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New Year customs in Japan changing

by Yuka Suzuki, staff writer

The New Year is the biggest holiday in Japan, as big as the Christmas holiday is in the United States. Japan preserves traditional New Year’s customs; however, some of these have been changing as Japanese society evolves.

The Japanese traditionally decorate special items of their houses, make and serve special foods, and visit shrines and temples.

In the week before the New Year, Japanese families make kadomatsu a decoration of pine branches and bamboo for the entrance of their houses. It is symbolic of the family or individual dedicating his or her soul to God. Kadomatsu must be completed and used to decorate before New Year’s Eve because, tradition has it, it brings bad luck if it is done on or after New Year’s Eve.

Another special decoration is called kagami mochi. The Japanese make round mochi—a cake made of rice paste and sugar—and use it as a decoration in their homes before New Year’s Eve until Jan.11. Traditionally, kagami mochi was made at home, but today most people buy it at stores and keep it in its plastic or cellophane packaging.

The Japanese traditionally eat special foods at different times during the New Year celebration. On New Year’s Eve they eat soba; any kind of soba can be used, but for the celebration it is called toshikoshi soba and symbolizes long life.

On New Year’s Eve and throughout New Year’s Day, Japanese traditionally visit Shinto shrines or temples to pray for the safety and happiness of their family and themselves through the New Year. This practice is called hatsumoude. Thousands of people go to major shrines or temples, so there are very long lines for hatsumoude.

Traditionally people wore kimonos to hatsumoude, but today most people wear modern dress. At the temple, many people purchase lucky charms for the New Year and return old charms from the previous year. Some of the temples have a big bell and the priests ring the bell 108 times starting at midnight on New Year’s Day. The number is symbolic of people having 108 kinds of worldly desires and attachments; the noise made by the bell is meant to push away worldly desires and sever attachments.

Another religious practice is called kagamibiraki, which means praying for one’s family’s safety and happiness through the New Year.

On New Year’s Day, the Japanese traditionally have even more special foods that they eat with sake to celebrate. These include mochi and osechi, dishes of red and white fish cakes, egg rolls, beans, shrimps, small fishes, kelps and other vegetables, shellfishes, and chestnuts. These were traditionally served in two or three lacquered wood boxes, but many families use plastic today.

Traditionally, osechi was made at home, and since the foods did not easily spoil in winter, it could be eaten for several days, but not past Jan.3. However, today many people buy osechi from department stores, food companies, or restaurants, and even more through the Internet.

Depending on how elaborate one wants the dishes, and how much food one requires, prices can range from 3,000 to 40,000 yen and can go as high as 300,000 yen. For New Year’s 2004, the Mitsukoshi Department Store sold two osechis of 1 million yen each. These not only included luxury foods such as abalones and matsutake mushrooms, but also the very expensive osechi is prepared by outstanding chefs or famous restaurants, or both.

The other special food for New Year is mochi, which is a rice cake. Many Japanese eat zouni, which is a bowl of soup with mochi, vegetables, and chicken. Around Jan.11, Japanese cook and eat zouni with the kagami mochi that had been used for decoration since before New Year’s Eve.
Another special food for New Year is rice gruel with seven kinds of herbs called nanakusa gayu. Traditionally, Japanese eat nanakusa gayu on Jan. 7, but today some people do not eat it at all.
Historically, shops and companies are closed from Jan.1 to 3 and they open again on Jan.4; however, some of the businesses have recently begun to open before Jan.4. In particular, department stores and shops open early to sell fukubukuro, a mystery package that contains a variety of items supposedly worth more in total than the purchase price. Many Japanese buy fukubukuro the way American shoppers traditionally attack bargain sales at American department stores.

The Japanese traditionally send friends or co-workers New Year’s cards at the beginning of the New Year; however, many people now send New Year’s cards by e-mail.

Other customs include otoshidama, a traditional practice for New Year in Japan. Parents or older relatives present pocket money to their children. Originally, otoshidama included the custom of sharing mochi that had been given to the parents by a Shinto priest on New Year’s Day, but this practice has become pocket money instead of mochi.

 

 

 

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