The holiday season in the islands is about sharing Thanksgiving turkey with friends and family, exchanging heartfelt gifts during Christmas and popping long strings of firecrackers on New Year’s Eve. But in Japan, no other occasion in the year has as much significance as New Year’s Day.
The New Year festivity in Japan called oshogatsu extends from the last few days of December until the first week in January, when schools and businesses are closed and many people return home to spend time with their loved ones.
Company President Robert Iida says the time is basically spent tying up loose ends, clearing out the old and starting the new year on the right foot.
Otoshidama-bukuro or New Year money envelopes for children, wooden offering tables called sanbo for mochi decoration and kine or wooden mallets to pound mochi are a few of the accessories Iida’s sells to help usher the biggest celebration of the year.
Much hard work and cooking preparation are involved in the days leading up to the New Year, Iida said. Homes are well cleaned to welcome “Toshigami-sama,” the Year God believed to bring abundance, good health and happiness to each family.
After the house is cleaned, families hang shimenawa made of straw rope and place bamboo arrangements called kadomatsu at their front doorstep to ward off evil spirits.
A favorite activity before the New Year is mochi pounding. Mochi rice, soaked and then cooked overnight, is repeatedly pounded using a kine or wooden mallet until it gets sticky.
The mochi is then made into a New Year decoration called kagami mochi, round rice cakes sitting on a sanbo and topped with a tangerine, Iida said. The ornament usually sits on the dining room table as an offering to Shinto gods.
For dinner on New Year’s Eve, the custom is eating buckwheat noodles called toshikoshi soba for longevity, he said. And at the stroke of midnight, the echoing sound of bells from Buddhist temples in Japan are heard ringing 108 times.
Bishop Daiya Amano of the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii said such bells are rarely seen in Hawaii, because very few temples can accommodate its enormous size.
Shrines and temples open just before midnight, and many people are already waiting in line for a brief prayer at the alter. Amano said as many as 10,000 people from all faiths, including Christians and tourists from Japan, pray at Izumo Taisha for safety, good health and prosperity for the coming year.
The first meal with the family on New Year’s Day is a big deal in Japan, Iida said. Otoso or medicinal herbs mixed with sake or rice wine is passed around the supper table for ceremonial purposes. Then, special dishes called osechi ryori is served to last a couple of days, enough time for the housewife to rest from cooking.
The festivity often ends about a week into the new year, Iida says, with hopes of good luck, fortune and a better year ahead.