Cultral Calendar 4


In Europe and North America Christmas is one of the biggest annual events, but here in Japan New Year's is, by far, the most important and elaborate holiday. In recent years, the significance of New Year's has been lost a lot and now many people spend the holiday, which starts around Dec. 30 and ends around Jan. 3, in resort areas or even in foreign countries. Still, a great number of people spend the sacred holiday with family members at home and celebrate the beginning of the new year. Towards the end of the year things get hectic as there are many things to do to prepare for New Year's. First people go through what is called osoji (spring cleaning). They do it near the end of the year because they believe it is the time to purify everything so that one can make a fresh start for the coming twelve months. A great deal of time is spent cleaning up houses, shops and offices. However, osoji didn't use to be merely a thorough cleaning, but had a religious significance of purification. Traditionally, this cleaning, known as susu harai, was done on December 13 as a rite to prepare to welcome Toshigami (god of the incoming year). To understand Japanese New Year's, it is important to know that the New Year's celebration in Japan centers around the belief that at the end of the year Toshigami visits every house, bringing blessings to them. After osoji is completed, very near the end of the year, kadomatsu, New Year's decorations made up of pine tree branches, are put up at the gates of the houses. Shimekazari, sacred straw festoons, are hung above the front door and kagamimochi, a tier of two rice cakes shaped like round mirrors, are offered on the household altar or in the alcove of the main room.

A house finished with decorations and ready for a new year.... Kadomatsu is an arrangement
of tree sprigs used to decorate the gate to the house at New Year's. Although there are regional variations in the type of tree used and places where these arrangements are displayed, it is commonly an arrangement featuring pine that is placed on the gate posts. Originally this custom was observed to welcome toshigami, but these days it is hardly thought of that way, and is just seen as a decoration.

Although there is a wide variety of Shimekazairi, it in general is a decoration made of a rope of straw with dangling white paper strips called shide. Shimekazari are hung over (or on) the front door of the house to mark the temporary dwelling place of the toshigami and to prevent malevolent spirits from entering the house. Just like kadomatsu, shimekazari too is seen just as a decoration these days. Kagamimochi, as you can see, is a smaller round mochi (rice cake) with an orange on top,placed on a larger one on a stand called sampo. It is an offering for toshigami.With a more formal kagamimochi, kelp,dried persimmon, lobster and other things believed to bring good luck are used to decorate it. On kagami biraki (Jan. 11) they are taken down to be eaten.
One thing that will probably amuse first time visitors of Japan during New Year's is the cars with shimekazari in front. These days you don't see very many of them but still some people put it on the front of their car in the hope of traffic safety. A more formal kadomatsu placed in front of an office.

Joya no Kane

Even though omisoka (New Year's Eve) marks the grand finale of the year, there are almost no New Year's Eve parties often seen in other countries. In fact, omisoka in Japan takes on quite a solemn atmosphere. For many families it is a time to share a quiet evening,have toshikoshi soba(year-bridging noodles), and hear joya no kane (New Year bells).

In Japan, toshikoshi soba (year-bridging noodle), made from buckwheat flour, is a must on new Year's Eve. Even though there are some theories as to how this custom of having noodles began, a popular notion is that long noodles made from the highly elastic soba dough will lengthen and extend one's life and luck.

At this temple, visitors were allowed to ring the bell.

No New Year's Eve is complete without
hearing jyoya no kane (New Year Bells) Beginning on New Year's Eve and continuing into New Year's Day, bells in Buddhist temples throughout Japan are rung 108 times to announce the passing of the old year and the coming of the new. Buddhism teaches that people have 108 earthly desires or passions that cause human suffering, so the bell is rung 108 times ; with each toll of the
bell, one desire is dispelled.


The most common custom still observed during New Year's is
definitely hatsumode. The word hatsumode refers to a person's first visit to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple to pray for a good new year.Originally people visited the shrine or temple located in the direction from their homes considered to be the most auspicious that year and this practice was called ehoomairi. Today, however, it has become more common to visit the larger and more famous shrines or temples regardless of their location. It is estimated that every year from the first of Jan to the third, a total of over eighty million people (that's two thirds of the whole population!!!) pay hatsumode visits. So many people go for hatsumode late at night on New Year's Eve that many train lines offer 24 hour service. Among the popular hatsumode destinations are Meiji shrine(Tokyo), Kawasaki Daishi temple(Kanagawa), Tsurugaoka Hachiman shrine(Kanagawa), Yasaka shrine(Kyoto).

