchi.” Once Matsunouchi has passed, there is an opportunity to burn the decorations during the Fire Festival on January 15, bidding farewell to the god with the flames. Even today, Fire Festivals are held at some shrines, so make sure to check nearby shrines for events!!
If you can’t join the event, you can prepare a large piece of paper, place salt on the right, left, and center, wrap the decorations in the paper, separate them from other trash, and put them in one garbage bag. Then throw it away.
If you want to experience the Japanese New Year mood, you should bring the Japanese tradition of Shogatsu Kazari into your home and savor the 2024 atmosphere.
I believe that by embracing the beautiful traditions, from meaningful decorations to Nengajo, you can discover a wonderful tapestry of Japanese customs that cherish family, prosperity, and new beginnings. Whether you’re in Japan or anywhere else, why not adopt these delightful customs into your celebrations? Let’s celebrate together and say “Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu (Happy New Year)” to those around you and welcome in 2024! I wish you a fantastic year ahead.
Feature photo credit: ラスラ
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