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Japanese New Year

In Japan, Japanese Holidays, Travel in Japan on January 6, 2010 at 1:07 pm

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.)

an assortment of new year’s decorations

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The Basics

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.

 

the first sunrise of the new year behind mount fuji

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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.

some examples of nengajo

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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.

toshikoshi soba — yummy!!!

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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.

o-sechi ryori – check wiki for an explanation!

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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.

 

this is the kanji for

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Auspicious Decorations

There are many auspicious decorations you can see all over Japan. I have pictures of these below in the related words list.

 

some new year’s decorations, again…

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Vocab List

年賀状

ねんがじょう

nengajō


門松
かどまつ
kadomatsu

pine gate”


注連飾り

しめかざり

shime kazari


鏡餅

かぎりもち

kagiri mochi

mirror mochi”


お屠蘇

おとそ

o-toso

New Year’s spiced sake”


お年玉

おとしだま

o-toshidama

money given to kids on New Year’s Day”


仏壇

ぶつだん

butsudan

Buddhist altar kept in the home


除夜の鐘

じょやのかね

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.


初詣

はつもうで

hatsumode

first shrine visit of the year”


初夢

はつゆめ

hatsuyume

first dream of the new year”


書き初め

かきはじめ

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.


七福神

しちふくじん

shichi fukujin
“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.


姫初
ひめはじめ
first sex of the new year; a girl’s loss of virginity


大掃除

おおそうじ

ōsōji

the big cleaning”

大正月

おおしょうがつ

ōshōgatsu

big january”

小正

こしょうがつ

koshōgatsu

little january” (chinese new year)

元日

がんじつ

ganjitsu

new year’s day

紅白歌合戦

こうはくうたがっせん

kōhaku uta gassen

red & white singing battle”
(red & white are auspicious festival colors in Japan)


初日の出

はつひので

hatsu hi no de

first sunrise of the new year”

初レズ

はつれず

hatsu-lez

first lesbian experience; first lesbian experience of the new year”

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Christmas In Japan!

In Japanese Holidays on December 26, 2009 at 11:18 am
So a lot of people have asked me about Christmas in Japan. Well, the Japanese are masters at appropriating elements or foreign cultures and then thoroughly Japanizing them to fit the the needs of their own culture.

Christmas is no exception.

The Basics

How do you say “Merry Christmas” in Japanese?

メリークリスマス!
merii kurisumasu

it’s the Japanized version of the English phrase.

Young people shorten it to メリクリ (meri kuri).

Christmas Eve is called:

クリスマスイブ kurisumasu ibu
or just イブ ibu for short.

The Religious Stuff

One of the most notable differences is the apparent lack of the Jesus-related trappings of Christmas. It seems ol’ JC got lost in translation. Japan is a very secular society. In fact, only about 1% of the country claims Christianity as their faith. Although roughly 80% of the population claims to adhere to Shintoism or Buddhism (or both), the reality is most Japanese just aren’t very religious or downright atheist, occasionally practicing certain religious rites to keep in touch with the old traditions. So, it’s not surprising that the particularly uninteresting story of a poor baby born in a desert in bronze age Palestine wouldn’t appeal to the sensibilities of modern Japanese. Occasionally, you will see angels or some other religious trappings, particularly on imported goods. But for the most part, all the boring religious stuff gets skipped over in favor of the flashy pagan stuff that even most westerners will agree makes it most fun.

an actual Christmas Card from about 20 years ago


Santa-san is Coming to Town

Of course, Santa is big here. While everybody knows his name is Santa Claus, he is affectionately referred to with the honorific suffix “-san” (this suffix is fairly well known outside of Japan and somewhat similar to “Mr./Mrs” in English). So Santa Claus becomes Santa-san.

Japanese houses don’t have chimneys, so I’ve always wondered how he delivers toys to the little boys and girls here. I don’t know if this is a widespread story or not, but my girlfriend’s father told her that Santa-san is like a ghost and can walk through walls. Pretty spooky.

Japanese friends who don’t know all the Christmas traditions, have asked me what the elves are all about. I tried to explain that they build toys for Santa. But I usually get a stunned look and サンタさんの奴隷??マジで? (Santa-san no dorei?? maji de? They’re Santa’s slaves??? Seriously??)
santa-san can be a girl too…


Christmas Cake and KFC

“Christmas Cake” just refers to any kind of cake decorated in some wintery, semi-Christmassy style. I don’t think there is a particular flavor. The ones I have had are quite delicious and beautifully decorated (the Japanese are masters of cakes and sweets, particularly in the European traditions). Often the convenience stores put makeshift stands on the streets and peddle cakes to pedestrians heading home after work. While I don’t recall ever seeing a “Christmas Cake” in any of the Christmas celebrations of my home town, it doesn’t seem like a particularly strange practice.

