New Year’s Day in a Japanese family is the most special day of the year, at least in my opinion. I miss these celebrations more than any other holiday. The three-day New Year holiday is a very special time in Japan, a time of solemn prayers and joyous greetings. While New Year’s Day is a holiday in many parts of the world, the occasion has a unique significance to the Japanese, who take the opportunity to begin anew many aspects of their lives. New Years is regarded in Japan as an auspicious occasion. As such, it is filled with traditional activities which, it is hoped, will result in a more successful year. The people particularly observe the age-old Japanese custom of not carrying-over any debts or tasks from the old year to the new. As the end of the year approaches, therefore, businessmen busily wind up their affairs of the old year. They try to pay all their obligations by New Year’s Eve. Even non-businessmen try to clear the slate by the end of the year. I wish I could do the same.
Homemakers all over the nation work extra hard preparing for the holiday. They must prepare many special foods, clean the house even more rigorously than usual, and make decorations for the holiday season. The cleaning is called Susuharai, or soot-sweeping. Both inside and outside the house, the stains, physical and spiritual, of the past year are rubbed out in order to purify the home and make it fresh for the New Year.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, a pine decoration known as Kadomatsu is set up on both sides of the front entrance. Some homes have elaborate Kadomatsu with bamboo added to the pine, as well as plum branches. The Kadomatsu is thought to welcome good luck into the house. Another, equally-important decoration is the Shimenawa, a sacred rope made of straw on which zig-zag strips of paper have been hung. This is placed above the front entrance in order to prevent “evil spirits” from entering the house.
My favorite part is the food. My Aunt in Fresno has graciously invited us to attend Shogatsu at her home. Many special dishes are prepared for the New Year celebration. An important food at New Year is Omochi, steamed rice that has been pounded and formed into cakes. There is actually a machine that has replaced making this by hand and wooden hammer. This is eaten either grilled on a frying pan or in a soup, known as Ozoni. Vegetable dishes are also popular during the New Year holiday, partly because they are easy to prepare and easy to store. Food shops generally remain closed throughout the holiday period, so it is necessary to stock up on all items.
Offerings are made to the household gods on a small table. The offerings usually consist of Omochi, dried persimmons, dried chestnuts, pine seeds, black peas, sardines, herring roe, a cray fish, a sea-bream, some dried cuttlefish, Mochibana, or flowers made of rice and straw, mandarin oranges, and many other items varying from district to district.
Preparations for the holiday are all completed by New Year’s Eve. By then, all businesses and nearly all stores are closed, and a calm settles over both city and countryside. During the three-day holiday period in Japan, known as Shogatsu Sanganichi , everyone except those who run amusement enterprises or are responsible for essential services, such as transportation, have a period of vacation. For many people in Japan, the year-end holiday actually begins around December 29, when all public offices begin their vacations. Others end their work either on the 30th or early on the 31 st. In recent years, therefore, more people have been taking advantage of the long holiday to travel to the countryside for skiing and skating, or for relaxing at hot spring resorts. We generally are not able to do this here in the United Sates.
On New Year’s Eve, most people spend their time with their families. Sons and daughters who have moved to the city return to their parents’ homes in the country if this is at all possible. That way the entire family greets the New Year together. Many families pass the evening watching special television programs. Others visit shrines and temples where they pray by the light of bonfires.
Customary Shogatsu foods include toshikoshi soba, a long buckwheat noodle eaten on New Years Eve that symbolizes long life. It is also customary to eat Osechi-ryori, a collection of traditional foods served together in the small sections of jubako box.
Each food served in the jubako box carries its own symbolic meaning. For example, black soybeans symbolize health, while herring roe symbolizes the prospect of many children. Mochi, or sticky rice cakes, are made in the last days of the closing year, and eaten during Shogatsu. Mochi may be topped with persimmon or orange, and are used as a decoration as well as a food.
Osechi DishesKobumaki – Kelp RollsKuromame – Simmered Black BeansDatemaki – Rolled Sweet OmeletKurikinton – Mashed Sweet Potato with Sweet Chestnuts)Kinpira Gobo – Braised BurdockTazukuri – Candied Dried SardinesNamasu – Pickled Daikon Radish and CarrotNimono – Simmered Dish
Nimono includes gobo (burdock root), satoimo (taro), renkon, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and more.Kazunoko (herring roe)Ebi-no-saka-mushi – Sake Steamed ShrimpPink and White Kamaboko (fish cakes)Tai-no-shio-yaki (grilled sea bream)
Added to this are many typical American foods, and foods that children are more likely to enjoy. These would include: shrimp and vegetable tempura, sushi, sashimi, teriyaki chicken, sato imo (a cousin of the taro), barbecued pork (char-siu), rice, renkon (lotus root), and edamame (soy beans). Many special desserts are also made for the holidays, including: chi chi dango, manju, yokan, and various traditional pastries.