12 Traditional Things Japanese Do Over New Years
Oshogatsu, or New Year’s is an important event for the Japanese to welcome the new year. It is also a fun and exciting time of year where generations of family gather. What do the Japanese do once we have gotten together? Here we introduce the traditional customs and games that are associated with Oshogatsu.
1. Hatsumode: First Visit to the Shrine/Temple
Hatsumode is the first visit to the temple or shrine once the new year has come. It is an event to pray for the safety and wellbeing for the coming year.
Related: 6 Tokyo Temples and Shrines for Hatsumode Based on Objective
2. Mochitsuki: Pounding Rice Cakes
The reason mochi or rice cakes are made in the new year is to give the mochi as an offering to the gods. A specially shaped type of mochi called the kagami-mochi is used as a decoration for the new years.
The most common explanation for making mochi is to offer to the gods as mentioned above, but there is also a practical side because mocha has a long shelf-life that can be eaten for the days of the New Year when many stores are closed.
Nowadays, mochi can be made by a machine and does not require many people to pound the rice. However, for people to gather and collaboratively try to do something helps people to bond. Since the New Year’s is a time when families and people of the community come together, it is considered meaningful for everyone to make the mochi and eat it together.
3. Otoshidama: Money Gift for Children
This is the most favorite event for children in the New Years. The Otoshidama traditionally means a gift given in celebration for the new year. However, nowadays, it means to give money to children for the new year. Generally, children will receive Otoshidama until they start working.
4. Hatsuyume: First Dream
This is a type of divination based on the first dream you see in the new year. It is usually based on the dream you see between the evening of January 2nd to the morning of January 3rd, but some regions base it on the dream seen between the evening of January 1st to the morning of January 2nd.
Things that are considered auspicious to appear in the dream are summarized in the phrase “Ichi Fuji, Ni Taka, San Nasubi”. It essentially states the items that are auspicious in the order of auspiciousness 1. Mount Fuji, 2. Hawk and 3 Eggplant.
There are various stories behind why these things are considered auspicious, but it seems that they are the things Tokugawa Ieyasu liked in that order, 1. Mount Fuji, 2. Falconry and 3. Eggplant.
5. Shishimai: The Lion Dance
This is a ceremonial dance that originated in China. People dress as a dragon-like lion and dance which is meant to ward off evil and to bring a bountiful harvest. It is performed as part of the celebration for New Year’s. It is also said that being bit by this dancing lion helps to drive away evil spirits.
6. Fukubukuro: The Lucky Bag
Fukubukuro, which literally means a bag containing luck, is sold at these bargains. The concept is that there are many things packed in a bag and sold without disclosing the contents. So the customer purchases a bag stuffed with things. The contents remains
a surprise until after the purchase.
The fukubukuro is actually the name for the sack that the god of wealth, “Daikokuten” carries. It is said that the contents of his bag is not any material item, but is actually good fortune. This is why these bags filled with goodies came to be called the “fukubukuro”.
7. Hanetsuki: Traditional Game
The feathers on the “shuttlecock” resemble the wings of the dragonfly so it is like the dragonfly energetically flying around catching smaller insects. Because the dragonfly eats pests like bees, flies and mosquitoes, it is considered symbolic of fighting of evil.
There are some versions of the game that the player who drops the shuttlecock has their face marked with ink.
8. Karuta/ Hyakunin Isshu: Card Game with Anthology of 100 Japanese Waka
Karuta is a traditional Japanese card game that uses 2 sets of cards; one that has a phrase to be read and one that shows an image. The set of cards with the image is laid out on the ground. The reader reads the phrase on the card and the other players try to find the card with the image matching the phrase, competing to be the first to collect the matching card. This is a game that can be played indoors when there are many children that come for the family gathering.
The most common types of karuta uses the “Hyakunin Isshu” which is an anthology of 100 Japanese waka poems read by 100 different poets. The anthology by Fujiwara no Sadaie (1162-1241) that is said to have been selected in a Ogurasan mountain in Kyoto is often used in the karuta games.
Related: 4 Traditional Japanese Games Making a Comeback
9. Fukuwarai: Pin the “face”
The fukuwarai is a game similar to “pin the tail on the donkey”, where the players eyes are covered using a handkerchief, and the facial parts such as eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth are pinned onto a large sheet of paper that has the outline of a face. Because the ridiculous faces that are made induce laughter, it is considered happy and lucky. It is a fun children’s game that has been played during the New Year’s since the Edo period.
10. Nengajyo: New Year’s Greeting Cards
The nengajyo is a new year’s greeting card sent in the form of a post card. Phrases that wish a good year and appreciation for things of the previous year are written on these cards.
In Japan, during the Heian Period and the Meiji Period, there was a custom to go around and visit friends and family for the New Year’s greeting on the first day of the year. This custom was simplified in the form of a postcard, which is the current nengajo custom.
Related: Nenga-jous, the New Year Card
11. Kakizome: Calligraphy
The kakizome is generally performed on the 2nd day of the new year. It is the act of facing in the direction of where the gods are said to reside, and write an auspicious letter or phrase. Performing this act is meant to help focus the mind and improve one’s calligraphy skills.
Related: The Philosophy of Ink: Shodō, Japan’s Unique Calligraphy
12. Tako-age: Flying a Kite
The kite is said to have originated in China. In ancient China, the kite was used for divination and also was a tool used in battle. During the Warring States Period, it was used as a tool to measure the distance between the enemy as well as a weapon that could drop fire on an enemy in a remote area.
In the Edo period, the tako-age or kite flying was performed as a celebration of having a male child in the family. It also became a fun pastime for the common people. It became a custom to fly a kite at the beginning of the year to celebrate the male child as well a symbol of sending the dreams and hopes of the male child into the skies.
When you look at the numerous types of activities that are performed in the New Year, you can really see what a bid deal the Oshogatsu is for the Japanese. If you are lucky enough to be in Japan for the New Year, we definitely recommend that you try the hatsumode, fukubukuro and mochitsuki. Freshly made mocha is really delicious! If you happen to be living in Japan during the New Year’s celebration, you should try to send the nengajyo. It is really important to show thanks to those who have supported you throughout the year.
We wish you a good Oshogatsu!