The New Year (Shōgatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan. Years are traditionally viewed as completely separate, with each new year providing a fresh start, leaving the old year’s worries and troubles behind.
Most businesses shut down from January 1 to January 3, families gather to spend the days together and it is traditional to visit a shrine or temple. However, with Japan struggling to contain a nationwide surge of COVID-19 that began in late October, this year will be different.
Clearly greater caution will be necessary to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus during the New Year’s holidays as the latest wave continues to gain momentum.
Government programs aimed at countering the economic impacts of the crisis have been temporarily halted through January 11. Everyone has been asked to not travel, stay indoors, and avoid large gatherings. Establishments that serve food and alcohol have been asked to close or reduce business hours through the same period. Companies have also been asked to forego the traditional end of the year parties (Bonenkai or “year forgetting parties”).
Many shrines and temples are restricting access to discourage the typical large crowds who come to celebrate the New Year to pray for good fortunes. I will personally miss the Joya no kane, the traditional bell-ringing ceremony held across Japan on New Year’s Eve. The large impressive temple bells are rung 108 times starting in the old year and finishing right as the clock strikes midnight. We will listen from our balcony.
That said, some Japanese New Year traditions will still be observed by us.
Before the year ends, our residence will have been subject to a detailed cleaning. Traditional ornaments made of pine and bamboo have joined our Christmas decorations.
On New Year’s eve, we will spend a quiet evening at home with a simple sushi and sashimi meal, consuming sake while watching a highly popular musical television program featuring many of Japan’s most famous J-pop and enka singers, and playing Yahtzee. Just before midnight, Toshikoshi (or “year crossing”) soba noodles will be served.
January 1, a day free of stress and work, will start by viewing the New Year’s first sunrise (Hatsu-hinode) through our bedroom window that offers a urban panoramic view of Tokyo.
For breakfast, Keiko has ordered Osechi Ryori, a customary traditional special type of meal to usher in a new year. Each dish is carefully packed in decorative boxes and includes Otoso (sweetened rice wine) and Ozoni (a soup made with mochi). An early afternoon dinner using a special roast beef recipe and menu will be prepared and served.
With the passing of a sad and tragic year filled with uncertainty, we are looking forward to 2021 with confidence that the world will soon be a safer and better place.
May your troubles be less and your blessings be more; And nothing but happiness come through your door.
Best to all three of you on this badly-needed turn of the calendar.
Paulie and Keiko san,
Yumi and I wish you a healthy and joyous New Year! While you two are slumbering well in 2021, Yumi and I are preparing to venture into Portland for take out sushi omakase and a most special bottle of sake. We will toast you both!