Today’s Japanese theme of the day is 大晦日 (oomisoka), aka “New Year’s Eve.” In this post, I’ll cover what Japanese people traditionally do at the end of the year. ^^
Before the new year, Japanese people often do 大掃除 (oosouji), aka clean their homes, to start the new year on a clean state.
They then decorate their homes with ribboned pines and bamboo called 門松 (kadomatsu)
and make like a snowman made of mochi* balls with a tangerine (橙/daidai) head called 鏡餅 (kagamimochi) that serves as a little god to pray to. (As far as I know, most Japanese people aren’t really devoted to any one religion, but even if they are, they still tend to pray to this kagamimochi because it’s tradition.)
They also write and send new year’s post-cards (年賀状/nengajou) to their friends and family, usually depicting the zodiac animal of the coming year. (FYI: 2013 will be the year of the snake!)
*Mochi (餅) are gluttinous rice balls that are basically made by heating rice soaked in water, mixing it until it becomes all doughy, and then pounding the hell out of it with a hammer called 杵 (kine). The whole process is a real work-out (but really fun) and is referred to as 餅つき (mochitsuki).
Mochi is often sold in stores as little colored balls filled with red bean (anko), chestnut (kuri), or other fillings, but on new year’s is usually cut into squares and grilled then dipped into a thick soy-sauce/sugar mixture or a soybean (kinako) powder. All ways are delicious. :-]
Using this mochi, along with pickled vegetables, savory fish-cakes, sweet omelettes (tamagoyaki), and more(!), おせち料理 (osechi ryouri), aka “New Year’s food” is also prepared in advance for New Year’s day.
At most family’s 忘年会 (bounenkai)—“forget the year/end of the year party”—they gather around a 炬燵 (kotatsu)—heated table—eating tangerines (mikan) and watching TV.
Although there are many new year’s shows, the most famous/traditional is 紅白歌合戦 (Kouhaku Uta-gassen).
Kouhaku is pretty equivalent to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Countdown and is a singing “competition” between popular celebrities split into red and white teams. The artists range from specializing in enka (Japanese folk/country music) to pop and even include foreign (Korean) artists. And at the end, Kobayashi Sachiko appears with a costume that gets progressively crazier and crazier every year (as in Lady Gaga does not hold a candle to Kobayashi-san’s expanding, elevator, mechanically gyrating feathered dresses), closing the show at around 11:45pm.
After that, most channels focus on a giant shrine bell called 除夜の金 (joya no kane) that tolls 108 times to rid us of our worldly desires and purify us in time for the new year.
During this time, it’s tradition for people to then eat buckwheat noodles called 年越し蕎麦 (toshikoshi soba) to symbolize a long and healthy life.
If you go to the shrine yourself to listen to the joya no kane, sometimes even underage children can enjoy 甘酒 (amazake), a sweet lightly alcoholic drink passed out by the monks.
To your friends and acquaintances you see here, you can wish 良いお年を (yoi otoshi wo) which means “Hope you have a good year!” Then, while you’re at the shrine, you can also watch the new year’s sunrise, aka 初日の出 (hatsuhinode), together. At that time, you’d wish everyone 明けましておめでとう (akemashite omedetou), which means something like “Cheers for the start of the new year!” or just “Happy new year!” ^^
At the temple on new year’s day, you can ring the shrine’s bell to pray for a good year and see your new year’s fortune by lottery (omikuji). This first new year’s day shrine visit is known as 初詣 (hatsumoude).
There’s more to write about for the new year (お正月/oshougatsu), but let’s save all that for the next post!