On the small island where I live in the middle of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, new year celebrations are stalwart traditional. Preparations start a week before when the holiday spirit wafts in on sea breezes tinted with chilling temperatures. The island holds a community rice-pounding event to make kagami mochi adornments for inside our homes and a few businesses set out classic kadomatsu displays — bamboo and pine branches engaged with a shimenawa rope — outside their doors.
Last week, my neighbor Kazuko, who lives alone, gave her house the time-honored year-end cleaning. I helped her bring in the larger-than-normal heated kotatsu table from her store room in anticipation of her three grown offspring, their spouses and the passel of grandchildren coming home for the three-day vacation.
Although New Year’s is the nation’s most important celebration, it is not a boisterous one, but rather marked with a sedate tone on the scale of Christmas in my own country. O-shōgatsu is a family holiday with proscribed traditions, decorations, special foods and its own benevolent mood. Like Christmas, it treads the line between spiritual and secular, depending on the household.
In the days leading up to Jan. 1, most people write out new year cards to friends and business relations, wishing them a happy, prosperous impending 12 months under the auspices of the appointed animal according to the Chinese zodiac (this year we’re welcoming the boar). These missives are delivered by postal workers starting on the first of the year. But in Japan, where favors are always returned, the following week serves as a cushion to send return greetings to those one unexpectedly received a card from.
The chaos of Kazuko’s kitchen
My neighbor has stocked up on three days worth of provisions to feed 13. All this food demanded more freezer space, so I positioned my extra freezer just inside the door of my genkan (front hall) so Kazu-chan could come and go on the fly as she needs things. She has spent days cooking o-sechi ryōri (New Year’s food) the portions stored in stackable lacquer boxes, to be served over the course of the recess so that she can relax with family rather than be in the kitchen cooking every day.
O-sechi includes delectables such as sardines soaked in soy sauce, sweet black beans, shrimp, lotus root, fish, fish roe and rolled kelp, plus a plethora of other exotic delicacies that, like Yuletide fruit cake, are loved by many but vehemently despised by others.
Universally loved is toshikoshi soba (literally, year-crossing noodles) and o-zōni (a rice cake soup) both said to promote health and long life.
Just like in the West, where some people put up their Christmas tree weeks ahead of the event while others wait until the eve to decorate it and some parents leave out milk and cookies for Santa Claus, while others say he’s fat enough already, each household in Japan rings in the new year a little differently.
Shinto and Buddhist beliefs whisper in through the cracks in the flimsy walls of the traditional Japanese homes on our island. Some houses display the takarabune treasure ship of seven lucky gods from China, while others have only kagami mochi. At midnight, most people will trod up to the local Buddhist temple for a quick prayer where the temple bell will ring 108 times, one for each of humankind’s worldly desires (sins).
The eve now upon us, Kazu-chan’s house holds three generations, most visiting from the mainland to spend a few relaxing days at grandma’s house. Although they are three separate families coming from different parts of Japan, they all arrive at the same time, having caught the same ferry to the island.
The sudden increase in bodies from one to 13 in just five minutes, catapults Kazu-chan’s abode into a satisfying chaos, with rambunctious youngsters jumping up and down and parents taking refuge around the kotatsu. Peals of thunderous laughter pulse through the thin walls of my kitchen punctuating my own baking schedule, as I check in every 10 minutes on my very unorthodox form of o-sechi: banana bread. It happens to be the only thing I know how to make that will still be welcome after sharing it with my Japanese friends — everyone is too full to want anything ordinary. By now most islanders probably think it’s my home state of Ohio’s meibutsu (local speciality). They also call it banana cake, giving it the air of an exotic tropical dessert. That’s fine with me; I need all the help I can get.
When I pop my head in at Kazu-chan’s to say hello to her brood and proffer a loaf of banana cake, the little darlings giggle at me, their heads sticking out from under the table. They’re laying on the tatami mat with the earth-toned plaid quilt pulled up to their necks, squealing with delight. Nothing is as cozy as grandma’s kotasu.
Kazu-chan invites me and my husband for New Year’s, but we decline. Her house is already heaving. Besides, we’ve been invited up to the temple to spend the evening with the Buddhist priest and his wife.
To the temple, with wine!
The decoratively tiled roof structure is tucked into the side of a mountain, the virtue of which is that no matter how cold you are leaving your house, you’ll be nice and sweaty by the time you’ve walked all the way up the hill. The frosty air numbs my nose but my hands are warm cuddling the cake tin. A clear, crisp night welcomes the next dozen months without reservation.
The worship hall is dark when we arrive, getting in its last snooze before the activity starts at midnight. A spotlight cascades onto the hollowed bronze bell highlighting it as if it were a judge awaiting its sinners for trial.
After the priest and his wife greet us, we present the banana cake and a bottle of wine. We’re ushered into the dining room where a cornucopia of comestibles sit coiffed in lacquer boxes lying in wait on the buffet. A retro-square TV is singing in the corner: “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” NHK’s yearend musical extravaganza plays out a battle of the nations most popular singers.
The holy man wastes no time bringing out bottles of Sapporo beer. After a hearty kanpai (cheers), the drinking and eating frenzy officially begins. Meanwhile, he’s lining up more vessels: A bottle of gold-flecked sake, our gifted bottle of red, plus a carafe of white, and a full bottle of Four Roses. Already set out are wine glasses, red cut-glass whisky tumblers and pre-war guinomi sake cups. The priest’s son, donned in priestly robes, bows a greeting, as he swishes through the room toward the door.
A couple hours later, as midnight nears and the sake is sitting queasily in our bellies, we perceive muffled voices of other islanders ascending and the priest’s son welcoming them. The first gong has already sounded and when we tumble outside, families are lined up, taking turns tolling the sonorous bronze bell. We take our place in line to pound out one of our 108 sins. The 12-month cycle of the next animal year is now upon us.
I spot Kazu-chan and her family. After blurting out the ubiquitous “Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu” (Happy New Year!), I clasp one of the children’s hands in mine and we bid farewell to our divine friends and amble back home together.
Commencements are important in Japan and we had presently accomplished the first temple visit of the year, known as hatsumode: Cleansed of our sins and having prayed for health and prosperity, we are full of hope.
From here on, it is a bastion of firsts: The first dream of the new year (if you’re lucky, it will be of Mount Fuji), the first snow, the first meeting of friends and, as might be guessed in the land of the rising sun, hatsuhinode — the first sunrise of the year is also celebrated.
Stumbling home from the priest’s house, the likelihood of either of us dreaming of Fuji is nil — we’ll both probably just pass out. In addition, we would surely start the new year with a hangover, but with a chaser: watching the first rays of the sun rise over the Seto Inland Sea.
Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite” (Stone Bridge Press).
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