Kick off a New Year in Japan’s Oshogatsu style
Kick off a New Year in Japan’s Oshogatsu style
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 six consecutive days off from Dec. 29 to Jan. 3. Due to COVID-19, officials are discouraging travel during the holidays, but many are still expected to head to their hometowns and various attractions. Keep this in mind if you do decide to travel. 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.
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.
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 6:47 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 (6:46 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 7:16 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
Heavy traffic is expected at the beginning and end of the holiday season. Plan ahead and avoid areas where there may be crowds. According to the Japan Traffic Information Center, heavy traffic is expected to peak on various expressways around big cities on Dec. 28-29 (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. 28 and 29 (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
Celebrate the new year with Yoseue by Shoji Kudaka
Fireworks, parties, gifts and musical events may be the first things that come to mind for a New Year’s celebration. But for many people in Okinawa or mainland Japan, it is also means a time to get hands on with a traditional craft.
Yoseue (group planting) is a form of gardening where different plants are put in a single pot or a container. It is also sometimes referred to as bonsai art.
In Japan, it is common to celebrate each season by putting together several seasonal plants for a Yoseue. Especially when January rolls around, it becomes a perfect item for a New Year’s celebration.
On mainland Japan, a Yoseue for the new year is most typically made with Shou Chiku Bai (pine, bamboo, Japanese apricot), which are known as a trio of plants valued in celebrations. On Okinawa, there are sub-tropical plants that live up to such happy moments.
Wherever you are located, the tradition of Yoseue makes for beautiful New Year’s holiday.
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