Shogatsu –– Celebrating the New Year in Japan
The New Year (Shogatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan. Think of it as spring cleaning, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the usual end-of-year activities all rolled into one. Given that description, the year-end period, called Shiwasu, is a very hectic and somewhat stressful time.
First, most businesses in Japan shut down from January 1 to January 3, so everyone is very busy trying to tie up loose ends to end the year on a good note. Beside extremely long work hours, there is the need to attend the many bonenkai or “forgetting the year” parties as well as Christmas-related parties and events during the period.
Second, you are expected to clean your home from top to bottom to be ready to greet the new year afresh.
Finally, there is getting ready for the Shogatsu celebrations, which are traditionally focused on family gatherings characterized by the observance of religious and heritage-related activities. (For millions of Japanese that includes a long trip back to their hometown and dealing with over-crowded planes, trains and extreme highway traffic jams.)
As this is my first New Year as a resident of Japan I am very excited and looking forward to Shogatsu. Here are some of the Japanese New Year’s traditions and activities Keiko and I have planned.
New Year’s Eve and Hatsumode ––
Given all the aforementioned frantic activity, you may be surprised that for most Japanese New Year’s Eve itself, called Omisoka, is traditionally celebrated very quietly.
On New Year’s Eve we will be together with Keiko’s sister Yuko and our niece Mai. We will spend the evening at home watching a popular musical review on TV while enjoying a traditional Donabe dinner along with sake.
Before the New Year arrives we will also eat a mandatory serving of toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles). Like many other old, entrenched traditions in this country, most people have forgotten exactly how this custom of eating soba noodles on New Year’s Eve began, and even what it’s supposed to mean.
There appears to be many reasons for this consumption of soba noodles. That it either promotes longevity and/or good fortune is the most popular. One authority states that soba is supposed to signify strength and resiliency since the buckwheat plant itself bounces back even after being flattened by wind and rain. Another, following Confucian thinking, attributes it to the long, thin shape of the noodles which signify the wish for a long life.
Whatever, as I slurp my toshikoshi soba, I’ll ponder whether I want those noodles to mean a long life, a clean slate, good fortune — or all of the above.
As midnight nears, we will walk to our neighborhood Nishiarai Daishi Buddhist temple and join many thousands of other Tokyoites for Hatsumode, the first temple/shrine visit of the New Year. Here and all throughout the country, temple bells will ring out the old year 108 times, once for each of 108 traditional evils.
New Year’s Day, Hatsuhinode and Hatsyume ––
Being in “the land of the rising sun,” on January 1 I intend to witness the first sunrise of not just the new year but of a new decade.
According to both Shinto belief and Buddhist tradition, Toshigami—the god of the new year harvests and the spirits of ancestors—arrives when the sun rises on New Year’s Day. It is said that if you stand outside and make a wish during the sunrise, you will be blessed by Toshigami and your dream will come true during the year to come!
At 76, I’ll follow Confucian thought and ask for a long, peaceful, and uneventful life.
With my vivid memory of an over-night climb of Mt. Fuji and reaching the summit to witness the sun rise, I am excited to be up at dawn to experience the first sunrise of the new year from Tokyo. While the experience will lack the drama of Mt. Fuji, it will be just as momentous and a worthy addition to my “bucket list” accomplishments.
I will also try to recall my Hatsyume, a Japanese tradition that literally translates as “First Dream.” In Japan, the very first dream following New Year’s Eve is considered auspicious and sets the mood for the coming year.
Fujikawa Family Gathering ––
On January 2, Keiko’s mom will host a gathering of the Fujikawa family at her home where an enormous quantity of traditional Japanese food will be served and consumed along with generous amounts of beer and sake. I have always enjoyed gatherings of the Fujikawa clan.
In my research into Japanese New Year traditions I learned that it was important for family members to have fun and laugh during Shogatsu. In fact I found a Japanese proverb, “Warau kado niwa fuku kitaru” (“Luck comes to a house with lots of laughter”).
So, since it will be a long day I am planning to get everyone involved in having fun playing some traditional shogatsu-specific games and activities.
The Koma-mawashi (spinning top) along with Tako-age (kite flying) are both centuries old traditional activities done over New Year’s in Japan.
If I can find the equipment, we may also play Hanetsuki, a traditional game in which two people each hold a “hagoita” wooden racket and hit a “hane,” or shuttlecock, attempting to volley without letting it drop to the ground. The hagoita looks like a short cricket bat with a wider blade. The shuttlecock is made with feathers and a spherical piece of wood.
A Day of Rest and Kakizome ––
On the third day of the holiday I will rest and try to unleash my creative talents by observing a final Japanese New Year tradition –– Kakizome, the direct translation of which is “first writing,” is the first calligraphy written in the new year. For me it will be the first ever attempt, with Keiko’s help, at calligraphy to write a kanji character.
Later in the day, I may try writing a Haiku love poem to Keiko. “Haiku” is a traditional form of Japanese poetry consisting of 3 lines. The first and last lines of a Haiku have 5 syllables and the middle line has 7 syllables.
Learning and practicing enduring Japanese traditions is both intellectual stimulating and fun. I can’t wait for Setsubun (Bean-Throwing Festival) in early February, to really ensure that the upcoming year will be a good one. Stay tuned!