The Start of the Year
At the start of the year, Japanese people used to both eat Osechi ryori, a Japanese version New Year’s feast, and also play traditional games while the majority of shops remained closed. However, as time progressed, this life-style has seen itself changing year by year and so, there are two aspect of the New Year period in Japan; the traditional and unchanged Japan and the ever changing Japan.
New Year’s Day
“Akemashite Omedeto-gozaimasu,” meaning Happy New Year is the traditional Japanese greeting at the start of the year. When families got together for the first time in the year in their newly cleaned houses equipped with fresh calendars, they often did so having entered a gate decorated with kadomatsu (pine branches) and shimenawa (a stylized straw rope). These days though, there are few houses decorated with such traditional decoration as may people now live in less personal apartment buildings and condominiums.
That said, those who usually work in Tokyo and other big cities often go back to their hometowns to celebrate the New Year holidays with their family. It is a precious opportunity in an otherwise busy year to gather the family, as the trend of families scattering on the wind has been increasing in Japan in recent years. Those who brave expressways suffer long traffic jams and airplanes and trains are crowded with people at the end of the year on the homeward trip and after the New Year’s holidays as they return to the major cities in which they work.
Family members drink otoso (special sake) and eat osechi-ryori with ozone (a soup containing a pounded rice cake) on the morning of New Year’s Day.
Osechi-ryori used to be cooked by each individual family at the end of the year and was kept for use in the coming days. More recently though, as Japanese restaurants and department stores have started selling osechi-ryori, and with most convenience stores now open 365 days a year, many associated shops now open on new Year’s Day and Jan. 2. As such, few homes pound their own mochi rice cakes any more.
Furthermore, the number of people travelling abroad and staying at hotels and ski resorts continues to increase thereby reducing the numbers who opt for New Year at home.
If lucky with the weather, many people want to see the New Year’s first sunrise and large numbers of Japanese usually visit a shrine or temple on New Year’s day, for hatsumode – their first prayer to the gods of the New Year. At this time, some people still choose to don kimonos and add a touch of culture and color to the proceedings which is always nice to see.
At New Year, many people exchange New Year’s cards. They send cards in December and receive cards from others on New Year’s Day. As a result, post offices around Japan hire many part-time workers to deliver the large amount of cards sent, usually on January 1. To add a touch of modernity to the day as well, there are New Year’s cards with a lottery number printed on the bottom with prizes including free domestic or international travel to be won.
Nowadays though, many people print their greeting cards using a PC, but a few people still write calligraphy or make their own prints. Using the cards, people use the opportunity to exchange information, writing their family news and also print photographs of themselves and their families. Although it takes some time to make the cards, many people undoubtedly look forward to receiving cards, making all the effort well worth their while.
On the far more modern side of the fence though, some people prefer to send Happy New Year e-mails, make Happy New Year phone calls, and send messages using other online tools such as LINE and Facebook.
A traditional that makes many children happy is the gift of money, given by relatives and known as otoshidama. In days of old, Japanese children often played tako-age (kite flying), sugoroku (a domestic form of Parcheesi), hanetsuki (badminton), karuta, hyakuninisshu (a Japanese card game) and fukuwarai (a New Year’s game in which blindfolded player place paper cutouts of ears, eyes, a nose, and a mouth on the outline of a face).
More recently, TV programs broadcast special New Year shows to entertain youngsters and the older Japanese alike and many people often enjoy hatsuwarai programs, with rakugo (a form of comic story telling) and manzai (comic dialogue).
Kakizome, writing a special piece of calligraphy for the New Year, is one of Japan’s traditions, these days still carried out by elementary and junior high school students as part of their New Year’s homework.
*The information herein is as of Jan. 2020.