5 Japanese New Year’s Traditions

Each country has its own unique way of celebrating the coming of the New Year. You might celebrate the New Year completely differently than I do: here in France we usually eat tons of not-so-healthy foods with friends and family and take a day off on January 1st. You might also be familiar with the famous Chinese New Year festivities and all its events.

But have you ever wondered what it’s like in Japan? Let’s find out!

1 – Kadomatsu 門松

The Tradition

Kadomatsu is a traditional Japanese decoration made of bamboo and pine, ornamented with various elements such as flowers, folding fans…

kadomatsu

This decoration originated around the traditional belief that some Kami (神) reside in the branches of trees; therefore this ornament came to be used to welcome Toshigami (年神)  inside one’s house by placing it outside, usually near one’s front gate. This kind of object which aims to be inhabited by Kami are called Yorishiro (依り代) and it is said that “Pine binds [souls] for a millennium, bamboo for eternity” (basically that bamboo is like, way better than pine).

By the way, Toshigami are a kind of Kami that are believed to come with each New Year; however, depending on the region, they are also believed to be the spirits of ancestors who come back to protect the house. But either way, Kadomatsu is a sign of welcome to those deities and look pretty cool.

Kadomatsu in front of a gate

Matsu No Uchi 松の内

Due to these beliefs, you’ll find this kind of decoration right after New Year’s, for a small period of time called Matsu No Uchi (松の内). What’s interesting now though, is that, depending on where you are in the country, the length of this time period varies. It basically falls into 2 categories: a week or two, starting on January 1st.

Traditionally, Matsu No Uchi lasted from the 1st to the 15th of January, this is still the case in regions such as Kansai (関西, located to the West of the country).

However, it has been a growing tendency recently for Matsu No Uchi to last from the 1st to the 7th of January in certain areas, mainly in the Kantō region (関東, to the East, centered around Tōkyō). You can also find punk areas where Matsu No Uchi lasts for instance 3 days, but they’re less common.

Matsu No Uchi January Calendar
Matsu No Uchi January Calendar

2 – Otoshidama お年玉

Today, Otoshidama is a tradition consisting of giving money to children on New Year’s Day to celebrate the newly entered year. The money is handed in Otoshidama-bukuro (お年玉袋), also called Pochibukuro (ポチ袋), which are small decorated envelopes.

pochibukuro

Origin

Now, what may surprise you is the fact that at first, it wasn’t money that was handed out, it was mochi: Japanese rice cake. But not any mochi, no. The kind of mochi that symbolized spirits or souls (魂, Tamashii). So, where did this tradition originate?

Well, again, it all has to do with Kami. As we’ve seen, on New Year’s day in Japan, you welcome deities in your house and give them hospitality; and it was thought that, along with happiness and fortune, Toshigami would give you part of their Tamashii (soul). But to receive the gift of their spirit, you would need to eat mochi placed in the house, which would serve as Yorishiro to the Tamashii of the Kami. The spirit of the New Year would then be called Toshi-damashii (年魂) and would reside in a Mochi-dama (餅玉, lit. mochi ball).

And that is how the word Toshidama (年玉) would have supposedly come to exist. So at first, Otoshidama was about giving Mochi within the family to absorb the gift of the Kami.

Although today Otoshidama has somewhat become a new tradition where money is given as a gift, these Mochi still hold a very important place during Japanese New Year within the traditions of Kagami Mochi and O-Zōni, which we’ll discover later in this post.

But we still need to know, how did Otoshidama switch from Mochi to Money ?

Transition from Mochi to Money

Well, there isn’t one particular event that changed the whole course of Otoshidama History overnight. It kind of happened gradually.

Although there are many theories as to when Otoshidama started exactly, it is said that it started spreading and becoming very popular during the Edo period.

During this period of time, of course Mochi was being offered as part of the tradition, but other objects including money were also handed out at the time of the New Year. And these gifts given around New Year’s gradually came to be commonly referred to as Otoshidama.

Fast forward to the late 50s, early 60s, during Japan’s economic miracle, it became a mainstream custom to give money for Otoshidama. That’s also when Otoshidama came to be almost exclusively turned toward children.

3 – Kagami Mochi 鏡餅

Alright, so speaking of Mochi, because after reading about Otoshidama, it clearly holds an important place during Japanese New Year; let’s talk about Kagami Mochi, literally meaning “Mirror Rice Cake”.

kagamimochi
Traditional Kagami Mochi Structure

The structure

So, Kagami Mochi in itself is a decoration made of two round mochi, one bigger than the other, the smaller mochi placed on top of the bigger one. Atop these two mochi proudly stands a mandarin orange (蜜柑, mikan) or Daidai orange (橙, Japanese bitter orange) which you can sometimes see decorated with a colored fan.

