Featured in Escape magazine, produced by GPlusMedia in Tokyo.
Every December, Japan shrugs off its autumn coat. The Halloween ornaments have disappeared and the year’s biggest religious event is on the way. Oshogatsu, New Year, is about to grip the nation.
In 1873, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar and Jan. 1 officially became New Year’s Day. Today, oshogatsu is a grand amalgamation of arcane Shinto and Buddhist practices and ever-evolving contemporary trends.
Against the frenzied backdrop of Christmas shopping and year-end work parties, houses are fastidiously cleaned to welcome the new year. To invite blessings from spirits and deities, pine, plum and bamboo decorations are placed in front of shops and homes, and stacks of mochi rice cakes topped with a mikan mandarin are displayed indoors.
It’s customary to post nengajo greeting cards to arrive on New Year’s Day, however, sending digital cards instead is increasing. An eerie silence descends on normally bustling cities as schools and businesses close and people return to their hometowns for holidays.
In western countries, New Year’s Eve is generally a raucous affair with friends. Japan’s version is quieter and family-focused. In a typical Japanese household, expect the slurping of soba noodles and special spiced sake rather than dance music and champagne popping on the cusp of New Year. There’s a classic annual singing contest on TV and old-style oshogatsu children’s games, but their popularity is waning in this era of Netflix and Nintendo.
On New Year’s Eve, temple bells across the country toll 108 times leading up to midnight to atone for humanity’s sins. Millions brave the wintry cold to attend this ritual or over the following days. This is hatsumode, the first shrine or temple visit of the year. Intrepid enthusiasts even trek to beaches or mountains for hatsuhinode, viewing the year’s first sunrise.
Back at home, feasting commences on elaborate osechi ryori boxes featuring little dishes carrying auspicious tidings, like black soybeans for health or golden chestnuts for prosperity. This labor-intensive cuisine was once usually homemade, but is often store-bought today.
It’s old-fashioned food that no longer appeals to many modern palates so alternatives like French or Chinese-style osechi ryori are on the rise, or people celebrate with expensive, high-quality beef or sushi. But the tradition of eating ozoni soup with mochi rice dumplings is still widely treasured. The types of broth, ranging from savory to sweet, vary by region.
Children receive otoshidama envelopes of money from relatives. New year sales begin and bargain hunters stampede for fukubukuro mystery goodie bags. On Jan. 2, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo opens to the public. Oshogatsu symbolically ends when temple priests burn their sacred new year artifacts around Jan. 15.
There’s a Japanese saying, “The whole of the year is contained within New Year’s Day.” But actually, oshogatsu is a collision of the old and new, spanning millennia. Where else but Japan can you buy an amulet to ward off computer viruses from a 1000-year old shrine? Here, even the ancient gods seem to be embracing the future in their stride.