Year End and the New Year

A variety of traditional practices can be observed in Japan at the end of the year and the start of a New Year. For example, on New Year's Eve, known as Omisoka, many Japanese will eat soba (buckwheat) noodles. Called toshikoshi soba (year-crossing noodles), these noodles symbolize the hope that the family's good fortunes will continue long -like the noodles- throughout the year to come.

As midnight approaches, temple bells throughout the country are rung 108 times to dispel the 108 earthly desires that, according to Buddhist belief, plague humanity. Called Joya no kane, the distant ring of the temple bells heralds in the New Year.

はつもうで Hatsumode (First shrine or temple visit of the year)
Beginning right at midnight on New Year's Eve, large numbers of people go to pay their respects at shrines and temples. Referred to as hatsumode, this is an annual ritual even for those who normally do not visit to shrines or temples during the rest of the year. In 2001, approximately 58.5 million Japanese paid their respects to the gods in this way over the first three days of the new year. The most popular shrines and temples visited were: Meiji Shrine (Tokyo 3.26 million visitors); Naritasan Shinshoji (Chiba, 2.89 million); Kawasaki Taishi (Kanagawa, 2.85 million); Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto, 2.55 million); Sumiyoshi Taisha (Osaka, 2.43 million); Atsuta Jingu (Aichi, 2.17 million); Tsuruoka Hachimangu (Kanagawa, 1.98 million); Dazaifu Tenmangu (Fukuoka, 1.96 million); Omiya Hikawa Jinja (Saitama, 1.83 million); and Sensoji (Tokyo, 1.71 million). Throwing money into a large offering box, visitors pray for good fortune in the new year. At shrines it is customary to clap before praying, and at temples incense is usually offered.

おみくじ Omikuji
Many people draw their fortunes on their first visit of the year to a shrine or temple. Typically, a stick is shaken out of a container and then one is given a piece of paper corresponding to the number on the stick. Fortunes written on the piece of paper range from Daikichi (Great Good Fortune), Kichi (Good Fortune), Chukichi (Medium Good Fortune), and Shokichi (Small Good Fortune), to Kyo (Bad Fortune) and Daikyo (Great Bad Fortune). A inauspicious Kyo or Daikyo fortune may be folded into a strip and tied onto a tree within the shrine or temple grounds in the hopes that misfortune can be averted. Omikuji fortune telling is said to have originated 900 years ago with the Kannon kuji created by the Tendai sect monk, Jikei Taishi.

えま Ema
Ema are wooden plaques on which wishes are inscribed. Like the omikuji, the ema is usually tied to a special rack within the shrine or temple precincts, in this case in the hopes that the wish will come true. Since ancient times, the horse has been considered the steed of the gods and it was common practice to offer a live horse to a shrine at special times, such as a festival. The ema with its picture of a horse on a wooden plaque was meant to be a symbolic offering, and its use became widespread sometime after the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Since that time, the ema has borne a wide variety of pictures besides that of a horse.

しょうがつをいわう Celebrating the New Year
The ways of celebrating the new year vary by region. A common practice is to place kadomatsu, a special New Year decoration, at the entrance to the house, to guide the gods into the home at the start of the New Year. Types of kadomatsu vary from simple pine branches to elaborate arrangements of pine, bamboo, and plum. Inside the house, a kagamimochi-made of two flat, round cakes of mochi, usually a small mound on top of a large one--is prominently displayed. In homes with a kamidana or house shrine, a sacred rope called a shimenawa may be placed across the altar to protect its sacredness.

Even the food at New Year's time is special. Ozoni is a kind of soup, either clear broth or with miso, containing mochi, vegetables, meat or fish. Every region and household has its own special kind of ozoni. O-sechi is a decorative arrangement of special New Year's foods prepared ahead of time and packed in lacquer boxes. Ingredients include simmered vegetables, fish, fish-paste products, and black beans.

Another New Year's ritual is that of the kakizome, the first calligraphy of the year. Elementary school children commonly do a kakizome as part of their homework for the winter holidays. The custom of New Year's calligraphy dates back to the ancient practice of writing auspicious poetry on the second day of the New Year.

While the traditional practices are still preserved to some degree, people now spend the New Year's holidays in more diverse ways. Many travel overseas, go skiing, or spending time at well-known sightseeing or recreation spots visit. In 2001, over the first three days of the New Year, more than 100,000 people visited such places as Tokyo Disneyland, the Naeba ski slopes, and the Shiga Kogen ski slopes in Nagano prefecture. Another 150,000 visited Inubozaki on the Choshi Peninsula in Chiba prefecture to see the first sunrise of the year. The traditional O-sechi, too, has become more comprehensive, now including Chinese and Western-style dishes.

Kojien, 5thEdition. Edited by Niimura Izuru. Iwanami Shoten, 1998.
Nihon matsuri to nenju gyoji jiten [Encyclopedia of Japanese festivals and annual events].Edited by Kurabayashi Masaji. Ofusha, 1983.
Encyclopedia of Japan, Kodansha International, 1999

The Japan Forum Newsletter No.15, "A Day in the Life: Toshikoshi" (PDF)

The Japan Forum Newsletter No.12, "A Day in the Life: Nengajo" (PDF)








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