In Japan, New Year's is one of the busiest time of the year but also one of the most festive! We'd like to take this opportunity to share with everyone some of the fun foods and activities you'll only be able to experience around this season.
WHAT'S GOING ON AT HOME
One thing to understand about the holiday season in Japan is the difference between Japanese and American Christmas and New Year's. In the U.S., Christmas tends to be a time for families, whereas New Year's is more a time to go to parties with friends. However, in Japan, Christmas is often a time for couples to spend time together, and New Year's is when families celebrate together. In the past, Japan celebrated the lunar new year, but switched to the Western calendar in 1873. Generally speaking, January 1st is reserved for celebrating with close family, the 2nd is for visiting friends, and the 3rd can be for visiting more distant acquaintances.
At home, people will decorate the entrances of their homes with what are called kadomatsu, green bamboo poles tied together with rope and covered with pine branches and oranges. The green of the bamboo and pines represents renewal, while the many seeds of the orange represent fertility and growth. Japanese culture also has a fondness for word play. The Japanese name of the orange, (橙, daidai), is pronounced the same as a term meaning many generations (代々, also daidai).
In early to mid December, families will start writing New Year's cards to friends and family, which are called nengajo. They start early so that they will arrive on January 1, and as long as they are postmarked by a certain date and marked as nengajo, the post office will hold on to them and guarantee they're delivered on January 1st. The tradition began back when transportation was very limited, so that distant friends and family could let each other know that they were alive and well. Often, nengajo will have a design that includes the Chinese zodiac animal for that year. People will often hand write addresses and include a short message, such as kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu! (I hope for your favor again in the new year!) and akemashite omedeto gozaimasu! (Happy New Year!)
One other thing children get to look forward to is otoshidama. Some of you might be familiar with the red envelopes that children in China receive during the Lunar New Year celebration. This is a similar tradition in Japan! Children receive money in brightly colored envelopes, sometimes as much as 10,000 yen! (Around $100)
Of course, people don't just stay at home for New Year's. Let's look at some of the activities going on outside the home, starting with the religious services at the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
TEMPLE AND SHRINE ACTIVITIES
Around New Year's, many of Japan's most famous tourist destinations will be closed, so you might think it's not a great time for sightseeing. However, you'll actually see a huge number of interesting cultural activities going on at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines around this time. While countdowns to fireworks are not as prevalent in Japan as they are in Europe and the U.S., there are some activities on December 31st. On New Year's Eve, many people will wear kimono and visit their local temple at midnight, when the temple bells will toll 108 times, representing the 108 Buddhist sins.
Over the next few days, festivities continue at shrines and temples, where many people come for the first shrine visit of the year, known as hatsumode (初詣). With the start of a new year, people across Japan flock to shrines and temples to give a prayer for the new year, and swap out their old lucky charms for new ones. Food stands and other vendors line the streets. You'll definitely want to consider getting some food before getting in line to offer a prayer, since you might wait in line as long as an hour at some of the most popular sites. Major train lines actually extend their hours to accommodate the influx of travelers. Some of the most well known destinations include the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka, and Tsuruoka Hachimangu in Kamakura. Over just the first few days of the year, millions of people will visit these shrines and temples.
NEW YEAR'S FOOD
Like almost every major holiday in Japan, New Year's is also accompanied by a variety of unique and delicious foods!
Japan traditionally views the new year as a fresh start, and a clean break from the previous year, and this is reflected in the eating culture. Many people will go to bonenkai (忘年会), literally meaning forget-the-year parties, where everyone gets together to forget the woes of the past year (often with the help of alcohol). And before the new year has actually arrived, a lot of people will finish the old year on New Year's Eve with toshikoshi soba (年越しそば), literally meaning noodles for starting the new year. Soba (buckwheat noodles) are easy to cut, symbolic of the fresh start that comes with the new year. Just be careful not to eat anymore after midnight, since it might bring bad luck!
A few days before New Year's, families will start preparing traditional New Year's dishes called osechi ryori (御節料理), so that it will be ready to serve that day, which is why many of the dishes are actually served cold or room temperature. The foods are usually chosen for their auspicious colors, such as green, white, gold, and red. They are so beautifully arranged that sometimes, families will leave them on display, and instead eat other food off regular plates. One New Year's dish loved throughout Japan is tai no shioyaki (鯛の塩焼き), or salt-grilled red sea-bream. Like we mentioned before, Japanese people love clever wordplay. Tai, known as the "king of fish," reminds people of the phrase medetai, meaning "auspicious" or "celebratory."
