Matsuri Festivals: All there is to know about Japanese New Year

The Japanese New Year is far from shy when it comes to its celebrations. From food to fukubukuro, mochi to money, there are lots of traditions, celebrations and cultural practices that take place to welcome in the Japanese New Year. Japanese New Year is referred to as ‘Shōgatsu’ or ‘Oshōgatsu’ in Japan and is celebrated from December 31st until January 4th to give time for everyone to partake in the full variety of celebrations.

Osechi Ryori

As with lots of traditional Japanese festivals and celebrations, food is adapted and made to play a large role in the Japanese New Year celebrations. The food eaten during the New Year is referred to as ‘Osechi Ryori’. Traditionally, the food that is eaten is prepared similarly to that of a bento box. The Osechi Ryori is packed in 2-3 layers of lacquer boxes with many dishes lying in each layer. The multi-tiered nature of the boxes is meant to symbolise the hope that happiness and wealth will come continuously after the Japanese New Year, just like the layers of lacquerware. During the Japanese New Year, a wide selection of dishes are enjoyed during the celebrations that incorporate a variety of sweet, sour and dried foods. This choice of food is representative of past culinary Japanese traditions before households had refrigerators and when stores were closed for the holidays. The type of food showcased over the Japanese New Year differs from region to region, with each place having their own variations on traditional dishes and ingredients. The most traditional dishes to be eaten through the Japanese New Year include soup with mochi rice cake and sushi.

Otoshidama

One of the most interesting Japanese New Year traditions is the handing of money in an envelope to children, a tradition known as ‘Otoshidama’. During this tradition, money is given to the children in small decorative envelopes called ‘pochibukuro’. The amount of money that is given depends on the age of the child, though it is usually kept the same to remain fair if there is more than one child, with the value often being around ¥5,000, approximately £35. During the Edo period, large stores and wealthy families celebrated the Japanese New Year by giving out small bags of mochi and mandarin oranges to locals to help spread happiness during the New Year celebrations.

Goraku

Throughout the Japanese New Year, there are many sources of entertainment to participate in. Games like kite flying, spinning tops and karuta (a card game introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders during the mid 16th century) are customary Japanese New year games. Another form of entertainment takes place on New Years Day when the final of the Emperor’s Cup takes place in the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo; a tradition which has taken place on New Years Day since 1969. Similarly to Western culture, there are also a lot of television shows created as end-of-year and beginning-of-year specials for people to enjoy with their families at home.

Koshōgatsu

Koshōgatsu, or ‘the Little New Year’, is when the people of Japan celebrate the first full moon of the Japanese New Year, usually on the 15th day of the first lunar month. The main events of the Little New Year are the practices of praying for a bountiful harvest where rice gruel and adzuki beans are eaten. The involvement of eating rice is part of the rice gruel divination ceremony, a prediction of the year’s harvest based upon the number of grains that adhere to a stick. The Little New Year is also when the Japanese New Year decorations are taken down as the celebrations come to an end.

Hatsumode

Hatsumode is one of the more traditional Japanese New Year customs, it is the first shrine visit of the New Year. Many people visit a shrine on either the 1st, 2nd or 3rd of January in order to pay their respects and wish for a happy and healthy New Year. Hatsumode is a family event with many choosing to visit the shrines together. Another cultural tradition of the Japanese New Year is bell ringing. On New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples all across Japan ring their bells 108 times to symbolise the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief. Many Japanese people believe that the ringing of the bells can rid them of their sins from the previous year.

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