New Year decorations

Dondo Yaki Festival: Saying Farewell to New Year Spirits in Japan

When I talked about traditional Japanese New Year decorations before, I mentioned there is a ceremony where these decorations are gathered and burned in order to release and appease the spirits that have been residing within them for the beginning of the New Year. These ceremonies are a type of fire festival called dondo yaki (どんどやき) and since there was one held at a nearby shrine, I had to go and say farewell to the New Year decorations myself.

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By the start of the festival, the stack to be burned had reached head height and was full of all kinds of New Year decorations, such as kadomatsu and shimekazari, as well as good luck charms used during the previous year. Do you see the white, zigzag-shaped paper streamers? These are shide (しで) and are often used in shinto rituals. There was a short ceremony where the Shinto priests said a few words and led the attendees in a prayer while a few late comers quickly dashed in to add their own decorations and charms to the overflowing stack.

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I couldn’t actually hear or understand much of what the Shinto priests were saying but once several men stepped in and began to set fire to the stack, I knew it was time to say goodbye to the New Year decorations.

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It took hardly any time at all for the fire to catch and really get going. To my surprise, as soon as the fire caught, everyone started rushing toward it! 

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I’ll admit it was a cold day but not so cold that you had to be right by the fire! As it turns out, this is another part of the tradition. Since the smoke is said to carry the spirits up to heaven, this smoke is considered divine and is supposed to convey good health to those receiving it. My husband and I did not know exactly what was going on at that moment but we had moved forward with the crowd. An older Japanese woman saw us standing there watching and must have thought we needed some good fortune because she started waving the smoke over to us. I really appreciated that she wanted to include us, the foreigners who obviously did not know what it was all about. And now that I know the meaning behind it, I feel like she was sharing her wishes for good fortune and health and I appreciate her gesture even more.

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As soon as most of the smoke cleared and the fire really got hot, people backed away from the fire just as quickly as they’d rushed in. 

As the fire burned some of the outer layers away, it also revealed some of the larger items that had been hidden like this daruma doll peaking out from the flames. Daruma dolls are a sort of good luck talisman and come in many sizes but most that I have seen before have been much smaller, usually so small they fit in the palm of your hand. With daruma dolls, the eyes are left blank. When a person has a goal or wish in mind, he or she fills in one eye and then places the daruma where it will be seen every day. The second eye can only be filled in when the goal or wish has been fulfilled.

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There were several groups of children at the dondo yaki and as they were preparing to leave, I noticed the youngest children were being chauffeured around in what looked like playpens on wheels. This was a new sight for me so I clicked a quick picture. They were all so cute in their matching hats!

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Just as we were preparing to leave, another older Japanese woman directed us into a line for small gifts the shrine was giving to each attendee. These consisted of an orange and candies, one pink and the other white. The pink represents the heart and health while the white represents snow and purity. We were told to make sure to eat these as they would bring health for us through the year. 

When I heard about the dondo yaki festival, I thought it would simply be a nice way to say goodbye to the New Year decorations that I’d enjoyed seeing along my walks every day. I expected to quickly stop by the shrine, watch the fire, and head home. But as with so many things in Japan, I discovered the underlying meaning and heartfelt wishes behind the tradition. As the fire burned away the charms and New Year decorations, it symbolized a release of the energy spent on the previous year’s goals and projects. I left the festival feeling re-energized, ready to leave last year in the past and looking forward to putting my renewed energy into the new year.

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Traditional Japanese Decorations: Inviting Spirits in for the New Year

At the end of the day on December 25th, Christmas decorations are quickly taken down and replaced with New Year decorations all across Japan. I saw this firsthand last year when my husband and I went to view Winter Illuminations on the 25th. When we left our local train station to head downtown, the store windows displayed Christmas trees and Santas but by the time we got back just a few hours later, the Christmas displays were gone and New Year decorations had taken their place! The transition felt rather abrupt to me but then when I considered that the New Year holiday is really the largest holiday in Japan, it’s somewhat more of a surprise that these decorations aren’t seen sooner. Generally though, they are displayed from December 26th through January 7th.

The kadomatsu (門松, “gate pine”) is one type of traditional Japanese New Year decoration placed in pairs (representing male and female) in front of homes and businesses. Kadomatsu are usually made of pine to represent longevity and bamboo to represent prosperity but other materials are sometimes included to add a little local flavor. The form of the kadomatsu is the same everywhere with three large bamboo shoots of varying heights placed in the center and the pine and other materials bound around them with straw mat and rope. The bamboo shoots from tallest to shortest represent heaven, humanity, and earth. The purpose of these decorations is to welcome ancestral spirits and Shinto deities for the New Year. The kadomatsu is considered temporary housing for the spirits and by honoring and receiving them in this way, it is thought they will bring a bountiful harvest and blessings for all. 

The shimekazari (しめ飾り) is another traditional Japanese New Year decoration that it is hung above the house entrance and is meant to keep out bad spirits while welcoming Shinto deities. I saw these hung at homes, businesses, and even on vending machines. Shimekazari are made of shimenawa (注連縄, “enclosing rope”), a Shinto braided straw rope that is considered sacred and marks the border to pure space when hung above a site’s entryway. It is this pure space where the Shinto deities can descend so these are common sights hanging above entrances to shrines. Shimekazari also have shide (しで), zigzag-shaped paper streamers that are often seen as part of Shinto rituals and ceremonies. Other auspicious items are often included. It is difficult to see but the shimekazari hanging over the sushi restaurant above has several auspicious items including pine twigs, a lobster, and a Japanese bitter orange. The pine represents longevity just as it did in the kadomatsu. Lobster also represents longevity because just like the shrimp from the osechi-ryori, the lobster’s shape is similar to that of an elderly man hunched over from old age. The Japanese bitter orange is a symbol of fertility because of a pun on their name. They are called daidai (橙) which can also be written with different kanji (代々) to mean “from generation to generation.”

Now that the 7th has passed, the New Year decorations have been taken down and I find that I miss them. Walking along and seeing these decorations always gave me the feeling that I was seeing a tangible form of hope and cheer for the new year. But I may have one last chance to see them before they are gone for good. Around January 15th, local shrines hold ceremonies where New Year decorations are gathered and burned  in order to appease the residing spirits and release them. I think it’s time I check the local paper.