The thing that sort of caught me by surprise during my first celebration in Tokyo, was how everyone was looking forward to chicken from KFC. This year was the first year I actually indulged in the Colonel’s fine victuals. There was a loooooooong line outside of the shop (seemed longer on Christmas Eve than Christmas Day).

If you order in advance, you can procure a whole roasted chicken and some very large family sized buckets of roasted chicken legs and breasts and thighs. At the shop I visited in Nakano, the fried menu had been limited to original recipe. Crispy strips (my fave) and chicken sandwiches, wraps and the like were unavailable until the 26th.

One more thing about Christmas Cake.

On Dec. 26, nobody wants to buy Christmas Cake anymore. So a Japanese girl who turns 26 before getting married is derogatorily referred to as “Christmas Cake” – because obviously nobody will want her anymore. Ouch!
KFC Christmas Menu


Short & Sweet

Christmas is not a national holiday so if you’re not a foreigner working for a foreign company, chances are you’ll be working on Christmas. You won’t be meeting up with all of your family from all over the country and sitting around a traditional feast with wine and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Although these days a lot of families with small children will set up a small tree and some decorations and may even go through the whole Santa-san charade, the kids just get one present or two. They may receive it on イブ (“ibu”, Christmas Eve) or first thing in the morning before going to school. Family celebrations are short and sweet. There are still a lot of families who don’t celebrate at all – in fact, they might not even know which day is Christmas, though they know it’s Christmas season because you can’t get away from the ubiquitous Christmas music and lights.

Merry XXXmas!!!
So who is Christmas mainly celebrated by? The truth is Japanese Christmas is basically a holiday for couples, and young couples at that. Perhaps they’ll enjoy a romantic dinner (chicken, of course) washed down with some expensive wine or champagne. イブ (“ibu” – “eve,” as in Christmas Eve) is a pretty big business day for intimate restaurants. If they can get the day off, many couples like to make a quick getaway to an elegant hotel. Some hotels offer a Christmas package which would include a dinner and Christmas Cake. From my own experience, I’ve gone to 旅館 (“ryokan,” traditional japanese style inn). The room is a classic Japanese room with tatami floors and a futon. A yukata (a kind of kimono) is also provided. We like to choose rooms with a private hot spring bath attached to the veranda, so you can kick it in the steaming hot bath and look at the mountains and sea and snow. It’s a pretty awesome way to spend Christmas! The food at a ryokan will be traditional Japanese fare. Sashimi, rice, miso soup and whatever local vegetables and meats are in season. Of course, they provide you with a complimentary Christmas Cake.
A lot of couples opt for a cheaper and more practical kind of hotel. Japan is famous for love hotels, gaudy erotic playgrounds with massive beds and a jacuzzi (sometimes karaoke and video games, too) that can be rented overnight or by the hour for the sole purpose of sex. In Uguisudani, an area of Tokyo famous for its many love hotels, a lot of the hotels get so much business on XXXmas that they put a 3 hour max time limit on each room and a line of couples will be wrapped around the building waiting in the cold for their turn to get a room.

one love hotel’s special christmas rates!

Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am!
The shops start playing Christmas music and putting up decorations 2 months or so before the actual day. Some of the most extravagant and high-tech illuminations in the world are right here in Tokyo. I don’t want to think about how expensive the electricity bill is for these projects or who’s paying for them… but they are really beautiful. In the US, it seems like Christmas decorations stay up until at least New Years, and some people keep them up until January 6th (The Epiphany still being part of the religious observance of the Christmas Season).But in Japan it’s all over on the 26th.

Literally erased from view.

You’ll wake up the next day and won’t see a single light, wreath, or Santa-san. The clean up is so efficient and thorough that if you hadn’t actually seen the stuff up, you’d think there was no such thing as Christmas in Japan at all.I used to think that this was just the silliest thing ever – an example of Japanese over-efficiency. But recently, I have another theory. The biggest holiday in Japan – the big family holiday which brings everyone from all over the country back to their home towns – is お正月 (o-shōgatsu, New Year’s Day). It’s not a very consumer driven holiday, but it is a rather solemn holiday and it IS a real Japanese holiday, deeply connected to the culture and history and language. I’ve come to think now, that while Christmas is all fun and all, they clean it all up quickly to get people into the mind set of o-shōgatsu and remove all the distractions of this foreign practice. And if that’s the case, fair enough. It’s their damn culture, they can do what they want with it.

the trappings of o-shogatsu are much more formal

Since this is my first blog post, I’m in need of feed back. If I’ve left anything out or been unclear, point it out and I’ll add it to this when I expand it for next year’s Christmas post!!

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