In the West, people count down the seconds to midnight Dec. 31 and in many cases keep partying into the wee hours, then sleep in. Once the clock strikes 12 in Japan, many people head to temples and shrines, then proceed to make New Year’s Day a family occasion.
Following are questions and answers about special things people do at the year’s start:
What do people do first thing in the morning on New Year’s Day?
Besides temples and shrines, many head into the mountains or the seashore to watch the year’s first sunrise and pray for health and safety.
According to the Japan Coast Guard, sunrise New Year’s Day can be first observed at 5:27 a.m. on Minami Tori, Japan’s easternmost island, about 1,800 km from the main archipelago — provided the weather cooperates.
Many of those who visit shrines and temples for the first worship of the year may not go again for the next 12 months.
What is the most popular New Year’s decoration?
People routinely place pine and bamboo “kadomatsu” clusters on either side of the entrances to their homes. This is the most formal decoration.
Sometimes only pine decorations are used, as pine welcomes the Shinto god of the new year.
According to flower shop operator Hibiyakadan’s Web site, past decorations also used oak and “sakaki” leaves.
Are there any other kinds of festive ornaments?
Common inside many homes are rounded-pyramid-shaped piles of pounded “mochi” rice cakes. The “kagamimochi” display might include an orange or other citrus fruit, and sometimes Gleichenia glauca.
The decoration is an offering for the god. The mochi represents a copper mirror, which was one of three treasures of emperors in ancient times. Some say the round shape means a heart. The orange and Gleichenia glauca both symbolize thriving, according to the kagamimochi association.
Do people still go all out on decorations?
No. Nowadays, people adorn their entrances with simpler decorations, including “shimenawa” sacred straw ropes with a fan and an orange, or mere pine branches. Some people put small versions of the ornaments on the front of their cars.
Visitors to shrines may purchase an arrow, rake or other symbolic item to use in the home as a gesture to ward off evil and bring happiness.
Rural practices differ from urban to some extent. In the countryside, people are more inclined to place kadomatsu at their gates.
Office buildings and large stores may also decorate with a kadomatsu.
How long do people keep the decorations out?
They usually start putting out the decorations between Dec. 13 and 30 and take them down Jan. 7, the last day when the god of the new year is generally believed to stay in the house.
People do not start decorating on Dec. 29 because the pronunciation of the number nine is the same as that of pain and the day is thought to be unlucky. Hanging the decorations Dec. 31 is meanwhile thought to be impolite to the god.
Are there any other common practices?
People have traditionally eaten specially prepared “osechi” New Year’s meals in stacked boxes, using food with special meanings. Often ordered from large stores, many of the dishes are cooked in salt or vinegar to keep unrefrigerated for a few days.
Such treats include shrimp, which symbolizes long life, beans (for working hard), herring roe (for many offspring) and lotus roots (the holes through which the future can be seen).
Osechi meals also mean less time for the women in the family to spend cooking and washing dishes. Recent years, amid the tough economic times, have seen people scale down their pricey osechi fare, or forgo it altogether.