How the Japanese Celebrate Oshogatsu, Their Version of New Year

As the calendar turns to 2018, the Japanese will be celebrating Oshogatsu, a unique tradition marking the beginning of a new year.

Oshogatsu, also called shōgatsu, is initially based on the Chinese lunar calendar. But in 1873, five years after the Meiji restoration, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar and started celebrating its cultural New Year’s Day on Jan. 1.

Oshogatsu has become one of the country’s most important holidays, but also the longest. According to Stripes Japan, it originally referred to the whole month of January, but most now associate it with the first three days. Most employees take at least five days off from Dec. 30.

Preparations often start on the morning of Dec. 31, when household members start cleaning, cooking, decorating and accomplishing all pending responsibilities such as unpaid debts and unsettled discussions. The idea is to finish all duties by the end of the year, culminating in an evening bonenkai or “year-forgetting” party, japan-guide.com noted.

Kadomatsu, a traditional decoration consisting of auspicious pine, bamboo and other felicitous symbols.

Others listen to Joya no Kane, or 108 strikes on the temple bell, which, in Buddhism, represent the 108 earthly desires. The ringing usually begins from 11 p.m., with the 108th strike falling exactly on midnight, according to Matcha.

Of course, there are those who will be tuning in to the TV to watch a special episode of a man who eats alone, among other popular shows.

From Jan. 1 — a very favorable day — the Japanese will be visiting shrines or temples, spending time with loved ones and eating a selection of dishes special for the occasion.

Many commence their day by viewing the first sunrise, also known as hatsuhinode, to contemplate on a fresh start. This is particularly important for practitioners of the Shinto religion, when the deity of the New Year arrives with the first ray of the solar star, according to Japan Experience.

The celebrations will unfold with various other customs. Some receive New Year’s cards (nengajo), children get money (otoshidama) in small decorated envelopes (pochibukuro) and others take the rare opportunity to travel in lighter traffic.

Still, there are those who stay home and play traditional games, such as hanetsuki (Japanese badminton), karuta (a type of card game) and takoage (kite-flying).

But perhaps one of the most enjoyed parts of oshogatsu is the medley of traditional Japanese food served throughout. This is called osechi ryori, gracing tables since the Heian period (794 AD — 1185). Interestingly, it was considered taboo to cook at the time, so preparations began in the final days of the previous year.

The challenge is to cook dishes that could be eaten over the holidays. Those that make it are stored in a traditional, multi-tiered, lacquer box called jubako and eaten at room temperature, according to Savor Japan.

Photo via Wikipedia Commons / サフィル (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Vegetables predominate in osechi ryori, but there are also grilled fish, including tai (sea bream) and buriMochi (thick rice cake), ozoni (clear broth with grilled mochi and vegetables), ebi (shrimp), renkon no nitsuke (sliced lotus) and hoshigaki (dried persimmon) are just few of the many varieties served, not to mention more complicated dishes.

While most people celebrating oshogatsu remain true to its Japanese origin, others — especially those who live outside Japan — give the occasion an intercultural touch. Such is the case for Milagros Tsukayama Shinzato, who wrote about celebrating it in Peru.

Shinzato wrote on Discover Nikkei:

“There were times that I didn’t understand why we did this or that to commemorate the New Year, but we still continued those customs at home. ‘In my day…’, I recall my grandmother saying about her customs, the same ones she brought with her to Peru more than a century ago. But the time hasn’t passed in vain.

“Nikkei still celebrate Oshogatsu, but in our own way. Some celebrate with a more Peruvian touch while others adhere closely to Japanese customs.

“Regardless of how we celebrate, we always look forward to a new and better year.”

Did we miss how you celebrate oshogatsu? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!

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