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The Japanese New Year

For the Japanese, Oshogatsu (New Year; literally, “new month”), is the most important celebration of the year, a festive occasion with good feelings and nostalgia. The Japanese New Year’s celebrations evolved out of rituals associated with the changes of season, which are of utmost importance in Japanese farming. The New Year’s events are widely celebrated and enjoyed in Japan, beginning on New Year’s eve with the tradition of striking the joya no kane (end-of-the-year bell) from nearby Buddhist temples. The tolls represent the leaving behind of 108 bonno, or worldly concerns of the old year, which, according to Buddhist belief, torment mankind. During this ceremony, each toll is struck after the reverberations from the preceding toll have dissipated. The last peal of the bell is struck at midnight, coinciding with the first few seconds of the New Year; thus a new beginning dawns, enabling the start of a prosperous and joyous year.

Throughout most of its history, Japan went by the lunar calendar, so the holiday would fall at different dates on the Gregorian calendar. But these days, New Year’s is observed on January 1.

The Japanese New Year’s holiday used to last several days; now it’s been pared down to just three. New Year’s Eve is devoted to kite flying and other fun and games. January 1 and 2 are feast days.

Most Japanese households — and most families of Japanese descent living in the United States — still observe rituals that go back as far as the Edo period of the 17th century. New Year’s resolutions in Japan are made to bring prosperity and happiness for the future. Any unfinished business requires attention at the end of the year, so houses are cleaned, debts are paid, and foods are prepared prior to the New Year so the holiday can be enjoyed with leisure. Wearing new clothing, family members rise early on New Year’s morning and visit the family shrine before they settle down to a breakfast of ozoni, the traditional soup made in any number of regional styles, and join in a toast for good fortune with otoso, (sweet sake brewed with cinnamon and other spices), which is believed to prevent sickness. Friends and family spend New Year’s day visiting one another. The New Year is considered a time of forgiveness and cordiality to all.

In Japan, as the end of the year approaches, the customary and familiar symbols of the New Year appear in the streets and in homes. Many of the symbols are based upon or linked to the Shinto, Buddhist, or folk traditions of Japan. The kudomatsu or “gate-pine” is an arrangement of pine, bamboo, and sometimes plum blossom. The arrangement is placed on either side of the front entrance to the house to ward off evil dominance and invoke fertility, growth, and the power to resist adversity and old age. The pine represents strength, longevity and youthful optimism. The bamboo, which is straight and unbending, symbolizes resilience, uprightness, rapid growth and finial piety; it leans with the wind, but does not break. The apricot or plum braves the winter season and has sweet blossoms despite the cold and snowy weather. They symbolize steadfastness in adversity and are looked upon as a good omen for child-bearing. Fertility is also associated with kazunoko (herring roe) and ikura (red salmon roe), both of which must grace the holiday table. The kadomatsu symbolizes the hope of the household that the upcoming year will bring vigor, long life, and strength to all family members. The shimenawa is fresh rice-straw laced in a particular fashion to form a rope. This ornament is placed at the entrance of the house or over cooking stoves during the oshogatsu season. In the Shinto tradition, the shimenawa indicates a sacred area. It is believed that no evil can pass beyond the line of the shimenawa.

Color is also important. White and red are especially favored, with white denoting innocence and purity, and red representing the sun and its bursting energy.

Although the traditional Japanese New Year’s feast requires hours upon hours in the kitchen, almost everything can and should be prepared well in advance. Some of the most enjoyable New Year’s dinners are either shabu-shabu — where diners cook their own meals in a communal pan placed in the center of the table, selecting paper-thin sliced beef, fish and vegetables from trays placed on the table — or mixed sushi. Like shabu-shabu, mixed sushi is another do-it-yourself preparation, though the host or cook has to do a lot of prep work. Each diner is served mori (seaweed squares), a bowl of sushi rice and small bowls with wasabi and dipping sauce. They then select from a lavish tray laden with all manner of foods to create their own sushi. Since the god of the New Year is responsible for the rice crop, a sake offering is also very appropriate. It’s all part of osechi, or offering food to the gods and ensuring a healthy, prosperous and wise year ahead. We all raise our sake cups to that!