OK. This is gonna be loooooooooooooooooooooong. I promise to try my best to be concise, but I’m also trying to include as much as possible for people interested in life in Japan.
Japanese New Year is the most important holiday of the year. It’s a big family holiday, much like Christmas, but a bit more solemn. All the companies and schools shut down and people return to their hometowns for a week and kick it old school with the fam.
(I included a list New Year’s related vocab at the bottom if you want to see the kanji for any words used in this article.)
In Japanese this holiday is called o-shōgatstu, which was the name of “January” in the old Japanese calendar. Now this term just refers to the first 3 days of the new year, or to the season in general. The first day of the new year is called ganjitsu.
There are 2 related terms ōshōgatsu (“Big January”) and koshōgatsu (“Little January”). From my understanding, koshōgatsu refers to the lunar new year, celebrated in old Japan. This is synonymous with Chinese Near Year. Ōshōgatsu refers to the actual first day of the new year.
On a side note, if a death has occurred, there is a Buddhist proscription against celebrating o-shōgatstu for one year as the family is still considered to be in mourning.
Preparation for the New Year
To prepare for the new year, most Japanese start writing nengajō (New Year’s post cards). Some people write literally hundreds of these. It’s considered tacky to write them by computer, so usually each post card is accompanied by a short message made of set phrases wishing good health and prosperity in the coming year and to continue offering their kindness. The American tradition of sending long Christmas notes describing the family’s experiences in the ending year won’t fly in Japan as it would be seen as too egotistical (“me, me, me!”). Anyone who’s spent some time in Japan knows that kind of behavior doesn’t fly too well with traditional folk here. New Year’s decorations will also be bought or made in advance. I’ll go into these in more detail later.
Another tradition is ōsōji, or the big clean up. The entire house, office, etc will be cleaned thoroughly. This is like spring cleaning in America. The idea is to get everything in order for the new year.
New Year’s Eve
Leading up to the countdown, activities will vary from family to family. But chances are the family will eat toshi koshi sobafor dinner. Toshi koshi means “year crossing” and soba are Japanese buckwheat noodles – one of my absolute favorites! Because the noodles are long, they are said to represent long life (all the food eaten on New Year’s Day have special meanings). Because the noodles represent long life, it’s considered inauspicious to leave leftover noodles – so prepare to eat a lot! And while this is a meal easily made at home in minutes, I’ve been at one household where toshi koshi soba and massive trays of sushi were ordered and delivered right to the door at dinner time. Awwww yeah.
Inevitably, the TV will be tuned in to NHK. A musical competition called Kōhaku Uta Gassen, or just Kōhaku for short, has been running for years. This is even more of a tradition than “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” – even if it is derivative – or at least similar in some sense. Kōhaku means “red & white” – which are festive colors often associated with o-shōgatstu. The show divides popular singers of all genres into 2 teams, Red Team and White Team. The singers try to outdo each other with dramatic performances. The show runs right up until the countdown.
5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – Happy New Year!!!
The countdown is usually followed by musical performances by various artists popular in the closing year. I think most of the stations play music. However, one station shows various major shrines across the country ringing bells 108 times. This is another tradition which I’ll mention briefly in the list of related terms at the end of this article. Right after midnight, some families might go to the butsudan in their tatami room. A butsudan is a small household altar (Buddhism) where there may be pictures of deceased family members. A bell will be rung and incense will be lit and a little prayer will be said silently.
New Year’s Day
Hungover family members may sleep in late, but not too late, as the next day’s main event is an elaborate brunch of traditional foods called o-sechi ryōri. (Take a look at the picture because I can’t describe it in words.)
Each o-sechi has a special meaning. There are so many different kinds that you can easily avoid the ones you don’t like and stick with the ones you do like. Sake or beer may be served too. One type of sake that is popular is called nigorizake. This is unfiltered sake, so it’s a foamy and creamy white rice alcohol. O-toso, or spiced sake may also be served. Another popular dish is o-zōni, a kind of soup which varies from region to region in Japan. I’ve only eaten it twice so I can’t say much about it. Mochi, or rice cakes are also eaten. In fact, throughout the rest of the holiday many store fronts may customers come up and help make mochi the old fashioned way (beating rice until it becomes mochi), after which you can eat it. Yummy.
Often families will do hatsumōde, or the first shrine visit of a new year. This might occur the night before or sometime the following week. Here in Tokyo, many families will do a pilgrimage of the Shichi Fukujin, or the 7 Gods of Good Luck, visiting all 7 shrines over the course of 2-3 hours. Most of the major shrines across the country are packed and there are long lines to get your turn to pray or get o-mikuji (a kind of horoscope for the year).
Another popular thing to do is to stay up until the first sunset, which is considered good luck.
For the kids, the best part is receiving o-toshidama from their parents and grandparents. O-toshidama is gift money. They might receive anywhere from 5000 yen and up from each person.
Lots of Firsts
The Japanese are into doing things “for the first time” in the new year so there are tons of things that people do during the o-shōgatsu season. I’ve already mentioned a few of these.
Hatsumōde – first shrine visit of the year
Hatsu hi no de – first sunrise of the new year
Hatsuyume – first dream of the new year
As you can probably guess, hatsu means “first” or “start” in Japanese.
There are many auspicious decorations you can see all over Japan. I have pictures of these below in the related words list.
“New Year’s spiced sake”
“money given to kids on New Year’s Day”
Buddhist altar kept in the home
joya no kane
“bell rung 108 times”
this is a buddhist practice (not shinto). It’s based on the belief that human beings are cursed by 108 earthly desires. Each time the bell rings one curse is dispelled.
“first shrine visit of the year”
“first dream of the new year”
“New Year’s Resolution; literally, first writing”
although my dictionary says this is a new year’s resolution, I think this actually refers to the first calligraphy a person does – usually choosing an auspicious character. Ii seem to have forgotten the actual word for a real new year’s resolution. some stores may have a calligraphy table set up and customers can take turns writing.
“the 7 gods of good luck”
this is a kind of pilgrimage, whereby you visit the shrines of all 7 gods. you can get a collector’s stamp page and receive a stamp at each shrine so your friends believe you when you say that you did it.
first sex of the new year; a girl’s loss of virginity
“the big cleaning”
“little january” (chinese new year)
new year’s day
kōhaku uta gassen
“red & white singing battle”
(red & white are auspicious festival colors in Japan)
hatsu hi no de
“first sunrise of the new year”
“first lesbian experience; first lesbian experience of the new year”