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
The Japanese traditionally decorate special items of their
houses, make and serve special foods, and visit shrines and
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
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
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
Traditionally, osechi was made at home, and since the foods
did not easily spoil in winter, it could be eaten for several
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,
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
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
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
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.