Rich in traditions and full of food with symbolic meaning, New Year or Oshogatsu is the most important holiday period in Japan for families. The lead-up to the very auspicious first day of the year is marked by spring cleaning and decorating homes and entrances with ornaments made of pine, bamboo and plum trees.
We have compiled a list of Oshogatsu key terms for you to get familiar with so as to welcome the new year like a true Japanese local!
Hatsu hi no de
Watching the first sunrise to grace New Year’s Day became popular after the Meiji period, spreading as a custom of the Emperor’s to ordinary folk. Many believe that the toshikamisama (年神様) arrives alongside the sunrise, blessing all who pray to it with good fortune for the year.
Joya no kane
As night falls on 31st December, some families drink toso (屠蘇), a spiced medicinal sake said to prevent sickness. Anticipating the stroke of midnight, many then gather to listen to the sound of the temple bell being struck 108 times, each strike meant to dispel the 108 worldly desires and ring in the new year.
These sealed bags are sold at a set price at shops across the nation, from famous department stores like Isetan or Tobu to smaller chains like Starbucks.
The contents are usually valued more than the retail price and many buyers enjoy the process of being surprised by what is inside. One of the most sought after fukubukuro comes from Shibuya 109, known for its collection of trendy fashion brands.
Similar to the Chinese custom of handing out red packets during Chinese New Year, Japanese adults give money to children in their family. Usually given by grandparents, parents as well as uncles and aunts, the amount varies depending on the child’s age, with older ones receiving up to 30,000 yen (around S$360).
Served in an elegant three or four-layer bento box called jūbako (重箱), each dish has a symbolic meaning. To name a few, kuromame (黒豆, black soy beans) represents good health, kazunoko (数の子, herring roe) is eaten as a wish for abundant harvest and fertility while datemaki (伊達巻, sweet omelet with fish paste or shrimp) is for scholarship and culture as it resembles a scroll.
“Mirror rice cakes” are named after round mirrors used in ancient Japan, where gods were believed to reside. Topped with a daidai orange, which when written with a different kanji (代々), refers to a wish of prosperity for many generations.
*All illustrations are from www.irasutoya.com*
(This feature first appeared on WAttention Singapore magazine, Jan/Feb 2018 Vol. 40)