New Year

Goodbye 2016. Hello 2017!


Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted here. After my last post, I started my final year in my Master’s program and things just got crazy busy. I was also working at the same time and just somehow allowed a lot of the fun things to slip through the cracks, including this blog. But it’s a new year and that means a fresh start, right? I’m ready! So here is a brief summary of where I’ve been the past few months and what lies ahead in 2017!



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.


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.


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.


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! 


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.


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.


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!


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.

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.

Japan’s New Year Foods

As I mentioned in my previous post about Japan’s New Year festivities, there are foods traditionally eaten in Japan around the New Year and since I wanted the Japanese New Year experience, there was no way I was missing out on this part of the fun!


The first food-related tradition we enjoyed was actually eaten on New Year’s Eve, or Omisoka (大晦日) as it is called in Japanese. On this day, it is tradition to eat a bowl of what is called toshikoshi-soba (年越しそば); the ‘toshikoshi’ part of the name basically means ‘passing from one year to the next.’ This dish consist of soba (buckwheat noodles) eaten plain or with the addition of scallions or tempura. Since soba noodles are long, they are thought to bring longevity. We decided to add a large helping of tempura to our bowls of soba. Delicious!


The main event in terms of Japanese New Year foods has to be osechi-ryori (御節料理). These are traditional New Year’s foods usually served in special boxes with several dividers. These boxes contain any combination of the many osechi dishes, each of which has its own significance. It was once considered bad luck to cook during the first three days of the new year, so these dishes are prepared by the end of the year and then eaten over the first three days of the new year. I am not sure how many people really follow the no cooking rule, but we decided to go ahead and observe it. After all, why not? It’s a nice little break from cooking (and the extra dishes that go along with it).


The osechi my husband and I ordered came in two separate boxes with the exact same dishes, one for each of us. You can see from the photo that there were so many different foods to try and unfortunately, it did not come with any guide to tell us exactly why each dish was significant. But here are the ones I know:

Dried anchovies  symbolize a bountiful harvest and wealth since their kanji (田作り) means ‘making rice crops.’ Sweet mashed potato paste (kinton-an) translates to ‘golden dumpling’ and so symbolizes economic fortune. Cod fish was also included for prosperity.

Burdock roots are for physical strength and health because the burdock plant’s roots grow deep into the ground. Candied chestnuts are for preventing illness.

The color red symbolizes happiness while white symbolizes purity and the combination of these two colors is said to be auspicious so many foods are included simply for their color. For example, our boxes included red and white vinegar daikon and carrots (this was hidden under the salmon roe) as well as salmon with white soy sauce.

Since salmon and herring roe are eggs, you can probably guess their significance – fertility. The herring row has the extra aspect of being a pun; ‘nishin’ is both the name of herring and a way of reading the kanji for ‘two parents’ (二親).

Black soy beans symbolize working hard, health and strength, as well as getting rid of evil. This is at least partly based on a pun because ‘mame’ means ‘bean’ and also begins the idiom ‘mamenihataraku’ (まめにはたらく), which means ‘to work really hard.’

The chestnut with 寿, or ‘long life,’ stamped on it was, of course, for longevity. (However, in the Warring States period of history, warriors took dried chestnuts with them when they traveled and so at that time it symbolized victory.) The shrimp is also a symbol of longevity because it is said it is shaped like an elderly person who has lived long enough to be hunched over and have a long beard. (I’ll never look at shrimp the same way again!)

Walnuts symbolize family happiness because the hard shell forms a barrier that protects the family.

Sweet omelette roll mixed with fish paste looks like a scroll and so symbolizes scholarship, culture, and progress.

The tied kelp roll is called ‘kobumaki.’ The ‘kobu’ is a pun on ‘yorukobu,’ which means ‘to be happy,’ while the roll shape ‘maki’ means ‘to wrap up.’ Together, ‘kobumaki’ symbolizes wrapping up happiness.

Finally, the ‘plum and pine needles’ dish sticking up from the top of the box are a symbol of spring.

