New Year’s (お正月 oshōgatsu) in Japan is celebrated on 1 January, with festivities usually lasting a few days. If you’re spending this holiday in Japan, you’re bound to hear the greeting “Ake ome!”, or its long form “Akemashite omedetogozaimasu” (明けましておめでとうございます) which means “Happy New Year”. While every country has its own way of celebrating the New Year, Japan has many unique and interesting ways to celebrate―a blend of Shinto, Buddhist, and modern traditions. Planning to celebrate the New Year in Japan? Let’s take a look at some of the traditions to see how the New Year is celebrated!
① Gorge on festive foods
In Japan, it is a common tradition to eat specific foods during the New Year's celebration. Toshikoshi soba is eaten on New Year’s Eve, while osechi ryori and ozoni are enjoyed on New Year’s Day itself.
Toshikoshi soba (年越しそば)
Toshikoshi soba | Photo by photoAC
Consisting of buckwheat noodles (そば soba) in a soup with various toppings, toshikoshi soba is traditionally eaten on the night of New Year's Eve (大晦日 ōmisoka). "Toshikoshi" literally means "year-crossing", and eating toshikoshi soba on New Year's Eve signifies crossing over from the old year into the New Year. The noodles used are regular soba noodles, but a bowl of toshikoshi soba might come with kamaboko fishcakes bearing designs with sayings like "welcome spring" (迎春 geishun), or images of the zodiac animal for the new year. The noodles are usually long, symbolising longevity.
Osechi ryōri (おせち料理)
Osechi ryori | Photo by photoAC
Osechi ryori is a traditional assortment of New Year's foods, each with a symbolic meaning. They are usually put into beautiful square lacquer boxes (お重箱 ojūbako), stacked in multiple tiers, and further compartmentalised within each tier. Families can either make their own osechi ryori, or purchase them from department stores and restaurants, which can cost up to tens of thousands of yen!
Common dishes in osechi ryori | Photo by photoAC
The contents of osechi ryori differ depending on who prepares it, but here are five dishes commonly found in osechi ryori:
Kuromame (黒豆): Sweet black beans. "Mame" is a homophone for the words for "diligent” (忠実) and "bean” (豆) in Japanese, so this black bean dish is said to represent hard work in the coming year. Additionally, the colour black is said to repel evil spirits.
Datemaki (伊達巻): Sweet rolled omelette mixed with fish paste. This dish is said to represent scholastic achievement due to its rolled shape, resembling a scroll.
Kuri kinton (栗きんとん): Candied chestnuts and sweet potato. Due to its golden colour, this dish is meant to represent wealth and prosperity for the coming year.
Ebi (海老): Shrimp. With their long whiskers and curved bodies, shrimp are said to be symbols of longevity.
Kobumaki (昆布巻き): Rolled kelp and herring. The name of the dish is a play on the word "yorokobu" (喜ぶ), which means "to rejoice", and is meant to represent happiness and luck.
Ozoni, a soup to welcome the New Year | Photo by photoAC
Ozoni is a special soup dish that is traditionally eaten on the morning of New Year's Day. While the contents of the soup vary between households and regions, they all usually include this star ingredient: mochi (もち sticky rice cake). Due to its stretchiness, the mochi represents longevity.
② Bidding Farewell to the Old Year
In many countries, it is common to have New Year's Eve parties and countdown to the New Year, while in Japan, it is common to have bonenkai parties a few days before the year ends, and watch the Kohaku Uta Gassen—the annual holiday special programme broadcasted in Japan—on New Year’s Eve.
Bōnenkai (忘年会): Forget the Year
Bonenkai to say farewell to the old year | Photo by photoAC
Bonenkai―which literally means "forget-the-year party"―are usually meals or drinking parties held at the end of the year with co-workers and friends to forget about the worries and stress of the current year, and to look forward to welcoming the upcoming year.
Kōhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦): New Year Singalong
Kohaku is the one of the most-watched music events in Japan | Photo by illustAC
Usually just called Kohaku, the Kohaku Uta Gassen is an annual holiday television special produced by NHK, broadcasted live on television and radio. Held on New Year’s Eve, Kohaku (紅白) is a word combining red (紅) and white (白). For this event, Japan’s most popular music artists are invited for a singing contest, and split into two teams: the red team (female vocals) and the white team (male vocals).