This whole structure sits on a sheet called Shihō-beni (四方紅, white sheet with red borders) which is itself laid on a stand called Sanpō (三方, lit. “three directions”). Also, you’ll often see a type of fern called Urajiro (裏白) hanging. Another traditional element that you’ll find a lot is Gohei (御幣) or Shide (四手). They’re traditional Shintō papers which are folded into a lightning or zigzag shape.

Note that what I’ve described seems to be the standardized, most common Kagami Mochi structure. You can see Kagami Mochi decorated in many different ways and that’s part of what makes it really cool!

kagami Mochi
Another Kagami Mochi, slightly different

Purpose and Tradition

Kagami Mochi is another type of Yorishiro which welcomes New Year Deities inside the house. This is also how the New Year Deities supposedly give part of their souls to the members of the Household, like the traditional Otoshidama.

Kagami Mochi are often placed in the toko-no-ma (床の間) which is a decorated alcove you can find in the main room of the house. But it is also thought to be good to place multiple Kagami Mochi in the house as they can also be incarnated by other Deities and bring all kinds of fortune to the household.

This decoration is then usually taken down and eaten on the eleventh of January (numbers with matching digits are thought to be bring luck, 01/11–>111), but that can change depending on the region in which you find yourself in. This process is called Kagami-biraki (鏡開き, lit. opening of the mirror). During Kagami-biraki though, you cannot cut the mochi with a blade because it can be associated with Seppuku (切腹), therefore, you either have to tear the mochi with your hands or use a wooden mallet. The Mochi is then enjoyed within feasts such as O-Zōni, which we’ll talk about in an instant.

kagamibirak
Kagamibiraki in a nutshell

But first, we need to know where Kagami-Mochi comes from…

Origin

Where did this tradition come from and why is it called “mirror” rice cake, you ask?

Surprisingly enough, it actually does have something to do with mirrors. Well… kinda. The name Kagami Mochi (Mirror Rice Cake) finds its origin through bronze mirrors, which preceded today’s glass mirrors that we often use. Bronze mirrors were round, and so Kagami Mochi came to be called this way because of the similarity in the shape of both the mochi and the mirrors (which were simply called “kagami” (鏡, mirror)).

bronze mirro

Now the mochi themselves can be traced back to the Heian Era (平安時代, 794 – 1185 AD) through the very famous literary work “The Tale Of Genji” (源氏物語, published very early in the 11th century). In this tale, the “Mochi Kagami” (for some reason the words were inverted back then) is mentioned at some point, along with a “teeth hardening ritual”. Indeed, it was a common practice to chew on rather solid foods to maintain healthy teeth and therefore a healthy life. This custom was known as Hagatame (歯固め, lit. teeth hardening) and Kagami Mochi was associated with this practice. In a certain way, Kagami Mochi stands as the remains of this old tradition. 

Kagami Mochi came to be decorated and used the way it is today around the Muromachi Period (室町時代, 1336 – 1573 AD) when toko-no-ma started appearing in houses.

Alright then, let’s keep on talking about food! and move on to…

4 – O-Zōni お雑煮

O-Zōni is a dish very much associated with New Year’s in Japan and enjoyed along with O-Sechi Ryōri (coming next in this post!). It consists of a soup flavored with soy sauce or miso dashi, within which bathes a Mochi with various vegetables. The word in itself means “miscellaneous boiling” or something along those lines: 雑 (zō) means “miscellaneous” and 煮 (ni) means “to boil” or “to simmer”. The O is an honorary prefix very VERY often used in Japanese.

ozouni soup
Traditional O-Zouni Soup

Origin

Although today O-Zōni is strongly associated with New Year’s, it used to be eaten a lot more often than that. There is no definite answer as to when O-Zōni came to be, nevertheless, common theories seem to approximately date its origin back to the 14th century during the Muromachi period (室町時代, 1336 – 1573 AD) within samurai society. It is thought that it was a dish often eaten on the battlefields along with other ingredients, notably dried foods.

The dish was, at the time, called Hōzō (烹雑) and gradually spread to the common people and became a staple food. The character 烹 (hō) means “to boil”, just like 煮 (ni), so Hōzō basically had the same meaning as Zōni (雑煮). The first character (烹, hō) was probably replaced by 煮 (ni) because language evolution and stuff… And so we found ourselves with a new word with the same meaning : 煮雑 (read “nimaze” in modern Japanese). Only the characters were all mixed up! It was Zōni backwards, and still not quite the word we know today. So maybe they switched it up (language evolution and stuff… again) and that’s how the word came to be? There is no definite answer to that either, but that is one theory.

O-Zōni came to be associated with New Year’s as it was used within ceremonies around New Year’s Eve as a gift to the Gods. And so the general idea behind eating this mochi soup was to receive the “power of the Gods” through eating the mochi, as in many traditions similar to the ones mentioned earlier in this post.

aomori style ozouni
Aomori Style O-Zōni

Today

Nowadays, O-Zōni is enjoyed in various ways depending on the region in Japan. You might eat a soup with a completely different taste and different vegetables than someone on the other side of the country might. This dish commonly includes some type of meat such as chicken or meatballs; you’ll often find some local fish thrown in there too. Other ingredients that are frequently added in this soup include carrots, daikon, different kinds of tofu, various types of leaf vegetables like komatsuna, etc…

One of the main components that varies along with the region is the broth. Each and every place likes to make it its own by incorporating diverse elements and using different types of fish from local waters to make for a unique broth with its own unique taste and history behind it.

