Wearing kimono, getting together with family and friends, and not working for the first three days of a new year. Shogatsu, or New Year’s, is when Japanese generally work less than the rest of the world.
It is also the time to follow long-standing traditions related to the Shinto and Buddhist religions, and Japanese history.
Below are some New Year’s traditions in Japan.
Osechi ryori, or osechi for short, is a collection of traditional New Year’s foods eaten typically during the first three days of January. Originally, osechi was a New Year’s food with which people wish for a rich harvest.
The word sechi comes from sechinichi, or a day representing the turning of a season. Sechinichi are Jan. 1, Jan. 7, March 3, May 5, July 7 and Sept. 9.
It typically comes in tiered jubako wooden boxes that contain dozens of kinds of traditional foods.
Housewives are usually busy making osechi as the yearend approaches so that they don’t have to cook during the New Year’s holidays. Also, Japanese used to avoid using fire during New Year’s. For these reasons, osechi foods are made to last.
Each food in osechi has a meaning. For example, kazunoko, cooked herring eggs, symbolize the wish to be blessed with children because herrings lay lots of eggs. Kazu means “number” and ko means “children.”
Kobumaki is herring or other fish wrapped with kelp. Kelp signifies luck because a Japanese word for kelp is konbu, which sounds like yorokobu, meaning “be joyful.”
Shrimps symbolize a long life because their back is bent like an old person and they have a long mustache. The lotus root is a lucky vegetable because it has lots of holes, which symbolize the ease of looking through to the future.
Red-and-white, half-circle kamaboko broiled fish cakes are considered lucky because they look like the rising sun, and the combination of red and white is used in Japan’s national flag. There are many more foods in osechi that have good meanings.
Kagami mochi, which literally means “mirror mochi rice cake,” is a traditional decoration placed in various locations throughout the house from around the end of the year to, usually, the day of Kagami biraki (Opening kagami mochi), normally Jan. 11.
Kagami mochi is two round mochi, the smaller placed atop the larger, and a daidai Japanese orange with an attached leaf on top.
Nowadays, kagami mochi pouched in plastic can be easily found in supermarkets or convenience stores for several hundred yen in December.
Kagami mochi can also be adorned with dried kelp, noshi decorative Japanese paper and other decorations.
The name kagami is said to have originated from its resemblance to an old-fashioned kind of round copper mirror.
Kagami mochi, made of rice harvested in fall of the same year, is thought to contain the pure spirit of rice and thus be possessed with toshigami, a yearly deity that is said to visit during the New Year’s period, bringing a good harvest and the blessing of ancestors, and the power of life, according to the Japan Kagami Mochi Association.
On its website the association recommends placing kagami mochi in many places in the house as each location has a corresponding Shinto god.
There’s a kamado gami god of fire in the kitchen, a nando gami backroom god in the bedroom, a kawaya gami toilet god, and a suijin water god for sinks and wash basins. All those places should have kagami mochi, the association says.
On kagami biraki, kagami mochi will be typically used in ozenzai, a soup with mochi and azuki sweet red beans.
Recently, kagami mochi is usually packaged in plastic, mainly because it can be preserved better. Without the packaging, kagami mochi spoils easily.
Also available are kagami mochi-shape plastic packs of small, rectangular prism-shape mochi pieces. Such mochi is easy to cook.
Kadomatsu, literally meaning “gate pine,” is placed in pairs in front of houses to welcome toshigami. They are placed outside Dec. 13 or later until Jan. 7.
However, decorating a Christmas tree has become increasingly popular in Japan and thus Japanese tend to put out kadomatsu Dec. 26 or later.
Kadomatsu is composed of three bamboo shoots that are cut diagonally in different lengths, pine and sometimes ume (plum) tree sprigs, which represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness, respectively, and a base made of straw.
The first time kadomatsu appeared in writing was in a verse by an 11th-century poet, according to Kadomatsu-Japan.com operated by a Hyogo Prefecture-based gardening company.
Kadomatsu in the Kanto region are different from those in Kansai. In Kanto, the bamboo is placed higher in the decoration than the pine while the pine is higher than the bamboo in Kansai.
Cheap kadomatsu can be bought for a few hundred yen, but good ones can be expensive.
Kadomatsu-Japan.com has a simple, 100-cm-high kadomatsu for ¥31,500 while the most expensive, which has not only bamboo and pine but also decorative flowers, is 180 cm high and costs ¥210,000.
Photos: Kyodo, the Japan Kagami Mochi Association and Kadomatsu-Japan.com