A three-tiered jubako featuring osechi ryori.
People will pack various elaborate foods into beautiful three-tiered square lacquer box trays called jubako, often decorated on the outside with pine branches, plum blossoms, and other symbols of the beginning of a new year.
The top tray of the jubako typically contains seasonal foods, such as black beans, which are a symbol of health in Japanese culture. Herring roe is also frequently included, and the eggs unsurprisingly are a symbol of fertility. Pickle, sardines, and chestnut are other foods commonly found in the top tray.
The second tray traditionally contains a variety of seafood, such as octopus, squid, and shrimp (shrimp also being symbolic of long life). These will be accompanied by an assortment of vinegared vegetables, and some wild vegetables as well.
The third tray usually has vegetables that have been seasoned with sugar, stock, and soy sauce. This can include konnyaku (devil's root), daikon (giant radish), and other root vegetables, such as taro and potatoes.
The one dish that is served warm is ozoni, a special New Year's soup. Although the stock used varies throughout Japan, it's common to see a fish-based soup stock. People often add fish or chicken slices, taro, fish roe, mushrooms, and also vegetables. The one ingredient you'll see added no matter where you are is mochi.
Speaking of mochi, there is another exciting New Year's activity that we haven't talked about!
One of the most exhilarating activities you can watch or join in on is mochizuki, the traditional way of making delicious mochi! For those of you not familiar, mochi is a kind of rice cake made from glutinous rice, which is pounded into a paste and molded into the desired shape.
While the majority of mochi today is made with machines, New Year's is a great time to try out the traditional method of making mochi. Regardless of how you make mochi, the process begins by washing and soaking mochigome (もち米, the glutinous rice for making mochi) overnight.
The next day, the rice is steamed, and the piping hot rice is put into a stone bowl called an usu. One person will wield a large heavy wooden mallet called a kine to pound the rice, and one other person (very carefully) will rotate and flip the mochi so that it doesn't stick to the stone surface. The two people have to make sure they keep a steady rhythm or it could hurt!
The very hot, sticky mass of mochi is taken out of the usu and put on a table covered in flour to prevent it from sticking again, and several people will begin dividing it into small chunks that can be molded into the familiar rice cake shape. The challenging part of this is making sure that the hot fresh mochi doesn't stick to your hands, which means using plenty of flour. It's always best to do this part as quickly as possible while the mochi is fresh, but that means it will be even hotter, so be careful!
There are a few main ways people like to eat their mochi. Sometimes people will dip their mochi is shoyu (soy sauce), and wrap their mochi with a piece of nori (seaweed), and some people will dip their mochi in shoyu with sugar. One other very traditional way to eat mochi is with red bean paste, called anko, which is usually sweetened slightly with sugar or honey. Try out different ways and see what you like most!
In Japanese culture, the first sunrise of the year is seen as having a type of spiritual power and significance. While a building top might seem like a convenient place to view the sunrise from a city, Japanese people traditionally prefer a more natural setting, such as a beach, hilltop, or perhaps even a mountain top! Even people living in a modern sprawling urban center like Tokyo figure out ways to get away from the city to see this incredible sight.
This activity is probably only for some of the most hardcore travelers. If you want to start off your year the most visually stunning way possible, nothing is better than watching the first sunrise of the year from the peak of a mountain. This means starting early and getting to the top in time to see the sun coming up over the horizon! Unfortunately, Mount Fuji is considered unsafe for most climbers at this time of year, but if you're in Japan, maybe consider going to the top of Mt. Takao, which you can reach in just around an hour from the heart of Tokyo via the JR Chuo Line at Tokyo Station! You might need to climb overnight to get there in time, but as anyone who has gone can tell you, the incredible sight you'll behold in the morning will make everything worthwhile!
As always, the best way to learn about these things is not just to read up on them, but also experience them for yourself! If your stay in Japan happens to coincide with New Year's, we hope you'll take this opportunity to try out many of these unique cultural experiences!