Japanese New Years

Currently I’m back in the land of the rising sun, after a very enjoyable but extremely busy 2 week holiday back home.
The usual occurred – presents opened on Christmas Eve, a Lord of the Rings marathon on the 25th and the 26th, a top-ten New Year’s Eve playing charades and who am I at a friends’ house in London and then some quality time with my brothers in Nottingham.
As seems to have been the trend this schoolyear, some teachers at my school took advantage of my travels and the amount of times I had to repeat that story as a listening exercise made me almost sick of remembering it! As much as some kids understood the gist of the story, most of them were very surprised at the notion of Christmas presents.

They have heard of Christmas, and associate presents and decorated Christmas trees & Santa with it, but they don’t really understand it (as with all things foreign to Japanese people). In Japan, the main holiday is New Years, called oshoogatsu. Before New Year’s you wish someone “yoi otoshi yo” and after you say “akemashite omedetoo”. Kids, no matter what age, receive presents from their parents in the form of a fat wad of cash (called “otoshidama”) in an envelope (called “pochibukuro”) – Japan is, after all, a cash society. So when they think about Christmas they think about kids getting presents from Santa, but my teacher had to specifically explain to them that everyone in the family receives presents and you open them. When I was buying some Christmas presents and when looking for something for my grandmother, I explained who it was for that I was looking for and I heard many expressions giving off a feeling of surprise mixed with amazement (“sugoi” which means great, or “suteki”).
It is clearly not the fashion to buy things for your older relatives. In fact, Japanese mentality is such that once you have a family of your own, with a wife/husband and maybe even children, these have financial priority over anyone else in your previous “family group”.

New Year in Japan is more like Christmas back home, firstly in that it is a family event. They find it strange here that I spent New Year’s with friends. It is also a lot more solemn – very low key, with people visiting shrines (a ritual called “hatsumode” when they visit their 1st shrine of the new year) some waiting for the turn of the clock, or some just on New Year’s Day itself. They usually wish for good fortunes throughout the new year. Many Japanese people who visit foreign countries find the ritual of setting off fireworks to be very strange, as for them it’s just some fun rather than for a special festive occasion – not that anyone can outdo the Japanese with fireworks shows – just go to one of the many that are held every summer!
They have their own kind of cards, nengajoo, which have the symbol of the Chinese year on it, this year having been the year of the tiger. The reason for this is that until 1873 the Japanese used the Chinese lunar calendar but during the Meiji restoration period they adopted the Gregorian calendar so they still count with Chinese years but they celebrate it on the same day as us. (To make matters even more complicated, for official documents they don’t put years like we do e.g. 2010, but they count in years of the reigning emperor – now we’re in Heisei 22 (so the date would be 22-month-day)). Often the messages read: I hope for your favour again in the coming year, or happiness to you on the dawn of a new year.

They also have a lot of special food associated with New Year, one of which is called “osechi” – each ingredient has a special meaning and it’s made with sweet potato, fish cakes and chestnuts. Another common dish is the rice cake – or “mochi” (sometimes called “omochi”). This is pound rice, and you cook it either as “ozoni” – this stretchy rice cake in a fish broth with chicken, eating for breakfast on new years – or sweet, such as dipped in kineki powder (beige powder tasting a little like green tea, bitter) called “kinekimochi”, dipped in soy sauce with sugar and wrapped in seaweed “yakimochi”, or drenched in sweetened red beans called “zenzai”. The strangest thing they do with these mochi is that they actually have some (called “kagami mochi”) that they put out for decorations, topped with a bitter orange (called “daidai”) purely for decorative purposes and is supposed to give you many years to come.

So that’s the Japanese way of celebrating New Years. I did not have the fortune to experience it this year (though I was more than happy to go home and get some normality!) I most likely will next year – I’ll keep you all posted.

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