“I’ve just spent four days cleaning my house, one day for each room. Is this winter cleaning the same as spring cleaning in England?” my host mother asked. I told her frankly that I didn’t know anyone in England who spends four days cleaning their house, even under the name of ‘spring cleaning’. Yet in Japan osoji cleaning is an essential part of the new year celebrations and is done in homes, offices and schools. On the last day of term, I’d spent over an hour cleaning the school with the students; washing windows and wiping surfaces as part of osoji. This is the first of many traditions of shogatsu, New Year in Japan.
Shogatsu is celebrated during the first week of January and it’s a time when families get together, share symbolic food and welcome in the new year together. Just like a western Christmas, the preparations for the festival puts the country in a mild state of panic as houses need to be cleaned, decorations need to be hung and banquets of food needs to be cooked. Yet, when New Year’s Eve arrives families settle into spending lazy days at home, visiting relatives and eating mochi rice cakes under their kotatsu.
New Year Eve
On December 31st, most families watch their favourite TV shows until just before midnight when they dress up warm and visit a Buddhist temple. Neighbours join force to ring a large bell 108 times, the number of worldly desires in Buddhist belief, to cast off their sins from the previous year. After the bells have been rung, long soba noodles and ozoni soup is eaten to bring about a long, happy year.
From then on, a number of firsts are celebrated. The first visit to a shrine or temple, the first sunrise and, the first dream hatsuyume. The first dream is on the night of New Year’s Day to the morning of the 2nd and the luckiest dreams are: “first, Mt.Fuji; second, hawks; third, eggplants”. The origin of these ‘lucky’ dreams are contested so I’m afraid I can’t tell you how the humble eggplant (aubergine) got into the top three!
New Year’s Day
As I walked around Echizen on January 1st, it felt like a ghost town. Cars were in driveways, lights were on but the streets were deserted. I realised later that families don’t generally go out on these days, except to visit a shrine on New Year’s Day. I stopped to watch as a middle-aged man make his first visit to a shrine. He first threw a coin in to an offering box, bowed deeply twice, clapped his hands, bowed again and then pulled a rope that hit a bronze gong. As the sound vibrated through the vicinity, he held his hands in pray. I then copied him, but didn’t bang the gong so forcefully as I didn’t want to wake the kami, the Shinto gods. What would they think of me with a camera round my neck and not knowing if I was in a temple or a shrine!
The mix of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs is confusing for most foreigners. A friendly café owner explained to me that he visits a Buddhist temple to pray for his deceased relatives, but he visits a Shinto shrine to pray for good luck about worldly things, such as health and good business. This has been confirmed to be by my bible of Japanese culture*, that assures me that Buddhism is associated with spiritual matters and temples host funerals. Whereas, Shinto is a religion of earthly matters and shrines are places to pray for success in everyday life. Most people in Japan practise both faiths therefore, it’s customary to both visit a temple, to be purified from the sins they committed in the last year, and a shrine, to pray for good fortune in the coming year. The best of both worlds, you could say.
After all that praying has been done, osechi-ryori is eaten from tiered lacquered boxes filled with symbolic foods. I didn’t try any of this food, nor did I visit a temple at midnight because I was partying with a mix of Brazilian and Irish friends in Osaka. When the clock struck 12, I was in an Irish pub drinking Magners and humming Auld Lang Syne. I had no chance to hear the bells ring out 108 times over the racket of drunk ex-pats!
Yet when my group of rowdy revellers were wandering the streets of downtown Osaka and shouting “Happy New Year” to everyone and anyone, I noticed that they’d been no fireworks. Surely every country has fireworks at midnight on New Year’s Eve? Well, apparently not Japan. Fireworks here are associated with summer festivals. I don’t really blame them, as who wants to watch fireworks outside in minus zero temperatures? When we eventually found the club we we’re searching for, I was happy to be inside and dancing the new year away with my new friends.
I haven’t even touched on the sending nengajo New Year’s card or about children receiving packets of money from their relatives, but as you can see New Year in Japan is steeped in tradition, religion and history to bring about a good year and wave good bye to the previous year.
Welcome, the year of the snake!
*The Bilingual Handbook on Japanese Culture. Gillespie, J. K. (2004).