The New Year celebrations consist of a series of traditional family and religious observances, which last for days. It is a time of starting fresh, of purification. Preparations for New Year’s Day, a major holiday in Japan, begin in late December. After thoroughly cleaning the house and garden, possible even replacing old tatami mats or shoji paper panels with new ones, New Year’s decorations are put up. These decorations often include a shimenawa, kadomatsu, shimekazari and a special altar, known as toshidana.
You will often find shimenawa, a twisted straw rope with white paper strips representing cloth offerings, hung over doorways or at the entrances of shrines. It announces the presence of the gods and keeps evil spirits out. The kadomatsu, made of pine branches, straw, bamboo stalks, and sometimes plum branches, is placed at the front gate or doorway. It symbolizes prosperity, good health, vigor and longevity. Its size indicates how prosperous the year was for that household. Shimekazari represent the crops of the harvest, offered in appreciation for past good harvests and for bountiful ones in the coming year. The toshidana, a special altar, is placed in the tokonoma or alcove of the main room of the house. It consists of two kagami-mochi (large round rice cakes), set one on top of the other, and decorated with dried persimmons, a tangerine, dried seaweed, or other fruits or vegetables.
New Year’s is a time to clear all debts and obligations, although this is a moral obligation and not a legal requirement. Gifts are sent to superiors, friends and relatives to express gratitude. Personally designed New Year’s cards are addressed and taken to the post office before the end of December. These cards are then delivered during the first three days of January. Businessmen may send as many as 400 New Year’s postcards. Cards are not sent to anyone who has had a death in the family during the previous year. A much-anticipated moment for children is when otoshidama envelopes are handed to them by parents, relatives, and close family friends. These envelopes contain a cash present of crisp bills.
There are many traditional dishes that are prepared for the New Year’s holiday, and the first meal is a great event. Many dishes are served, including carp, the fish honored because of it’s stamina; black beans because the Japanese name is pronounced the same as the word meaning “robust”; white radishes and dried seaweed for happiness; and lotus root, considered a sacred plant. These special dishes along with other foods like salmon, fish cakes, herring roe, and mashed chestnuts are prepared ahead of time and placed within a tripletiered container to be served to family and guests, cold. Warm o-zoni, a broth containing vegetables and rice cakes, may also be served.
Mochi, a thick, chewy rice cake, is made on the 30th day of December by pounding cooked rice into a gooey paste, then forming it into balls. It is pounded in a large wooden mortar, outdoors, by two or three men using long-handled mallets. Mochi can be served in many different ways: with meat, in soups, or with a sweet, red bean paste in the middle. It seems to be unique to Japan, and foreigners may have difficulty acquiring a taste for it. Nowadays, mochi can be purchased in stores, or made at home by machine, so the traditional way is less often practiced.
New Year’s Eve is traditionally spent at home watching end-of-the-year television shows and spending time with family. Families eat toshikoshi soba, “passing year:” noodle soup. At midnight, every temple bell in Japan is rung 108 times (possibly symbolizing man’s 108 kinds of selfish worldly desires, or to count the 108 beads on an official Buddhist rosary). The last reverberation of the bells signifies that everyone can start the New Year with a clean slate. At midnight, dawn or some other time during the first three days of January, many families dress in beautiful kimonos and make the first visit to a shrine or temple. Prayers are offered for good health and good fortune in the coming year. Some good places to observe the New Year’s activities are the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Yamaguchi Kannon, near Seibu-en and Takahata Fudo Temple in Hino.
On January 2, a special daruma ceremony is held at Haijima Daishi Temple (just off Rt. 16). Many people bring their old darumas and burn them at a fire at the shrine. New darumas and hamaya arrows (to ward of evil) can be purchased. When you buy a daruma, make a wish and color in one of the eyes. If the wish comes true, color in the other eye. At the end of the year, the old doll is usually burned and a new one purchased, whether or not both eyes are colored in. Traditional games are often played during New Year’s, including tako-age (kite flying), hanetsuki (Japanese badminton using a wooden paddle, a shuttle cock made of soapberry seeds and feathers, and no net), karuta (card games), and koma (tops). A game known as Fukuwari is played when a blindfolded player attempts to draw the eyes, nose, and mouth on a piece of paper which has the outline of a face drawn on it. The greeting, “Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu” continues to be exchanged through the 6th of January. On the 7th, the holidays officially conclude. Decorations are taken down, and nanakusa-gaya, “seventh-day porridge” containing 7 herbal greens, is served.
During the second or third week of January, giant teepees made of pine branches and New Year’s decorations are burned on the banks of the Tama River after a ceremony. Since there is no set date, have a Japanese-speaking friend call the Fussa or Hamura City Hall. You can see the teepees about a week before the burning ceremony. To get there, turn right out the Fussa Gate onto Rt. 16 then turn left at Tanaka’s Olde Crock Shoppe. Go 1.6 km and turn left onto Okutama Kaido, which runs along the Tama River. Go for 1.7 km (5 lights) and turn left across the canal. Turn right at the Tama River, drive past the walking bridge on your left, and park at the dam at the bottom of the hill. The best place to stand is on the walking bridge, unless the wind is blowing in that direction. Barbara Kirkwood, Christine Thomas, Karen Ozment, Melody Hostetler, Rita Mayer
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