O-shogatsu, or New Year’s holidays, is a special time for Japanese people, who typically go back to the basics of their long-standing traditions. It’s a time when those who left their hometowns for the big cities for work or school go back to visit their families, invite relatives and friends to their homes and wear kimono.
It’s also a time for foreigners who choose to stay in Japan to get a taste of traditional Japan.
Below are some of the traditions Japanese people participate in over the New Year’s holidays.
Kakizome, the direct translation of which is “first writing,” is the first calligraphy written in the new year, traditionally on Jan. 2.
Jan. 2 was typically the first day for people such as farmers, merchants and others to go back to work and kakizome is said to be in line with this. In traditional practice, kakizome are burned at a dondo yaki, or bonfire, where kakizome, shimenawa (rice straw ropes), kadomatsu (bamboo and pine decorations) and other items unique to o-shogatsu (New Year’s) are burned around Jan. 15.
However, writing was not for everybody until the Edo Period when ordinary people began learning writing, reading and mathematics. At terakoya (an old term for schools in the Edo Period), children first learned calligraphy and thus performed kakizome, and schools in the Meiji and later eras carried on this custom.
In earlier years, educated adults used to write ancient Chinese poems with many kanji characters for their kakizome.
Nowadays, writing just a few kanji is the common form of kakizome, but not many adults engage in it. However, most Japanese schools, from elementary through high school, still teach calligraphy and kakizome is often homework during the winter break.
Fukuwarai, a Japanese word combining “luck” and “laughter,” is a game played typically during the o-shogatsu period. Fukuwari players don blindfolds or close their eyes and put paper facial feature cutouts — eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth and so on — onto a blank paper face.
The resulting face with the features randomly placed in the wrong places is meant to elicit laughter from those playing the game.
The face used for fukuwarai is typically called okame or otafuku, a woman with puffy cheeks — a look that was considered the epitome of beauty in medieval Japan, but comical today.
The origin of fukuwarai is unclear, but it is said that people began playing it in the late Edo Period and it became popular o-shogatsu entertainment during the Meiji Era. These days, with smaller households, grandparents living apart from their children and the emergence of modern board and video games, fukuwarai has fallen out of favor.
Fukuwarai is considered a lucky game because it is played by family members and makes them laugh during o-shogatsu. Also, Japanese associate the game with a proverb, “Warau kado niwa fuku kitaru” (Luck comes to a house with lots of laughter) as the game and the proverb both have the kanji character “fuku” in common.
Karuta are Japanese playing cards, with the word coming from Portuguese carte (cards) as playing cards were introduced by Portuguese traders during the mid-16th century.
Karuta, played by three or four and as many as 10 or 20, comes with two types of cards — some have a picture and a single character of hiragana, katakana or kanji, while others have a sentence written on them.
Players first spread the cards out on the floor, ensuring that the pictures and characters are visible on each card.
A person reads one of the sentence cards out loud. Other players look for the card with the corresponding picture or character and race to place their hand on it before the other players. The first player to place their hand on the correct card then collects it and the player with the most number of cards at the end is the winner.
The number of cards varies. If the theme of karuta is to teach children hiragana, the number is typically about 70. If the karuta is hyakunin isshu (literally meaning one tanka poem by a hundred people) it’s 100.
Iroha karuta is another popular form of karuta in which the sentences are Japanese proverbs.
Karuta is often used as an educational tool. Junior high schools and high schools teach tanka poems in Japanese classes and some of them hold hyakunin isshu competition events.
The origin of the game is unclear, but it is said that people were playing it in the Edo Period.