Of course, another key component of the dish that can drastically change its personality is the mochi. The most common type you might come across is a rectangular, grilled mochi called Kadomochi, which is most often found in the Kantō region (East of the country). In the South of the Kansai region however, there is a good chance you might be served a round mochi called Marumochi, which probably won’t have been grilled like it would’ve in Kantō. And in the Northern part of the country like in Hokkaido, they like to do a mixture of both as, after the Meiji era, people moving from the South of the country to the North brought with them their own way of making o-zōni. Nonetheless, the tendency of mainly using Kadomochi (rectangular mochi), is spreading throughout the whole country.

All in all, this very dish is considered to be very auspicious and is a staple of the Japanese New Year having a very unique soul with features that differ throughout the country allowing for many different experiences.

Clearly, this mochi soup is a definite must, so if you ever find yourself in Japan at this time of year, make sure not to miss out on it!

5 – O-Sechi Ryōri 御節料理

Probably the most emblematic Japanese New Year’s food: O-Sechi Ryōri! Presented in bentō-like boxes called jūbako (重箱) which generally come in sets, O-Sechi Ryōri is a beautiful arrangement of many foods stacked together. And each ingredient holds a meaning for the New Year’s celebrations!

Origin

At first, O-sechi ryori wasn’t solely intended for the New Year. It was first introduced as an offering to the Gods when came a new season or, guess what, a New Year. This dates back to a really long time ago but truly settled during the Nara period (710-794 AD) through the tradition of Sekku (節句) which came from China and was based on the Chinese calendar which included five seasons. It was a court ceremony within which was held a banquet called Sechie (節会). In this banquet thrived O-Sechi ryori, which was at the time called O-Sechiku (御節供) and didn’t exactly look like the modern day New Year’s dish we now know. It was, from my understanding, more or less a dish with elevated rice, literally. Take a look at this picture:

takamori meshi
高盛ご飯, lit. elevated rice, I guess

It was around the Edo Era that O-sechiku came to be more widely known and enjoyed by most people of Japan and not only the elite of the court. At first the term referred to the entirety of Sekku’s cuisine, however it gradually came to be associated with and refer to the most important of the five sekku’s food, the New Year’s. The manners around New Year’s cuisine came to be shaped after the etiquette of the military nobility as time went on.

Now, although the tradition of O-sechi ryōri started to resemble the one we know today during the Edo period, the name O-sechi ryōri is pretty recent as it dates back to the Second World War. Indeed, before that, O-sechi ryōri was commonly referred to as Hōrai Kazari (蓬莱飾り) in the Kansai area and Kuitsumi (食積) in Edo. Some other regions had other appellations too. At this time, families cooked O-sechi ryōri themselves; however, come World War II, department stores started selling this type of food in modern day bentō like boxes known as jūbako, labeling them “O-Sechi” (おせち), making for the O-sechi ryōri we know today. 

Foods full of wishes

Today, O-sechi ryōri is comprised of many different ingredients which hold meanings and prayers. Let’s take a look at some of them:

  • Kuromame 黒豆 are black soybeans which pray for a long and healthy life.
kuromame
  • 昆布巻 Kobumaki are rolls made of kombu (昆布, type of kelp) which are filled most often with fish. They are intended as wishes of good luck. 
kobumaki
  • 海老 Ebi, which means Shrimps are a staple and have a rather funny meaning as they wish you to live a long life and grow old ’til you have as long a beard and as bent a back as shrimps have haha. So yeah they pray for longevity.
ebi
  • 里芋 Satoimo, apparently called Taro in English, can’t say I’ve ever seen that word or ever eaten this ingredient, however it is part of O-sechi ryōri and prays for prosperity upon one’s descendants. 
satoimo

These are only a few of the MANY different foods you can eat with O-sechi ryōri on New Year’s Day in Japan. This set of meticulously prepared ingredients is a must in Japan, and although New Year’s Day is definitely the main association made with this dish, you can still enjoy it on other days of Sekku. However, I do think that it is less common. But in any case, O-sechi ryōri just looks beautiful and delicious, I mean look at that:

So these were 5 Japanese New Year’s traditions. I hope I was able to give some insights as to how the New Year kinda looks like in Japan. Of course this is not an exhaustive list and there are many other traditions, just like in every country. I hope you have enjoyed this post, please feel free to point out any mistakes if you spot any, and have a great day!

By the way, have you ever tried some of these Japanese New Year foods? How was it? Did you ever get to experience the New Year in Japan?

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