Celebrate New Year's in the Oshogatsu tradition
New Year’s, or oshogatsu, is one of Japan’s most important and longest holidays.
Although oshogatsu originally referred to the whole month of January, most people associate it with the first three days (sanga nichi) of the month. On these days, people go to shrines or temples, spend time with friends and relatives while drinking sake and eat special New Year’s dishes.
Throughout these days, the bustling Japanese economy practically comes to a standstill. Schools, companies and shops close down, and trains, planes and highways are packed as millions make their way to their hometowns or other travel destinations.
This year, most Japanese office workers will take at least five consecutive days off from Dec. 30 to Jan. 3. According to the Japan Association of Travel Agents, while many are heading to their hometowns, others will be taking trips to some popular domestic destinations, including Okinawa, Tokyo, Kyushu, Tokai and Kyoto. And others will pack Japan’s airports to head to Hawaii, Taiwan, Thailand Singapore and Guam.
Huge cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya take on an almost eerie quietness until the great rush back home and return to work.
Although most shops and restaurants are closed in these big cities, some foreigners may find it the perfect time to check out the landscape. A walk down any quiet street in these cities reveals a fascinating blend of old and new.
You can see “kadomatsu” (gate pines made from bamboo stalks and pine boughs) standing beside the shuttered entrances of skyscrapers and “shimekazari” (straw ropes strung with little angular strips of white paper) hanging across the front of parking lots, supermarkets or shopping malls. Both Kadomatsu and shimekazari are believed to purify the entrance and invite new and fresh life into the home and workplace. On New Year’s Day, it is believed that Toshigami, the god of time and fertility, will enter homes and bring good luck for the coming year.
Since 1873, New Year’s has been celebrated according to the Gregorian solar calendar in Japan, although it was originally celebrated according to the lunar calendar. Actually, many regions on Okinawa, such as Itoman, Uruma and Tamagusuku village in Nanjo city, celebrate New Year’s according to the lunar calendar, just the same as many other Asian countries. New Year’s on the lunar calendar for 2016 is Feb. 8.
“Towns with fishing ports will usually celebrate the new year in accordance with the lunar calendar, although a majority of Okinawans celebrate it in accordance with the solar calendar,” said Shuko Kinjo of Okinawa Tourism Bureau.
On Okinawa, New Year’s Day is called “soguwachi”. Okinawans begin celebrating New Year’s by scooping water from a well in the morning. This first water of the year is called, “wakamiji” (literally young water). The water is often made into tea and offered to the ancestors, or can also be used to clean the body as it is believed to help rejuvenate the spirit and restore youth. The tradition of “hachiukushi” (start of business for the year) is observed on Jan. 3. While farmers clean and purify the farming tools and wish for a rich harvest and prosperity in the new year, fishermen decorate their boats with big-catch, wishing for safety in the sea and large catches. Jan. 16 is called “jurukunichi” and considered as New Year’s for the dead. Okinawans usually visit their family cemetery and offer foods to the souls of their ancestors on this day.
New Year's foods
Traditional New Year’s foods are prepared in advance to minimize cooking and household chores during the holiday.
Osechi-ryori, a special selection of food, is prominently featured at most New Year’s sittings. This includes boiled “konbu” (seaweed), “kamaboko” (fish cakes), “kurikinton” (mashed sweet potato with chestnut), “kinpiragobo” (simmered burdock root), “kuromame” (sweetened black soybeans) and “ebi” (shrimp). Many of these dishes are sweet, sour, or dried, so they can keep fresh without refrigeration.
Mochi, a thick, gooey rice cake, is prepared so that it can be served as ozoni (soup with mochi and vegetables) for breakfast, lunch or any other time during the holidays.
Sashimi and sushi are often eaten, along with various non-Japanese foods. To let the overworked stomach rest, “nanakusagayu” (seven-herb rice soup) is prepared on Jan. 7 when the New Year’s decorations are removed.
On Okinawa, dishes with seaweed and taro, such as “kubuirichi” (stir-fried seaweed) and “kubumaki” (seaweed roles), along with “nakamijiru” (stewed offal) are popular as New Year’s foods.
Viewing and wishing upon the rising sun is “hatsuhinode”, one of the most popular New Year’s traditions. If weather allows, you should check it out. In Tokyo, observation decks on the Tokyo Tower and Sunshine City are two of the most popular hatsuhinode spots. On these observation decks, you can see the sun rising around 6:50 a.m. on Jan. 1. If you want to enjoy it in a quiet atmosphere, take a three-hour drive down to Cape Inubo-saki in Choshi City, Chiba Prefecture, where you can view the earliest sunrise (6:45 a.m.) on the Kanto Plain.
On Okinawa, Cape Hedo-misaki (kunigami-gun) and Kaichu Doro (Uruma City) are the two most popular spots for hatsuhinode. Sunrise at these spots will be at 7:15 a.m.
Nengajo and Otoshidama
Even with the recent trend of using email to carry the greetings, exchanging New Year’s cards, called “nengajo”, remains very popular in Japan. Try sending one to your Japanese friends. Be sure to handwrite names and addresses, even if you used your PC and printer to make the cards. Then, mark the postcard with the word “NENGAJO” in red and send it out before Dec. 25. This way, the postman will be able to deliver them on time.
Japanese give money in small decorated envelopes called “pochibukuro” to children on New Year’s Day, which is called “otoshidama” (literally New Year’s present). The amount of money given depends on the age, but it is uncommon for amounts greater than 10,000 yen ($100) to be given.
Heavy traffic during holidays
Actually, heavy traffic is common at the beginning and the end of the holiday season, both on expressways and general roads, as a result of people traveling to their hometowns or tourist attractions. According to the Japan Traffic Information Center, heavy traffic is expected to peak on various expressways around big cities on Dec. 30-31 (outbound) and Jan. 2-3 (inbound).
The heaviest traffic for expressways is expected on Tomei Expressway (inbound) around the Yamato Tunnel near Naval Air Facility Atsugi from Jan. 2-3. You can expect traffic jams to stretch more than 22 miles long, according to Nippon Expressway Company.
On trains, the peak of the traffic is expected on Dec. 30 (outbound for Tohoku and Hokuriku regions) and Dec. 31 (outbound for Kansai region) and Jan. 2 and 3 (inbound), according to JR East.
So, if you are planning to take a domestic trip during the holidays, avoid these most crowded dates and check the traffic information as frequently as possible. Road Bureau traffic updates are available online at: www.mlit.go.jp/road/traffic