New Year's Day is one of the most important holidays in Japan, and mindfulness takes center stage over drinking champagne and watching the ball drop in Times Square. Learn about how Japanese celebrate the days leading up to the new year. Japanese New Year’s celebrations are held over a four-day period (December 31 – January 3), but before the festivities begin, there are several important steps to start the new year off right.
New Year's Greetings (Nengajō)
It's customary to send a New Year's card to your friends, family, and neighbors, so make sure you get your greeting cards ready with plenty of time to spare. You can often find New Year's cards with the phrase 謹賀新年 Kinga Shin'nen ("Happy New Year") or the Chinese Zodiac Animals (We have high expectations for 2024, the Year of the Dragon).
The Big Clean
You’re probably used to spring cleaning, but it is more common in Japan to clean one’s home from December 13-28, known as Oosōji (big cleaning). Housecleaning was even mandated by law under a set of provisions known as the Engishiki during the Heian period in the late 10th century, not only as a means of preventing disease but as a ritualistic gesture.
This tradition continues to be practiced today, even in small apartments. We don’t mean just a quick sweep, but everything from wiping down the windows, discarding old belongings, and cleaning out the air conditioner. There are several companies that will offer a full cleaning of your home at a price for those who are short on time.
Not only does a thorough clean of your home rid it of pesky dust and help you scrounge up the loose change under your sofa, it’s also considered good manners to welcome lucky deities to your home for the new year.
Decorating your Home Japanese-Style
You may be familiar with Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion based on the concept of kami – deities that inhabit all things and cultivate harmony between people and the environment.
One of these deities, Toshigami-sama, is believed to visit each household on New Year’s Day to bring blessings for a plentiful harvest and happiness for the new year, but you need to spruce up your home to encourage him to visit.
Let’s go over three decorations to ensure you’re Japanese New Year-ready:
Kadomatsu has three large pieces of bamboo and pine and is used to welcome Toshigami-sama into your home. Pine trees are believed to house deities’ spirits. Bamboo points straight up into the sky and is believed to let your personal troubles pass.
Kadomatsu is often decorated with plum flowers and flowering kale – plum flowers for their durability and bright color, and kale because its ever-expanding leaves symbolize growing fortune. Put it up on any day after Christmas until January 7 when Toshigami-sama leaves but avoid December 29 (9 is unlucky) and 31 (Procrastinating is considered impolite).
Shimekazari is made of rope (similar to those used on Shinto shrines) and traditionally hung on your front door. It is said to both keep evil spirits out and welcome Toshigami-sama into your home.
Most shimekazari include ferns, zigzag paper streams, and a mandarin orange, representing purity, holiness, and prosperity. This decoration should also be put up until Toshigami-sama leaves on January 7.
Kagami mochi includes two large mochi rice cakes topped with a mandarin orange. You can place multiple kagami mochi around your home for good luck, such as your kitchen or bedroom. The best part is, this decoration is edible!
It’s customary on January 11 to smash the kagami mochi into little pieces and share with the whole family, with each piece said to have a bit of Toshigami-sama’s spirit. Try toasting the mochi or enjoy it in a bowl of ozōni or zenzai, two popular Japanese New Year’s soups!
But before we can celebrate New Year’s Day, it’s time to enjoy New Year’s Eve, also known as Omizoni.
New Year's Eve (Omizoni)
Joya no Kane (Midnight Bell)
You may know that Shinto and Buddhism are the most commonly practiced religions in Japan. For many years, these religions were practiced together, often at the same places of worship, under an integrated system known as Shinbutsu Shogo.
It wasn't until 1868 that the two were separated by government to create a national religion, but many Japanese continue to practice both Shinto and Buddhist customs. One of the customs that has been passed down from Zen Buddhism is ringing a temple bell known as a bonshō on December 31 to ward off bad luck.
Known as a Joya no Kane, it is common for temple monks to ring the bell a grand total of 108 times, beginning at around 11 p.m. until midnight. There are different theories as to where the number 108 came from, but they generally represent worldly attachments. Ringing the bell is said to bring a sense of clarity and mindfulness for the new year.
After completing your major household cleaning during Oosōji, haki-osame is a lighter cleaning of your home as a final measure to prepare your home for deities to bring good luck in the New Year.
You should avoid cleaning your home on New Year’s Day so you don’t accidentally cleanse away any good blessings (Remember that according to Shinto belief, kami inhabit all objects). Don’t worry, your day off from cleaning is nigh!
Toshikoshi Soba (New Year’s Eve Buckwheat Noodles) is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve and includes a hot bowl of soba noodles in a katsuo dashi broth, topped with a pink and white kamaboko fish cake and shrimp tempura. The phrase toshikoshi means to “welcome the new year.”
Soba noodles are used for their long shape and distinctive bite, symbolizing a long, healthy life with quick relief from natural disasters. Buckwheat grows well in sunlight and is resistant to the elements, and it is believed that eating soba noodles will bring along some of those health benefits to you. Eating this dish with the whole family helps spread the good fortune.
Toshikoshi soba is traditionally topped with shrimp tempura due to a shelled shrimp's resemblance to an elderly person with a curved spine and long whiskers. While we don’t wish back pain upon you, eating shrimp is said to encourage a long, healthy life. (Shrimp is also featured in another New Year’s dish, but more on that later).
It’s also often topped with a slice of pink and white kamaboko fish cake. Pink and white are similar to Japan’s national colors, red and white, signifying good luck and purity.
Toshi no Yu
Why not wash away the stress of the previous year at a hot spring? Image via Adobe
Taking a hot bath on New Year’s Eve is called Toshi no Yu and is said to cleanse yourself of all the bad vibes of the previous year and start anew. It’s considered wasteful to bathe while the sun is still up on New Year’s Day as you are blessed with so much good fortune on January 1, so enjoy a thorough soak before the busy and inevitably sweat-inducing New Year’s activities!
How are you getting ready for the new year? Let us know in the comments!