As the days grow shorter and the nights turn frosty in Toronto, our thoughts turn to Christmas and other winter holidays. Taking place after the Christmas holiday festivities, the New Year is treated as a secondary holiday, an afterthought following the busy holiday season. But not in Japan. Japan, like many asian nations, celebrate the as a major holiday, while Christmas takes the secondary role as a holiday for romance similar to Valentine’s Day in the western nations.

Celebrating the New Year, or Oshougatsu (お正月) in Japan, involves many traditions leading up to and beyond New Year’s Day. While Japan originally followed the lunar calendar, in 1873 the nation adopted the Gregorian calendar and many of the Oshougatsu traditions moved from the first full moon of the lunar year (小正月, koshougatsu) to the first of January. The days leading up to Oshougatsu usually involve cleaning, cooking, visiting friends and family, and decorating the home. Arguments are settled, old debts are paid off, and the home is given a thorough cleaning. The idea is to start the new year off fresh, clean and prepared for a fortuitous year ahead.

Osechi-ryouri (お節料理) is the name given to traditional New Year foods. They are prepared in the days leading up to the New Year using traditional methods of preparation that allow the food to last several days at room temperature. This allows people to focus on family and friends for the days following the first day of the year without the distraction of having to prepare meals. Osechi dishes also have special meanings and intentions for the new year. For instance, prawns (えび, ebi) indicate the wish for a long life while black soybeans (黒豆, kuromame) symbolize wishes for a healthy new year. These are just two of many symbolic foods often prepared during the days leading up to the New Year. There are a few recipes at the end of this article.  Ask your teacher about other foods or try them yourself at the JCCC’s Shin-nen Kai on January 1st. 

Another custom that is celebrated in Japan is the making of rice cakes (餅, mochi). Boiled sticky rice is put into a wooden mortar; one person hits the rice with a large wooden mallet while another pats it with water and folds it in between strikes. The resulting mash is formed into a white sticky dumpling to be eaten in the beginning of January.

New Year’s postcards (年賀状, nengajou) are sent to friends and relatives during December. The post office takes care that all these cards are delivered on the 1st of January to bring good tidings and wishes to their recipients. It is important to note that if a family has had a recent death, nengajou are not sent out of respect for the mourning period.  Many Nengajou have lottery numbers on them issued by the Post and Telecommunication Ministry. On January 15th, the winning numbers are picked and results are announced. Winners receive prizes such as TV sets, cd players, and collectable stamps.

Those that have watched Japanese dramas and anime may recognize the last two traditions on our list. At midnight on December 31st, Buddhist temples across Japan ring their bells 108 times. The number of rings symbolize the 108 worldly desires that cause pain and suffering according to Buddhist beliefs. These temples are major attractions and many people visit them as a final purification ritual just before the new year begins.

During the first days of the New Year, many people visit Shinto shrines, this visit is referred to as hatsumoude (初詣). This first shrine visit of the new year begins the year with good tidings. There are often long lines at major shrines throughout the nation. People buy new charms (お守り, o-mamori) meant to aide in various aspects of life, while returning old ones to be burned and purified. Many people dress in full kimono to come worship, and there is often special celebration food and sweet warm sake (甘酒, amazake) at the temples. It is a common custom to buy fortunes (御神籤, omikuji) written on strips of paper with predictions for the upcoming year. When the fortune is bad, custom holds that you fold the paper and tie it to a pine tree or a wall of metal alongside other bad fortunes on the grounds as a way to ward off the bad luck.  The shrine later burns these omikuji to get rid of the bad luck.

These are just some of the traditions practiced during Oshougatsu in Japan. Some are observed in Toronto, but many are more difficult to maintain abroad. What activities do you take part in during Oshougatsu and where do you partake in them?

Some responses:

“Watching Japanese traditional TV program and eating “Ozooni” at home.”  – Anonymous

“I prepare smaller version of Osechi ryori. Put on some new clothes. Make mochi (rice cake) and eat a lot of them. Unfortunately there is no shrines close by so can’t do hatsumoude. Pity!” – Kozumi Miya-Woolford

“Family gathering Eat mochi, osechi, zouni, oshiruko
Nenga-jo Greeting to relatives New Year’s resolution”
– Anonymous

“Celebrating New Years in Japanese style starts from evening of December 31st. I usually eat soba noodles and watch Kouhaku Utagassen on Japan TV. I have been doing this every New Years eve since I was a little child and still doing it even in Toronto. On New Years day I eat mocha in a soup and play Karuta(card matching game) with my family.” – Anonymous

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Recipes (Care of Nina Lee):

Prawns simmered in Ginger Sauce / Kurumaebi no Shougani (車えびのしょう煮)
Prawns symbolize a wish for a long life until the back bends.

8 prawns
15 grams thinly sliced ginger
400 ml soup stock
100 ml sake
2 Tbsps mirin
2 Tbsps thin soy sauce

1. Remove the prawns’ heads and the sand vein.  Bend the prawns into a circleand insert toothpicks to hold them together.
2. Add a small amount of salt to boiling water, quickly boil the prawns.  Remove and place in cold water and drain.
3. Place soup stock, sake, mirin, and ginger and thin soy sauce in a pot and let it come to a boil.  When the mixture is boiling, add the prawns, cover and parboil everything at once.  When the prawns have been heated through, place the pot in a large bowl filled with cold water until the prawns are able to be handled.  Remove the shells and trim the prawns’ tails so they are all the same length.

Black Beans Simmered in Wine / Kuromame Wine Zuke / 黒豆ワン漬け
Black beans have a special meaning: “Hope to live in health.”  Some say that it is difficult to stew black beans, but using dried black beans and some effort will give the dish a homemade taste.

200 grams black beans
2 Tbspns white wine

Add black beans to wine and soak overnight until tender.

Shinnenkai poster 2014