2018/01/27 What's On
New Year Traditions in Japan You Probably Never Knew
by Jordan Mounteer
As winter descends again and the New Year approaches, this often becomes a very important time for Japanese people. It’s a time of remembering the past, but also of looking forward to the future and reflecting on what things we may want to change or improve. If you’ve ever been in Japan during the holidays then you already know how big of a deal it is, and many places – including Kyoto in particular – become packed as people visit temples. At the same time, there are a lot of other traditions that mark the new year that you may not know about, so we take a look at some of the more subtle activities and beliefs which make up Japanese culture.
Eating Toshikoshi Soba
Soba is a quintessential meal in Japan, but it’s one of the few foods that – depending on how and when it’s served – has considerable significance. During New Years, these buckwheat noodles are eaten as a way to help make that transition from one year to the next. In fact, their direction translation is “year crossing noodle”, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than food. Depending on where you are in Japan, the actual colloquial name for these noodles will differ (including kure, jyumyo, and unki), but the tradition is the same. Some people think it may have come about due to the fact that soba noodles are considered to be symbolic of long life, and the actual buckwheat plant which the noodle is derived from is quite hardy and can survive even the harshest winters.
Just like in North America, it’s hard to equate New Years without at least a little alcohol, and in Japan they take this to heart. However, rather than the raucous New Years parties that might happen in the United States, in Japan it is a much more solemn event which focuses on reflection (although you can easily find a bar where the festivities are sure to be in full swing, if that’s what you’re into). During this time, a favorite drink is otoso, which is medicinal sake. On the morning of the New Year the family each takes sips of the brew which is poured into three (often stacked) shallow drinking glasses. It’s not really enough to get your drunk, but more to celebrate being with family and wishing good fortunes and luck. In many Western areas of Japan some people will actually infuse their own sake, but you can also buy otoso at specialty shops as well.
In many parts of the world, Christmas trees are a well established holiday tradition, the idea being that Saint Nicholas (or Santa Clause) will place presents under it on Christmas Eve. While you’ll be hard pressed to find the same adherence to this holiday tradition in Japan, they have their own version of a Christmas tree. An okazari is a festive decorative item often constructed of bamboo. In many ways it resembles a wreath or little trinket. Another version is the kadomatsu, which is a bunch of fresh picked pine boughs which are left outside of homes as ‘landmarks’, since many ancient beliefs have gods inhabiting evergreen trees. Therefore it’s quite auspicious to have a landmark come New Years, just to make sure the gods make an appearance and bless the household.
In with the new, out with the old. While that may be a slogan for just about everyone for when it comes time to do spring cleaning, the Japanese get an early start on this and actively engage in susuharai during this time, which is a general cleaning of their house or living area. That means dusting and vacuuming everything until its spick and span, including taking out old tatami mats and replacing them, and even throwing out old furniture that may be broken. The principle behind this is that by getting rid of the dust from the old year, you’re making room for all the good things to enter your life in the new year. This definitely feels like a sensible approach to cleaning the house.
Joya no Kane
While we deliberately left out going to temples in our list, because it’s such a quintessential and well known tradition already, we still feel compelled to add this little gem. Joya no kane refers to the ringing of the belles in the temple, and since there is such a strong Buddhist majority in Japan, on New Years you can often hear throughout the city and country side the ringing of these gigantic bells which can weigh well over several tons. They are usually struck with a giant hammer made of a log and swung with thick sturdy ropes. You can expect to hear 108 of these tolls, as they represent the 108 human desires in Buddhist mythology which are said to be the cause of all human suffering, and each time the bell rings one of these desires is thought to be quelled.
The holidays are an excellent opportunity for media, and Japan is no exception in this case. Every New Years families huddle around the TV to watch famous seasonal programs. The most iconic is Kohaku Utagesen, which features lots of singing groups who compete for best singer. The groups are split into a white and red team and often gender-segregated, and has been a mainstay since the 50’s. Unfortunately in recent years the popularity of the show has dipped considerably, but there is still a following that tunes in every year.
Do You Even Dream, Bro?
One of the most interesting traditions – or rather beliefs – which I only learned of recently, is the significance placed on the first dream someone has in the new year. It is thought that whatever the person dreams of will symbolically represent how much luck they’ll have in the new year. Some popular motifs to ensure a healthy year include dreaming of a hawk or Mount Fuji. However, if you also dream of an eggplant, you’re destined to have an extremely auspicious year!
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