Thursday, December 30, 2010

Oshogatsu Wishes

While Christmas is king in the west, New Year (shogatsu or oshogatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan. Most businesses shut down from January 1 to January 3, and families gather to spend the days together. That's when the Toshigami, the Shinto god of the New Year, is said to drop by, bearing prosperity for the coming year. The Japanese decorate their houses, prepare feasts and break out bottles of saké.

After the traditional New Year's morning toast with special toso saké to purify and invigorate the body, out come the osechi, stacked boxes of artfully arranged preserved foods specific to the holiday season. Traditionally this is eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner for the following three days. (In modern times, many families restrict it to just a single meal, or bring them out as an accompaniment to a more varied feast.) Osechi-ryōri, typically shortened to osechi consists of boiled seaweed (kombu), fish cakes (kamaboko), mashed sweet potato with chestnut (kurikinton), simmered burdock root (kinpira gobo), and sweetened black soybeans (kuromame). Many of these dishes are sweet, sour, or dried, so they can keep without refrigeration—dating to a time before households had refrigerators, when most stores closed for the holidays.

Traditionally, years are viewed as completely separate, with each new year providing a fresh start. Consequently, all duties are supposed to be completed by the end of the year, while bonenkai parties ("year forgetting parties") are held with the purpose of leaving the old year's worries and troubles behind.

A kadomatsu (literally "gate pine") is a traditional Japanese decoration of the New Year placed in pairs in front of homes to welcome ancestral spirits or kami of the harvest. They are put into place after Christmas until January 7 and are considered temporary housing (shintai) for kami. Designs for kadomatsu vary but are typically made of pine, bamboo, and sometimes ume tree sprigs to represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness. After January 15 the kadomatsu is burned to appease the kami or toshigami and release them.

In another tradition, houses are cleaned for a fresh start on the new year.

At midnight on December 31, Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bells a total of 108 times to symbolize the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief, and to get rid of the 108 worldly desires regarding sense and feeling in every Japanese citizen. The belief is that the ringing of bells can rid you of sins committed during the previous year.

On New Year's Day, Japanese people have a custom of giving money to children. This is known as otoshidama. It is handed out in small decorated envelopes called 'pochibukuro'. In the Edo period large stores and wealthy families gave out a small bag of mochi and a Mandarin orange to spread happiness all around.

Another custom is creating rice cakes (mochi). Boiled sticky rice (mochigome) is put into a shallow bucket-like container and patted with water by one person while another person hits it with a large wooden mallet. Mashing the rice forms a sticky white dumpling. This is made before New Year's Day and eaten during the beginning of January.

Mochi is made into a New Year's decoration called kagami mochi, formed from two round cakes of mochi with a bitter orange (daidai) placed on top. The name daidai is supposed to be auspicious since it means "several generations."

Because of mochi's extremely sticky texture, there is usually a small number of choking deaths around New Year in Japan, particularly amongst the elderly. The death toll is reported in newspapers in the days after New Year.

Celebrating the new year in Japan also means paying special attention to the first time something is done in the new year.

Hatsuhinode is the first sunrise of the year. Before sunrise on January 1, people often drive to the coast or climb a mountain so that they can see the first sunrise of the new year.

Hatsumōde is the first trip to a shrine or temple. Many people visit a shrine after midnight on December 31 or sometime during the day on January 1. If the weather is good, people often dress up or wear kimono.

Other "firsts" that are marked as special events include shigoto-hajime (the first work of the new year), keiko-hajime (the first practice of the new year), hatsugama (the first tea ceremony of the new year), and the hatsu-uri (the first shopping sale of the new year).