The show runs for about 4.5 hours, from evening until midnight, and at the end, the judges and the audience vote to decide on the winning team. It is a huge deal to be invited to Kohaku, and you know you've made it as a music artist in Japan if you've been invited.
③ Fantastic Firsts
Hatsuyume (初夢): First Dream of the Year
The best dreams are said to be of Mount Fuji, a hawk, or an eggplant | Photo by photoAC
Do you remember the dreams you have while sleeping? In Japan, interpreting hatsuyume, your first dream of the year (the dream you have falling asleep on the night of 1 January and waking up on 2 January) is said to be a sign that predicts your luck for the next 12 months.
“Ichi Fuji, ni taka, san nasubi” (一富士二鷹三茄子). It is believed that the three luckiest hatsuyume dreams to have are: Mount Fuji ranking first, hawk ranking second, and an eggplant ranking third.
Why? It is said that Mount Fuji is auspicious because it is Japan’s highest mountain, and “Fuji” sounds like "fushi (不死)", which means "immortal". Hawks (鷹 taka) fly high, so dreaming of them symbolises that you will rise up in the New Year; while the word for "eggplant" (茄子 nasu) sounds like "accomplish" (成す nasu), symbolising that you will attain accomplishments in the New Year.
Hatsumōde (初詣): First shrine visit of the year
Hatsumode is one of the busiest times of the year at many shrines and temples | Photo by Pakutaso
Hatsumode is the first shrine or temple visit of the New Year, done on the first few days of January. Usually, families and relatives go together to pay respects and pray for a happy and healthy year ahead. Popular shrines in big cities can get very, very crowded during hatsumode, seeing up to millions of visitors! Despite long queues and large crowds, the process is usually pretty orderly, so just be patient and wait your turn.
Fortune slips to predict your fortune for the New Year | Photo by Carissa Loh
Other than praying, it is also common to get omikuji (おみくじ fortune slips) and omamori (お守り protective amulets) wishing for luck, happiness, safety, health, wealth, love, career, and school.
④ Traditional decorations
Kadomatsu adorn the entrances of buildings | Photo by Carissa Loh
If you've walked around Japan during the New Year, you might have seen green decorations made of bamboo and pine placed in by doors and entrances to buildings. Known as kadomatsu, these decorations are said to welcome in the gods and deities. "Kado" (門) means "door", and "matsu" (松) means "pine". Kadomatsu are usually made with bamboo tubes of different heights, together with pine leaves, and sometimes plum branches and flowers.
Shimekazari | Photo by photoAC
Another decoration you might notice is shimekazari, a wreath made of rice straw rope, pine leaves, bitter oranges, and other lucky ornaments. Shimekazari are usually hung above doors to ward off evil spirits and invite the gods of fortune.
⑤ Fukubukuro (福袋): Lucky Bags and Bargains
Fancy a fukubukuro? | Photo by photoAC
If you have been to Japan during New Year, you might have seen fukubukuro (福袋)―literally “lucky bags” or “happy bags”―being sold everywhere from electronic stores to clothing stores, from coffee shops to toy stores, from supermarkets to luxury brands, and more. Traditionally started as a way to get rid of leftover products from the previous year, many places now also offer exclusive items specifically made for fukubukuro. These bargain bags are usually sold at a fixed price, but the total value of the items inside is worth much higher than the selling price—for example, a ¥10,000 fukubukuro may contain products worth ¥20,000 or more!
Fukubukuro can be found almost everywhere | Photo by Carissa Loh
Fukubukuro are typically sold in stores from 1 January, and every year the queues are long, with popular lucky bags running out quickly. In recent times, due to overwhelming popularity, some fukubukuro are limited to online sales by a lottery system, like the Starbucks fukubukuro. Some shops offer blind bag fukubukuro, where the contents of the bag are a surprise, while others offer special set fukubukuro, where the items inside are known, but offered at a fantastic price.
Other than fukubukuro, many shops also have massive discounts during the New Year, holding sales known as hatsu-uri (初売り), the first sale of the year.
...And A Happy New Year!
Although Japan has modernised over the years, many New Year celebrations remain deeply steeped in rich traditions, with symbolic meanings tied to items and actions. New Year in Japan may not be what you're used to, but if you are visiting Japan during the oshogatsu period, don’t miss the chance to experience the New Year in a new way!
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