The month of Shiwasu is coming to an end and now it’s time for Japanese New Year! Japanese New Year, or oshōgatsu (お正月), originally coincided with the Chinese lunar calendar and thus coincided with “new year” events in China, Korea and Vietnam. However, with the reforms in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the solar calendar was adopted, and everything shifted accordingly.1
If I were to describe Japanese New Year, I would say it’s like Thanksgiving and Christmas combined. It has lots of winter traditions like Christmas, and has lots of good food and gifts for the kids, and lasts 3 days. It’s something the whole family can enjoy together without all the fuss of holiday shopping. In another sense, it’s very different than Thanksgiving and Christmas because the traditions have evolved from a different culture.
Still, it is one of my favorite times of the year, so with all the Christmas hullabaloo out of the way, we can ease into Oshogatsu and celebrate the end of the year.
Typically at our home, we celebrate New Year’s Eve (Ōmisoka 大晦日) by watching the yearly Japanese music special Kōhaku Uta Gassen, and my wife making toshi-koshi soba. The term toshi-koshi (年越し) means something like “crossing the year” and is a special kind soba-noodle soup people eat only on New Year’s Eve night. Since I am not exactly young anymore, I don’t really stay up for the whole Kohaku special, plus my favorite groups usually show up in the first half anyway, but I usually stay up long enough to enjoy the soba.
On New Year’s day, we enjoy some kind of osechi-ryōri (お節料理), which is a special kind of New Year’s platter that includes a lot of traditionally “auspicious” foods. When the kids were younger2 and we used to spend New Year’s in Japan, the osechi would be pretty elaborate and we’d be eating for 3 days. Inevitably, some of the food gets picked over, and kind of goes to waste, and since there’s only 4 of us to celebrate here in the US, we usually make our osechi much smaller and finish it by the second day.
Finally, there is the tradition of Hatsumōde. This is the first visit of the year to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. Both religions have co-existed in Japan for many centuries (not always easily), and so they’ve influenced one another to the point that it’s not always easy to tell the difference at first glance. For many people in Japan, the tradition of Hatsumode might be one of the few times of the year they visit a temple/shrine3 and is a time to solicit a blessing for the rest of the year.
We typically go to a certain Shingon-Buddhist temple that is fairly removed from our house for hatsumode even though we rarely ever go during the rest of the year. None of us are particularly inclined toward esoteric Buddhism (we are even less inclined toward Shinto religion), and it is pretty far from our house, but it’s one of the few temples in the area that does a proper hatsumode service and isn’t clingy.4
Anyhow, that’s Oshogatsu in a nutshell. I will be posted more soon. Stay tuned!
1 Buddhist holidays in Japan also shifted similarly, hence they don’t coincide anymore with same holidays in mainland Asia.
2 With our kids being older and enrolled in school here in the US, it’s easier to visit in the summer. Either way, airfare to Japan is super expensive for both times of year. I would love to travel during Spring or Autumn, but haven’t done so in many years.
3 Just as many families in the West might only visit Church for certain holidays.
4 Japanese temples in the US can be either clingy due to lack of community, or so Westernized that they don’t follow any Japanese traditions. Or they just don’t cater to family (i.e. Zen temples). Hard to find a proper “family” Japanese temple for this reason.