Happy New Year Japan Style- Culture Lesson #8

Monks herald the New Year at Midnight in every shrine throughout Japan with the tolling of a bell 108 times. This Buddhist tradition symbolizes the 108 human sins and banishes each as the new year begins. So begins the biggest celebration of the year in the Japanese culture.

The celebration of New Years must start at lunch time on December 29th because that’s when Andretti-san and I were looking for a parking place in Shinjuku and it coincided with the time all the Japanese left work to start the holiday. I was in a post-holiday shopping mood and was on the hunt for a yakitori grill. Andretti-san was educating me on the various types of miniature grills available and was afraid  I would be unable to complete the task without his assistance. He was determined to find a parking place and escort me in to Bic- the largest “camera store” on Earth. 10 floors of cameras and every other form of electric, gas, or home appliance of which one could conceive to move in to a home or office.

Ouiser-                “Andretti-san- just tell me how to say “grill” in Japanese- All I have to                                   do is go buy a grill- put it on the deck- voila- done.”

Andretti-san started to laugh- and laugh- and laugh…

“Ouiser-san- you don’t put a grill on YOUR DECK!!!!! It goes on your                                       table!!!! HAHAHAHAHA”

Ouiser-                “What the Hell kind of grill goes on your table?”

Andretti-san-   “HAHAHAHAHA  gas one- electric one-                                                                                         HAHAHAHA- grill on table in Japan… HAHAHAHA”

As Andretti-san was enjoying my ignorance I glanced out the window at the swarming masses just in time to see one man kick another.

“Andretti-san- FIGHT!!!!

That diverted Andretti-san’s attention.

“OH!!! Chinese style of fighting!” Andretti-san slammed the car in park, ignoring all of the traffic around us, so we could both watch the two combatants – both well in to their 60’s  going  after each other with their feet. No one else seemed to notice the fight for they were focused on Andretti-san’s parked car in the middle of the street. We watched until one man finally walked off, the other threateningly waving his cane in the air. Andretti-san was not going to move the car until either the fight was over or until I said go.

Andretti-san sniffed in disappointment  “Time for vacation”

Ouiser-      ” Forced vacation. Since this place closes down from Dec. 3oth until January                          2nd. I’m afraid we’re going to starve or die of boredom I’ve heard nothing is                        open.”

Andretti-san- “True- get whatever you need today Ouiser-san.” He said happily.

Hearing him confirm that one of the largest cities in the world closed down for 4 days made me feel like I needed to prepare for an impending disaster. Visions of heading to the grocery store buying out all the bread, milk, water and flashlights flashed through my mind. I became obsessed with this grill. All of the sudden the grill was my only means of cooking for the next 4 days as the rest of Japan would be eating preserved food in the form of osechi-ryori- a tradition dating back to the centuries prior to refrigeration.  It was imperative that I grilled chicken, fish and steak from Dec 30th-Jan 2nd even though my rational side told me the power was not going out. OCD is a terrible thing.

Andretti-san        “Most of the younger women don’t know how to make osechi-ryori It’s                                   only being made by the mothers. ”

Ouiser                   “Is it like the Japanese Tea ceremony? Being lost by the culture?”

Andretti-san        “Yes- is it the same in the US with Thanksgiving?”

Ouiser                   “No-We Americans don’t lose fat filled food related traditions.”

Andretti-san         “Now the younger generation just buys it.”

Hmmm- if I bought the osechi-ryori that would eliminate one meal and the Clampetts could enjoy Japanese culture at the same time. Although late in the week to be ordering osechi-ryori Andretti-san was not to be trifled with. As usual, he found a store advertising osechi-ryori and in a polite, Japanese “this will get done” sort of way convinced the quaking clerk to sneak in one more order for four. Somewhere there is an army of aging Japanese women who cook throughout the night supplying thousands of grocery and convenience stores with the best homemade Japanese food. Apparently these poor hidden women also make osechi-ryori for New Years meals also.

