A Traveler’s Thought: On Japanese New Years
One benefit of a multi-cultural marriage/relationship is not only that you get to observe your own culture from another person’s perspective as you explain to them what the different rituals are, but you also realize you haven’t the first clue about why you practice what you practice.
In being pressed to answer my husband why I continue to feel weird wishing people, “A Happy New Year!” before the new year in the U.S., I realized that the typical Japanese seasonal greeting, “Akemashite omedetougozaimasu (明けましておめでとう）”is only said after the new year starts, because its meaning is more “congratulations on having welcomed the new year” rather than “wishing you a happy new year”.
Like American Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations, preparations for welcoming the new year starts days before January 1:
- The “big clean (oosouji, 大掃除): The Japanese “spring cleaning” takes place towards the end of the year, where deep cleaning is conducted (from degreasing the kitchen vents to washing the window screens). This ritual is consistent with the Shinto belief which places purity as priority. The household should be clean to start off the new year fresh.
- The tolling bell ceremony (jyoya no kane, 除夜の鐘): To match the cleanliness of your house, we also cleanse ourselves spiritually. The Buddhist temple bells are struck 108 times on new year’s eve, right before midnight, where each of the bells are supposed to symbolize a sin committed during the year. With each bell, we are to atone each sin. Too cold to get out of the house? Most TV channels broadcast the bells so you can rid of your sins from the comfort of your own kotatsu, a low table outfitted with a heating element underneath, covered with a comforter to trap the heat.
- Eating the “year-crossing” noodle (toshikoshi soba, 年越し蕎麦). It might look like the typical buckwheat noodle in soup, but the year-crossing noodles are longer to wish for longevity. These noodles are eaten right before midnight as well (you know, because atoning your sins take a lot of calories).
- Preparing the new year cuisine (osechi ryouri, おせち料理). My husband have explained this practice as a rule where one can’t cook anything in the first 3 days of the new year, so you cook up a storm before hand. It’s not how I would characterize it. The first 3 days of the new year is special (as with many non-American cultures, major celebrations take more than a day), and to make sure you don’t have to cook during that time, a special new year cuisine is prepared. The ingredients are rich in symbolism to wish for a prosperous year (e.g., the menu includes shrimp, whose curved back symbolizes longevity) and the preparation methods minimize any heating up and are designed to keep fresh for a long time (e.g., small fish caramelized in sugar).
- The “mirror” rice cake (kagami mochi, 鏡餅) arrangement is displayed as a new year decoration. On a base of a large rice cake, a smaller rice cake is stacked with a type of citrus fruit on top. Mirror is one of the sacred items in the Shinto religion, and the original citrus fruit they used originally (no longer available), dai dai, is a homonym for “generation, generation”, symbolizing the prosperity of the family line. Unlike the American Christmas decorations where people don’t seem to have a good feel for when they should come down, there is a definite expiration date for the mirror cakes: January 11 is “mirror opening” (kagami biraki, 鏡開き) where the mochi is eaten. Yay, to edible decorations that are put away promptly (albeit to your waist line).
When I was a kid in Japan, I didn’t care for osechi, nor did I know why the mochi decoration referred to a mirror. It’s true that we learn and appreciate things (a subject or a cultural practice) more deeply when we have to teach it to someone else. It is also true that the heart grows fonder, even for practices you didn’t particularly care for, when you are away.
Photo: osechi made by my mother for this year’s celebrations. It is traditional to plate the delicacies in stackable lacquered boxes. Yes, the clear bottle on the side does contain hot sake (atsukan). [Photo credit: Koua Nagashima; chef and food stylist: Atsuko Nagashima]