I thought when we began sampling these dishes that there would probably be a couple items that I would struggle to finish even though I was determined to eat every bit and thus obtain all the luck possible for the upcoming year. As it turned out though, most of the dishes were absolutely delicious and the couple that I didn’t care much for (sardines and herring roe) weren’t really bad…they’re just not something I’d seek out to eat again on my own.

These traditional New Year foods were both fun to experience and delicious to eat. Eating these foods is one tradition that I would love to keep through the years. So if you ever have the opportunity to experience osechi-ryori, I say go for it! 

Japan’s New Year Festivities

The arrival of the New Year always brings about a time of reflection on the past year’s events and achievements as well as a renewed sense of hope and commitment to making the next year even better than the last. This year’s arrival also brought the opportunity for me to experience Japanese New Year traditions.

The Japanese New Year (正月, shogatsu) is perhaps the largest holiday observed in Japan. It is more a time to spend with family than a time to party with friends and many people travel back to their hometowns to spend the holiday with their families. Many businesses also close for several days between December 29th and January 3rd so if you are not one of those packing into trains to travel to another city but are instead staying home (as my husband and I did), most of the New Year week can be rather quiet. But if you know where to go, there is still plenty going on.

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Before we left home on New Year’s Eve to join festivities elsewhere, we started our celebration in front of the TV. Many people around the world watch various celebrations counting down to midnight. In Japan, if you are staying home then you are probably watching the Kohaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦), which literally means ‘red and white song battle’ and is called the Kohaku, for short. For this annual music program broadcast by NHK, the most popular music artists are invited to join one of two competing teams, the white team and the red team. Through the night, these artists perform and try to gain votes from the audience at home. Of course it’s not just about the musical performance itself but also the costumes, dance, lighting…whatever it takes to put on an impressive show. By the end of the night, either the red or white team will be announced the victor. We only caught the beginning this year since we had to hurry out to take part in another Japanese New Year custom.


The custom we rushed off to join this year was hatsumode (初詣), the year’s first visit to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple. Since many people are off from work, they make this visit during the first three days of the year. This year we decided to join in the fun on New Year’s Eve at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, where thousands gathered to welcome the new year.


This is a view of the crowd just before midnight. It looks like quite a few people showed up this year, doesn’t it? What’s even more amazing is that the small screen you can see in the distance is actually a huge screen the size of a truck that is sitting at a turn in the path to the shrine. That’s right, there are hundreds more visitors on the other side of the curve that you can’t even see in this picture!


As the clock struck midnight, the shrine gates opened and the sound of drums marked the start of the New Year. Even from our spot back in the crowd, we could hear the drums and the crowd suddenly pushed forward, eager to get closer to the shrine.


This photo shows the view once we made it past that corner and could see the shrine gate in the distance.


Once we finally reached the shrine gate, we could get a glimpse of the shrine inside. Notice the arrow and target hung toward the top of the gate and the two large wooden plaques with horses painted on them? These aren’t usually here but are decorations for the New Year festivities. Smaller versions are sold by the shrine for the New Year occasion. The ‘demon-breaking’ arrow (hamaya) is meant to destroy evil spirits and and is placed in the home as a good luck charm for the year. The wooden plaques bearing horses are huge ema. Shrine worshipers write their prayers or wishes on the back of the ema and then hang them at the shrine for the gods or spirits to receive them. These ema have pictures of horses because 2014 is the Year of the Horse.


This is the actual shrine where worshipers throw coin offerings and pray. Usually worshipers would be able to walk up to the shrine building and throw their coins in a small offerings box but it seemed that for New Year, the crowd was kept back from the building and coins were thrown onto a large cloth covering the space in front of the shrine.


After visiting the shrine, we walked through the stalls selling good luck charms and I purchased a couple souvenirs (hayama and ema). This was followed by a visit to many, many food stalls which I unfortunately did not photograph. I think our hands were just too full of goodies!

There are many more customs surrounding the New Year holiday here in Japan and of course not everyone celebrates the same way but we really had a great time enjoying these Japanese New Year traditions. We also observed some of the traditions involving foods eaten on and around New Year’s Day but I will have more on that later. For now, wherever you are and however you celebrate, I wish you a Happy New Year!