Japanese New Year
New Year has always been an important holiday in Japan. It’s a chance for families to not only reflect on the past year and their dreams for the future but also to spend time together, catch up, cook, eat, and play games.
During our mobile residency life in Japan, we experienced our very first Japanese New Year in Osaka and found out that there are some similarities between it and Malaysian Chinese New Year. For example, in Japanese culture, the new year must begin with a clean slate. As a result, families come together to clean up the entire house (called osoji – big cleaning). They will also use the last few days of the old year to make preparations for the New Year’s Day food; decorate the house in and out and get ready for the New Year’s rituals.
At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples will ring their bonsho (temple bells). This tradition called Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘), is one of the most important rituals of the year, meant to drive away negative emotions, pain and suffering from the past year. It also means that it is the perfect night to leave the old selves behind and commence the new year with new resolutions.
As for Malaysian Chinese, the feast that’s served on New Year’s eve reunion dinner always has a meaning behind. Japanese has the same practice.
Toshikoshi-soba (年越し蕎麦) on New Year’s Eve is said to have become common during the Edo era (1603-1868). When soba is made, the dough is stretched and cut in a long and thin form, which is said to represent a long and healthy life. Besides, as soba is cut easily compared to other types of noodles, it also symbolizes a wish to cut away all the misfortunes of the old year in order to commence the new year feeling refreshed.
The whole 24 hours of New Year’s Day in Japan is called Ganjitsu (元日). It is a pretty busy day for Japanese families. After breakfast, Japanese usually visit shrines and temples (Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the New Year) to wish for a happy and healthy year and shop for New Year’s special sales. Kids will receive Otoshidama, a small envelope with some cash from their parents, grandparents and close relatives.
Another fun tradition for Japanese is to go out and buy Fukubukuro. They are essentially surprise bags that people buy without knowing what’s inside. Retailers fill bags with random goods and sell them at a sizeable discount compared to the prices buying each item separately. Fukubukuro are normally sold from January 1st to 3rd. The exact dates vary from store to store. Some retailers even stagger their fukubukuro sales by location or only sell a set amount of bags per day. Recently, certain shops have actually added the option to book a bag online – so people can pick it up at an outlet of their choice in a civilised manner.
There are many, many more Japanese traditions that weren’t even mentioned in this list. If you have a chance, try discover both modern and traditional Japanese New Year’s traditions. It is full of fun by doing so.
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