We have already given you a short introduction into how Christmas is celebrated in Japan. You might have already expected it, but today we want to continue our overview of holiday traditions with an explanation of the Japanese New Year.
Some of you might have been surprised about how Christmas isn’t really celebrated that much in Japan. New Year, on the other hand, is a big celebration that has many unique traditions reaching way back into the early history of the country. We want to give you a quick overview over some of them and allow you to get some insight into Japanese culture. Enjoy!
Japanese people love their get-togethers where you can splurge on good food, good drinks and good company. New Year definitely isn’t an exception to the rule. The word for an end of the year party is bonenkai which literally translates to “forget the year gathering”. They are held in almost any company anytime during the last weeks of December. While there aren’t that many traditions or activities that make a bonenkai different from a common nomikai (飲み会, drinking party), the atmosphere is still festive and often you give and receive small presents to and from your coworkers.
There are many traditional meals associated with New Year, more than many foreigners might know of. The most famous ones include soba noodles, which are supposed to symbolize a long and healthy life. Another common snack are mochi, round rice cakes, that are made from pounding white rice until it turns into a sticky dough. Traditional mochi are filled with anko, sweet red bean paste, but there are many variations including non-sweet versions like radish mochi.
A complete meal consisting of several smaller dishes in a bento-like box is called osechi and traditionally eaten together with your family after the New Year. Each item has a specific meaning behind it and symbolizes wishes for the next year such as health, good luck, wealth or a long life.
For Japanese kids New Year means one thing in particular: otoshidama. They are small envelopes filled with money that are given to kids all around the country on that special day. The amount of money received depends on each family, but they are usually rather small amounts that are just meant to make the children happy and give them the chance to buy candies or toys with their own money.
You might think that sending postcards at the end of the year is a common practice anywhere in the world. Japan, however, brings this tradition to a whole new level. Postcards sent on New Year are called nengajo and if you send them out early enough are guaranteed to arrive on January 1st. Often they are decorated with the Chinese zodiac sign of the coming year while still leaving enough space to add a handwritten message for family and friends.
Each nengajo has a unique number written in a corner that allows the receiver to participate in an annual lottery: the Japanese post system announces the winning numbers at the beginning of January and the lucky winners can either get monetary prices or small goodie bags and special New Year’s stamps.
Shrines and temples
Last but not least, new year is also a spiritual event in Japan that includes visiting your local shrine or temple and praying for a successful and happy year. Hatsumode is the name for the first shrine visit of a new year and is often done within the first week of January. Shrine visits do not necessarily follow a strict protocol, but most people choose to offer money in order to receive good luck. The coins traditionally used for this action are 5 Yen coins since you are supposedly able to see into a great future through the hole in the middle of the coin. Other activities include getting a reading for your future or buying new good-luck charms. Especially daruma dolls are very popular since they are ceremoniously burned at temples at the end of the year and need to be replaced by a new one as soon as possible.
Welcoming the New Year right is a big part of Japanese culture. As you could see, there are many different aspects and traditions that set the Japanese way of celebrating apart from the traditions of other countries. In fact, New Year might be the only time during the year that you will find ATMs, banks and restaurants closed in a country that is used to working without taking any breaks.
What do you think of Japanese New Year traditions and how do you celebrate the end of December in your country? Let us know in the comment section down below.