Being relative newcomers to Japan, taking part in oshogatsu celebrations is still a novelty for my children and I (although not my hubby obviously!) We recently returned from spending our second new year with my husband’s family in a rural part of Hyogo prefecture. Below is a recount of our first oshogatsu that I wrote for my personal blog.
Unlike the Chinese, Koreans and many other nations, the Japanese follow the calendar year rather than the lunar year for the New Year celebrations. The changing from the old year to the new year symbolizes a fresh start and the leaving of the bad feelings and luck from the previous years behind. Many people visit a Buddhist temple at midnight to help bang out the old and bring in the new – this year, Masa, Ren and I did this. It was a very cold walk up the mountain to the temple but once we arrived we were treated with a cup of warm Amazake, a traditional, low or non-alcoholic drink made from from fermented rice. To warm us up, ginger was added as ginger has warming qualities. We were also offered lollies and rice cakes which we had while we warmed up by the fire (and further convincing me that fires are the best way to warm up when it’s bloody freezing!!!) We were then invited to take turns to bang the enormous bell of the temple and given lollipops as a reward! The bell must chime 108 times around midnight – why 108 times? Buddhism dictacts that there are 108 sins and defilements that one must overcome and the Japanese believe by ringing the bell 108 times at midnight, they are banishing those sins allowing a fresh start for the new year. For me, it was a very serene and peaceful way to bring in the new year, as we were in the country, with few tall buildings, cars and nosie of any kind, combined with a still and cloudless night, we could hear the bells of the other temples in the area echoling through the valley. Ren said he felt happy and to us, he seemed very thoughtful and contemplated how 2013 might be different.
If you don’t go to the temple at midnight, or if you’re an insomniac, you can also go to a Shinto shrine to view the first sunset of the new year to welcome the new year. And if you like your sleep-ins, as many of us do, many Japanese still make an effort to visit a shrine or temple in the first few days of the New Year to pray and make a wish for the new year.
Food is also an important part of shogatsu celebrations. On New Year’s Eve it is custom to eat toshikoshisoba(buckwheat noodles), the length of the noodles represent longevity. On New Year’s Day osechi is eaten, a bento box of food made up of different foods that represent a hope for the upcoming year, like luck, fertility or wealth. Oesechi is usually preserved or long lasting foods as traditionally it was taboo to cook during the first 3 days of the new year.
Is osechi as nice as a hearty Christmas dinner? Mmm, no! It’s cold, not great on a cold morning and for the dedicated only. Or the Japanese. Of course, it’s accompanied by a cup of sake, cue my very ladylike gag at the breakfast table!
Kids look forward to Shogatsu because of Otoshidama. They are given money in a special envelope and this money is supposed to be their spending money for the year. The big drama is how much to give the kids. In Australia we try to be as equal as possible in the gifts we give the children, give or take a few dollars. Kids receive money until at least the end of high school, sometimes university. With otoshidama, the older you are, the more money you get. So we did Kai 3000 yen, Ren 2000 and Nao 1000. Of course this created dramas! “Why does Kai get more than us??” Important life lessons to learn about respecting your elders!
The other fun thing for kids is the traditional games, a big hit in our house was the koma, a kind of spinning top whereby you wind a string around a spinning top and let it go, seeing how long it can spin for. Ren and his classmates got really into it, playing with their koma’s every break time at school. Ren’s skill at skimming rocks has come in handy!
Mum to three very loud boys and wife to a patient Japanese man, I'm Australian and moved to the Kansai area in 2012. Aside from navigating all the craziness of being a mum in another country, I work semi-full time and try to keep my sanity! Of course I clean but I don't cook!