|What is Oshogatsu and why is it important to the Japanese
The most important Japanese Holiday of the year is New Year or Oshogatsu (正月). It has the same resonance as Christmas for the Christians faith: a time for celebration, spiritual communion and being with family. The New Year is a great opportunity to celebrate the religious aspect in Japanese culture as well as eat great foods.
Hatsu-hinode 初日の出 (First Sunrise)
(photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)
January 1 is a very auspicious day, best started by viewing the new year’s first sunrise (jpn. hatsu-hinode), and traditionally believed to be representative for the whole year that has just commenced. Therefore, the day is supposed be full of joy and free of stress and anger, while everything should be clean and no work should be done.
Hatsumode (ha-zoo-mo-day) is one of these many customs, and is included in one of the many “first of the year” rituals. Hatsumode refers to the first visit to a shrine or a temple in the New Year. Today, it is very often the case that people visit shrines and temples from midnight on New Year’s Eve in order to hear the temple bells ringing in the New Year (see below), they then welcome in the New Year there and perform hatsumōde at the same time.
Joya No Kane 除夜の鐘 (New Year Bell Ringing)
Joya no kane (Jo-ya-no-ka-nay) refers to the bell that is rung at a temple on the night of New Year’s Eve. The word joya literally means “New Year’s Eve night”. The Joya no Kane is a yearly Japanese tradition wherein the large bell inside a Buddhist temple is struck 108 times on the New Year. There is actually a significant meaning to the number of times the bell is tolled. 108 rings from the temple or shrine is rung representing the number of our human failings (jpn. Bonnou,煩悩) with 107 rung before midnight and 1 after midnight.
Kadomatsu 門松 (gate pine)
A kadomatsu is a traditional Japanese decoration of the New Year placed in pairs in front of homes to welcome ancestral spirits or kami of the harvest. The central portion of the kadomatsu is formed from three large bamboo shoots, though plastic kadomatsu are available. Similar to several traditions of ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement), the shoots are set at different heights and represent heaven, humanity, and earth with heaven being the highest and earth being the lowest.Designs for kadomatsu vary depending on region but are typically made of pine, bamboo, and sometimes ume tree sprigs which represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness, respectively. After binding all the elements of the kadomatsu, it is bound with a straw mat and newly woven straw rope. Kadomatsu are placed in pairs on either side of the gate, representing male and female. Kadomatsu are placed in pairs on either side of the gate, representing male and female. They are placed during New Year’s week (Matsu no Uchi) and ends between January 7 and January 15 depending on the region. The fundamental function of the New Year ceremonies is to honor and receive the deity (toshigami), who will then bring a bountiful harvest for farmers and bestow the ancestors’ blessing on everyone.
Osechi-ryori 御節料理 (Japanese New Year Food)
In the earliest days, Osechi Ryori(oh-say-chee Ree-o-ree) consisted only of boiled vegetables with soy sauce and sugar or mirin(jpn. Nimono). Osechi was made by the close of the previous year, as women did not cook in the New Year. Today, it can be almost anything that is specially prepared for New Years. Similar to bento boxes, Osechi Ryori are usually packed in 2-3 layers of lacquer boxes (ojubako) and there are many dishes in each layer. Many of these dishes are sweet, sour, or dried, so they can keep without refrigeration—the culinary traditions date to a time before households had refrigerators, when most stores closed for the holidays. There are many variations of osechi, and some foods eaten in one region are not eaten in other places (or are considered inauspicious or even banned) on New Year’s Day. Another popular dish is ozōni (jpn.お雑煮), a soup with mochi rice cake and other ingredients that differ based on various regions of Japan. Osechi can be ordered at stores like Nijiya prior to New Year’s Eve.
Mochi お餅 (Japanese Rice Cake)
Another custom is to create and eat rice cakes (jpn. 餅 mochi). Boiled sticky rice (jpn. 米 mochigome) is put into a wooden container (jpn. usu (臼) and patted with water by one person while another person hits it with a large wooden mallet. Mashing the rice, it forms a sticky white dumpling. This is made before New Year’s Day and eaten during the beginning of January. Mochi is made into a New Year’s decoration called kagami mochi (鏡餅), formed from two round cakes of mochi with a tangerine (jpn. 橙 daidai) placed on top. The name daidai is supposed to be auspicious since it means “several generations.” New Year’s mochi can be ordered at Benkyodo in Japantown.