The osechi-ryori typically is served in a jubako box which is 4 boxes stacked. The meal is meant to last several days. Traditionally New Years was the only time the woman of the family took several days off. Now the meal contains sashimi and sushi as well as other perishable items. These boxes – jubako- can be very elaborate lacquered, ceramic, gold-plated, etc. I want one- a nice one. I’ll put stationery supplies in it.

Feeling like I was preparing for an oncoming hurricane for which I would be stranded surrounded by water for several days, Andretti-san and I headed to Ginza for supplies. One of which was traditional New Years cards for our Japanese friends. Interestingly, if one gets to the post office by a certain date, all of the New Years cards receive a special stamp. With that stamp, the card will be delivered to the recipient on New Years Day. I’m only getting the tradition half right since none of our Japanese friends will be getting a card on New Years. The post office hires students and extra staff to accomplish this daunting feat. Since this is the year of the Rabbit, most cards bear its image. If one has had a death in the family, a special card goes out prior to New Years informing family and friends not to send cards out of respect for the deceased. The tradition started as a way of letting friends and family know that all was well. Many are hand-made. (Examples provided by Offspring #2)

Otoshidama- money envelopes are given to the children as they are in China. (Culture Lesson #7)

Through out the day, decorations started to pop up. Outside of shops appeared kadomatsu. Kadomatsu are made of pine, bamboo, and straw. Pairs are placed outside of front doors or gates. The pine tree symbolizes longevity as it is evergreen while unbreakable bamboo is a symbol of strength. Woven rope seen in decorations wards off bad luck.

Doorways were decorated with Shimekazari. These usually contain crops of the harvest offered to gods as thanks for the previous year and to pray for a successful harvest in the upcoming year. Many contain a prawn which is a prayer for longevity.

New Year’s Day itself begins a massive parade of firsts. Starting at midnight, trains are all redirected in a one way direction toward the Meiji Shrine where thousands of Japanese head to pray for prosperity in the coming year. Most Japanese start the New Year at either a local shrine or their favorite shrine. Being a highly superstitious person, I will be adopting this Japanese practice. Braving the crowds is not high on my list of “must do’s” however, people watching during such festivities is highly entertaining. I am getting better at taking photos of people without them noticing. I actually have learned how to ask for permission in Japanese, however, the embarrassment to the Offspring when I whip out the camera and start snapping away is so fulfilling I hate to resort to politeness.


Meiji Shrine Tori

Meiji Shrine

Sensoji Temple in Asakasa

Sensoji Temple in Asakasa

Another fairly typical activity done on New Years is to watch the first sun rise of the new year. I don’t have a beautiful picture of Japanese lovers gazing off in to the horizon adoringly from the peaks of Mount Fuji- or I’d insert it here.

Finally, mochi is eaten, games are played and Ouiser feels like the walls are coming in on her since everything is closed. This is truly when one must actually “Do as the Romans do” and embrace the culture. Go to the shrine, force the Offspring to come along, be thankful for the blessings the previous year brought and pray that next year is as good as last.

Happy New Year!

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7 Responses to Happy New Year Japan Style- Culture Lesson #8

  1. cyanyears says:

    Loved the post. Always interesting to learn a bit more about Japanese culture.

    By the way, did you mean “superstitious” instead of “suspicious?”


  2. All I can say is WOW about that food they eat for NYE celebrations. It looks so yummy and what beautiful photos. What beautiful temples. I am in awe of Japan and its culture. You’re so lucky to be there and experience it. Can’t believe about that fight! Sounds like something out of a kung-fu film lol. Thank you for taking time to share your experience with us and Happy New Year!


    • amblerangel says:

      Spouse said “why didn’t you take video?” of course I would’ve missed too much digging for my camera… I wonder if all this stuff was around in the US an I just didn’t notice…


  3. I learned a lot! I think I am going to start following your blog. ^_^


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