The most important day of the year for the Japanese is New Year, and with it comes certain traditions and ceremonies.
Why don’t the Japanese celebrate Lunar New Year like the rest of Asia?
Unlike the Chinese (and the rest of Asia), Japan does not celebrate the lunar new year. Japan’s new year holiday is every January 1st in alignment with western calendars. In fact, Chinese New Year is known as 旧正月, or “old/former new year.”
The Japanese switched to the Gregorian calendar in the Meiji era, when the entire country was modernized due to western influences. This is the era of the last samurai, of kimonos being traded for western dresses and suits, of guns and cannons in the battlefield. Since then, the western calendar has stuck.
New Year is a big deal (along with Obon, day of the dead), because it is one of few holidays where you are expected to return to your hometown and visit the grave of your ancestors.
My New Year’s in Nagano
I had the pleasure of spending New Years with my Japanese host family in Nagano, Japan. It is one of my most treasured memories that helped teach me about Japanese culture and tradition.
New Years Dinner, or Osechi Ryori (おせち料理)
New Year’s Eve Dinner is supposed to be the grand daddy of dinners for the entire year. I guess they want the previous year to go out with a bang–and what better way to do it than eating a shit ton of truly decadent food?
Japanese mothers (and grandmothers) used to labor in the kitchen for hours making exquisite new years food, or ‘osechi ryori,’ like so:
Sadly, with life being busy and all that, osechi ryori is now usually ordered from a supermarket or restaurant for convenience’s sake (since cooking so much food is extremely time consuming).
Luckily, my host-grandmother (and aunties and mother) busted their ass in the kitchen and I was able to sample a truly authentic osechi ryori. I was blown away by the food and the presentation. Japan never fails to impress.
Kohaku (red and white battle)
In America, we watch the crystal ball drop in Times Square on TV.
In Japan, they watch a ridiculous show called Kohaku, or “battle between white and red.” Basically, Japanese celebrities join either the white or red team and duke it out on television to see who can perform better. Celebrity judges (or sometimes big name politicians) decide who reigns supreme: white or red team.
I watched this after my osechi ryori food coma underneath the warmth of the kotatsu (heated table), along with my host sisters. It was culturally enlightening… (?)
Japan is one of the most non-religious countries on Earth (those heathens!), but I think it’s safe to say that most Japanese believe in the Shinto religion, because it’s such a deep rooted part of their culture. It’s Japan’s oldest religion and can best be compared to the ancient Greek and Roman gods. There are thousands of gods in the Shinto religion, and thus there are thousands of Shinto shrines.
And you can’t wish in the new years without a visit to the nearest Shinto shrine, right?
In Nagano, my host sisters and I put on 10 sweaters and a down jacket to brave the Nagano cold. The streets were flooded with Japanese people all heading toward the same direction: the nearest Shinto shrine. It is customary for all Japanese to perform hatsumode (初詣), or ‘the first shrine visit of the year’
Although the Japanese don’t celebrate the Chinese New Year, they do believe in the Chinese Zodiac. Once at the temple, most visitors buy a charm that coincides with the year’s zodiac (for 2016, it’s the monkey).
To complete Hatsumode, you go to the gates of the shrine, toss a 5 yen coin into the offering box (the gods don’t work for free), clap twice, close your eyes in prayer and make your wish for the new year.
Eat a ton of Mochi
On the first day of the new year (and for days following), all Japanese homes eat Ozoni (お雑煮), a mochi (glutenous rice) soup.
Ozoni is prepared differently across all of Japan, mostly differentiated by prefecture (sometimes even regions or towns). In Nagano, we had ozoni with potatoes (since Nagano is landlocked), while I heard Niigata ozoni is filled to the brim with seafood (since it’s on the coast).
On top of ozoni, mochi cakes, mochi rice balls, mochi EVERYTHING is made for the entire new year week.
Over the New Year Holiday I stayed with my host family for about five days.
And I had mochi in every meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Suffice to say, I couldn’t even look at mochi for a good six months after the experience.
Spending New Years in Japan
In America, new years means one thing: get wasted and party hard.
In Japan, it’s the complete opposite. They celebrate new years much like we celebrate Christmas–they basically just stay at home all day and eat food with their relatives.
If you have an opportunity to spend New Years in Japan, be aware of expensive train tickets (everyone working in the city will return to their hometown) as well as traveling crowds (since the country has an entire week off work).
Usually big cities like Tokyo and Osaka might be a tad more vacant during the holidays (which could be a blessing), but be aware that many shops and tourist attractions may close up for the new year.
I hope someday I have an opportunity to spend New Year with my Japanese family once again. My family in Nagano is badass. My host father is a firefighter, my mother an elite nurse, and my three host sisters the sweetest kids one could ever hope to have. That little place in Nagano, with my warm and welcoming family, will always be my first home in Japan.
I hope everyone had a great new year! Have you ever spent new years abroad in a strange place?