Traditional Japanese New Year Decoration, Kagami mochi

Japanese New Year traditions

Japanese Customs / July 20, 2017

By Haruka Masumizu TOKYO

The New Year is just around the corner. For many non-Japanese, especially newcomers to Japan, many of the customs and traditions of New Year may seem hard to understand. New Year or "Oshogatsu" is the most important holiday period in Japan for families and it is rich in tradition. If you're lucky enough to be invited by your Japanese friends to join them, you'll be in for some interesting experiences.

Here is a guide to help you understand New Year customs in Japan.

New Year’s Eve - Omisoka (大晦日)

"Omisoka" is the Japanese expression for New Year’s Eve. In order to start off the new year with a fresh mind, families and kids come together to clean up the entire house (called "osoji" - big cleaning) and use the last few days of the old year to make preparations for "osechi ryori" (see below), special decorations and rituals for New Year’s Day. As many people go back to their hometowns during this time, it might be interesting for you to see usually busy and hectic Tokyo suddenly become so quiet and empty.

Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘)

Around midnight on New Year’s Eve, you may hear bells peal in the tranquil sky monotonously for about 1-2 hours. This Buddhist tradition is called “Joya no Kane, ” and it is one of the most important rituals of the year for Buddhist temples all over Japan. No matter where you live, you can probably hear the sound of the bells as temples are in many neighborhoods.

But do you know why they strike the bell exactly 108 times? In Buddhism, it is believed that human beings are plagued by 108 types of earthly desires and feelings called “Bonnou, ” exemplified by anger, adherence and jealousy. Each strike of the bell will remove one troubling “Bonnou” from you.

The kanji “Jo (除)” means “to throw away the old and move on to the new” and “Ya (夜)” means “night.” So, it is the perfect night to leave your old self behind and commence the new year with new resolutions and a clear head. By the time you count the 108th peal, you are ready to start the new year refreshed without anything troubling your mind - in theory.

Toshikoshi-soba (年越し蕎麦)

The tradition of eating soba (Japanese noodles) on New Year’s Eve is said to have become common during the Edo era (1603-1868). When soba is made, the dough is stretched and cut in a long and thin form, which is said to represent a long and healthy life. Interestingly, as soba is cut easily compared to other types of noodles, it also symbolizes a wish to cut away all the misfortunes of the old year in order to commence the new year refreshed.

Kadomatsu (門松)

You might have seen a green decoration made of pine, bamboo and plum ("ume") trees in front of Japanese people’s houses and offices during the last few days of the old year and the first few days of the new year. It is called "kadomatsu, " and during the period from right after Christmas until January 7, it is believed to provide temporary housing for the "toshigami sama" (deity) in order to ensure a great harvest and blessings from the family's ancestors on everyone in the home. Pine, bamboo and plum trees each symbolize longevity, prosperity and sturdiness.

Kagami-mochi (鏡もち)

"Kagami-mochi, " often translated as a mirror rice cake, is a rice cake used as a decoration. But you may wonder why it is called a mirror as it doesn’t look like a mirror at all.

However, mirrors in Japan a long time ago had a round shape, and were often used for important Shinto rituals. As mirrors are believed to be a place where gods reside, these mochi (rice cakes) are shaped like an ancient round mirror to celebrate the new year together with the gods.

On top of the rice cakes is a type of orange called "daidai" (now replaced with "mikan" most of the time). When written with different kanji “代々”, it means “over generations, ” representing a wish for prosperity of descendants over generations.