People waiting in line for their
turn to pray. I was very surprised to see
so many people at the shrine because
it is a small local shrine and deserted for
the better part of the year.
People warming themselves at a bonfire.
People serving hatsumode visitors amazake.Amazake is a thik, white
beverage made from rice Even though
it is called sake, it contains almost no

A picture of people paying hatsumode visit at Kuonji temple in Yamanashi
prefecture. This is definitely one of my
favorite temples.I strongly recommend
that you visit there!!!

A huge bell at Kuonji temple.
Tents set up to sell omamori and other engimono (lucky charm)
Monks explaining the history of this
temple. The founder of this temple is one
of the best-known monks in Japanese

A sake container.
A monk serving visitors sake It's hard to make out but what the person is holding is called hamaya.
A close up shot of hamaya.


Japanese people send New Year's greeting cards called nengajo to virtually all of their relatives, friends, and acquaintances, while businesses send out cards to their customers. Nengajo is basically the same as the Western Christmas card, but the Japanese send the cards in much greater quantity. (Every year about 3-4 billion nengajo are delivered.) Ever since 1950 it has become customary to use government- issued nengajo printed with lottery numbers, which may enable the recipient to win a prize.

Although there are a few set phrases to be used for nengajo, designs and layout can be made anyway one pleases. This is a picture of special post office set up in a train station building to encourage people to mail nengajo before Dec 25. Nengajo mailed during the period of Dec 15 and 25 are held by the post office and delivered together on Jan 1.
Here is the nengajo my sister sent me. In the picture is my adorable niece.


There is a children's song about how they look forward to oshogatsu (New Year's) It goes something like this........ I wonder how many times I have to go to bed before Oshogatsu. At oshogatsu I am going to have fun flying kites, spinning tops....I can't wait for oshogatsu to come here......... Even though you rarely see kids doing things like flying kites and spinning tops these days, the fact that kids do look forward to oshogatsu hasn't changed. And the main reason for this is otoshidama (New Year's allowance). In the past otoshidama was a general term for gifts(rice cakesetc) exchanged between families at New Year's, but now it refers to cash given to children during New Year's by their parents, grandparents, and other close relatives.


Originally the term osechi denoted the food served at sechie (banquets given by the imperial court in Heian period (794-1192) to celebrate changes of the season) but today the word refers to an assortment of specialty food served at New Year's. Osechi is prepared in advance because most stores are closed during the first three days of the New Year, and often stored and served in multi-tiered lacquered boxes known as jubako. The dishes served vary from region to region but among the most common ones include kazunoko(herring roe), kuromame(stewed black soybeans), datemaki

As New Year's approaches,grocery
stores throughout Japan set aside
some floor space just for osechi food
and dress it with colorful decorations.
Some of the food items sold at the
osechi section

Ozoni (New Year's soup) is a soup containing mochi (rice cake) as
the principal ingredient and kamaboko (steamed fish paste), leafy greens,
carrots, and so on. Even though ingredients of onzoni differ greatly
according to region mochi seems to be a fixture as it has long been
thought to bring good fortune.


Coming-of-Age Day (Seijin no hi) is a national holiday when the Japanese celebrate the coming of age of all young people who reached age 20 anytime between April 2 of the previous year and April 1 of the current year (this is because of the fact that people born during that period of the year belong to the same grade in school). This holiday was instituted in 1948 as a day to help make young peope conscious of their adulthood and to encourage them as they go out on their own. Those new "adults" attend cceremonies hosted by municipal government and receive a little gift. You can tell it's Coming-of-Age Day by the number of the young Japanese women walking around in colorful, long-sleeved kimono and fluffy white stoles---a modern addition to the kimono wardrobe. (Young men tend to wear suits.) Since legal drinking age is 20 (smoking as well), there are lots of parties on this day. Also the right to vote is given at the age of 20 as well.

New adults hanging out in front of Kawagoe city auditorium. before the congratulatory ceremony organized by Kawagoe city. Girls... One of the sights that caught my eyes most is those kimono-clad girls talking on mobile phone. (There is something off about the sight though.) Mobile phones certainly have become the most favorite toys among young people.
Guys.... posing for a picture
This year about 1.7 million young people became "adults" throughout Japan.

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