IF YOU’VE noticed a few more Japanese tourists than usual this week, it might be because of the New Year’s holiday. Since 1873, the Japanese have celebrated New Year’s on Jan. 1, according to the Western calendar, but it continues to be the most important holiday of the year, and many traditions remain. Here are some of them.
In Japan, the last days of December are always the busiest of the year. According to tradition, everyone wants to start off the new year with a clean slate, and so any unfinished business has to be attended to, outstanding bills have to be paid, and houses, offices and factories all need to get a top-to-bottom cleaning. On top of that, almost every group, club and company has a boisterous “bonenkai” (end-of-the-year party) sometime in late November or December (but never on New Year’s Eve), at which large quantities of beer, sake and shochu are consumed. If those of you in the restaurant or bar business have noticed that some of your groups of Japanese customers seem a little bit louder and to be drinking a little bit more than usual this week, that could be the reason. The idea is to forget all the problems and difficulties of the past year ... and so the more alcohol consumed, the better! For people who are involved in a lot of activities, just keeping up with all the parties can be quite a challenge.
The first three or four days of the new year are also a time when Japanese housewives have their only days off from cooking. To make this possible, a variety of special new year’s food called “osechi” are prepared ... or, nowadays, purchased from a supermarket or restaurant.
The items used generally have some sort of symbolic meaning, and most are preserved so that they can be eaten until the end of the holiday. They are all put in beautiful, multi-layer bento boxes, although if the truth be told, many people find them much more pleasing to the eye than to the palate.
After all the frantic preparation and partying, however, New Year’s Eve and the three or four day holiday that usually follows is mostly a fairly quiet, family affair ... except for the requisite visit to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine for “hatsumode” (the first prayer of the new year). As those of you who have visited Japan already know, the country’s temples and shrines are really special places. They maintain the very best of Japan’s traditional architecture and aesthetic sense in a deeply serene atmosphere – but not on New Year’s Eve! Then, thousands of people gather to pray for the health, safety and success of their families, to get the traditional “omikuji” (fortunes for the year written on small sheets of paper that you select at random), to buy good luck talismans, and to throw a few coins into the large collection boxes put out for this purpose. In times past, this was usually a family outing; but nowadays, it has become quite a popular date night activity. At the stroke of midnight, some fireworks are usually shot off, and then the bells of every temple are solemnly rung 108 times – once for each human shortcoming, according to the Buddhist belief system.
No New Year’s holiday would be complete without “nengajo”, the traditional Japanese New Year greeting cards. Most young people make them on their computers these days, but some people still write each one by hand ... and many Japanese send out several hundred.
Of course, everyone wishes all their friends, family and co-workers a Happy New Year. And so, everyone, as the Japanese would say:
Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu!