Holidays, Food, and Celebrations of the Japanese New Year
Japan has a long history of winter holidays and festivals. Although Christmas is a Western Christian Holiday, many Japanese celebrate with presents and American type decorations. Shintoism and Buddhism are the major religions, the Japanese have always picked Western ideas, incorporated features into their culture and made it their own.
The New Year’s celebration is longer than in Western Cultures with many traditions that set it apart and yet make it similar in some ways to Western holidays. It is not a one night or one day holiday. It is a unique celebration, and one of the most important in Japan. The celebration begins first with cleaning homes and throwing out things that are no longer needed. Many people like to pay back debts and gifts are sent to friends, relatives, and coworkers. Children often receive crisp yen in special envelopes from relatives.
Businesses close from January 1 – January 3. Many families visit shrines, and have a day at home without work. At the turn of the New Year, the large bells at the local shrine ring 108 times. This ringing is to represent all the temptations that man must banish. It is also time to burn last year’s charms. Daruma Dolls are one of these charms. These dolls are usually sold with two blank eyes. One eye is filled in by the new owner to represent a goal for the coming year. When the goal is reached the owner will then color in the other eye. They can be purchased at a stall at the shrines, and old Daruma from the previous year can be turned in to be burned at the shrine.
Outside the shrines are white paper strips announcing the New Year and the strips serve to reinforce the idea that the area is sacred. There are several rituals of smoke and water outside the temple for cleansing. If you are visiting, and don’t have a guide, watch those in front of you. Often people will be glad to explain what you are to do.
There will be a place for ritual cleansing. First a dipper will be dipped into the water and the water will be poured over the right hand. Change hands and then pour the water over the left hand. Pour a small amount of water in your hand and take a sip. The dipper should never touch your mouth or be swallowed. The water should be spit out at the base of the purification fountain.
Shoes are removed before the ritual, so please have socks that are clean and without holes.
While at the Shrine, visitors will toss money in a collection bin. The visitor will then bow twice, clap twice, say a prayer, and bow when the prayer is complete.
Women who own beautiful kimonos use New Year’s Day to wear them while visiting the shrine. For a visitor to Japan, this is a day to capture some of the most beautiful kimonos in the world on film after asking for permission to take a picture.
There are symbols of good health and prosperity place at the doors of homes. These are usually bamboo stalks, pine branches, and the size of the symbol indicates how good the past year has been. Many traditional foods are served and are prepared so they can be presented cold. Seaweed and all types of fish and roe are served. Beautiful desserts can be found in the bakeries and specialty food is found in the grocery stores. .
The holiday is over on January 7. A trip to Japan at this time is not complete without a trip to a shrine. Most businesses will be closed, but the trains will continue to run so finding a temple ceremony will be a nice outing.
A trip to Japan will offer holidays year round. Research summer festivals, Cherry Blossom Festivals, and Children's Holidays to decide what time of the year is best for your visit.