Celebrating the New Year in Japan

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2014 is the Year of the Horse. This painting was hanging at Futenma Shrine in Okinawa.

By: Shannon Murphy

I am not sure why I didn’t pay attention to what Okinawans were doing 12 months ago when we said hello to 2013, but this year I decided to find out what the locals do to celebrate the New Year.  What a surprise – they don’t eat black-eyed peas and greens. Ha!  In fact, celebrating New Year’s is one of Japan’s most important holidays.  Thanks to a couple of my Okinawan friends and my own research, I was able to put this article together.

The Japanese celebration of the New Year holiday (called Oshogatsu) occurs from December 28 to January 6.  Oshogatsu is the most important and elaborate holiday of the year.  During this time, many traditions are observed.  I want to share several of these with you, but keep in mind my article is just scratching the surface.

Cleaning your House

The Japanese prepare to celebrate Oshogatsu by cleaning their homes.  It is done at the end of the year so that the New Year is welcomed with a clean home.  This is a very thorough cleaning, from top to bottom.  Similar to a very serious spring cleaning like Americans do (or should do), but it’s done at the end of the year.  As I write this, I am looking around my house and am thinking to myself that I need to do the same thing once I pack up my Christmas decorations!  My house needs a serious “osoji” (cleaning.)

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Here are my boys standing underneath a large Buddhist bell that hangs on the grounds of Shuri Castle in Okinawa.

Ringing the Bells

At midnight on New Year’s, you will hear the bells at Buddhist temples ringing 108 times (called “joya-no-kane” in Japanese.)  The Buddhist religion believes there are 108 actions that defile persons and lead them away from wisdom, compassion, generosity, and creativity.  These defilements are actions that cause suffering to yourself and to others around you.  It is believed that by ringing the bells, you get rid of these behaviors from the previous year.  Therefore, you are starting the New Year “clean.”

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Okinawa soba has thick, long noodles, pork belly, green onions, and fish cake (the white oval shapes.)

Eating Soba Noodles

Traditionally, as part of the New Year’s Eve dinner or after the ringing of the bells, the Japanese eat soba noodles.  Soba noodles are made of buckwheat flour and they are long and narrow.  It is believed that eating these long noodles symbolize a long life.  These noodles can be eaten in a hot soup and when eaten on New Year’s Eve, it is called “toshikoshi” soba, which literally means “year-passing.”  Okinawa soba is one of my favorite dishes here, and I made a point to get some to celebrate the New Year.

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Futenma Shrine, Okinawa

Visiting a Shrine

A very important custom for the Japanese is to visit shrines to pray for happiness in the New Year.  This is called “hatsumode,” which means the first shrine visit of the New Year.  In fact, many are open 24 hours on January 1.  It’s tradition for the locals to visit a shrine by the 3rd of January.  I went to the popular Futenma Shrine in Okinawa with my boys and it was such a great atmosphere.  There were street vendors with toys, games, and food.  Many people were in the line waiting to enter the shrine.  The energy was hopeful and happy.

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Street vendors in front of Futenma Shrine with a plethora of food options

When you enter the shrine area, it is customary to wash your hands with water found at the entrance.  They pick up the wooden scoop with water and wash the left hand first.  Then the scoop is filled again to wash the right hand.  The scoop is filled a third time and poured on the left hand again, so you can wash your mouth and spit the water out.  As a side note, my oldest son almost contaminated the water by pouring the dirty water from his hand over the “clean” water basin.  Luckily, I stopped him just in time!  Major shrine foul averted.  Whew!

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Washing hands before entering shrine. Do not pour your dirty hand water over the clean water basin!

Many people were walking up to the shrine first after washing their hands, so of course we followed.  There was an offertory box located inside the shrine and people lined up to throw their offering into the box.  There were mostly coins, but I saw a few 1,000 yen bills and even one 5,000 yen bill.  After they throw the money in, they bow deeply twice, then clap their hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds.

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This line snaked around in order to buy omamori (charms.)

Many visitors were standing in a different line to purchase charms (“omamori”.)  The omamori provide blessings and protection.  The commonly purchased ones are for the protection for drivers, passing examinations, success in business and money, finding a mate and marriage, and protection for a healthy pregnancy.  The omamori are replaced once a year to avoid bad luck from the previous year.  They are returned to the same shrine where they were purchased, so they can be disposed of properly.  Then a new one can be purchased for the New Year.  Interesting enough, if you cannot find a charm that fits your blessing or protection needs, the shrine priest will customize one for you.

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Bad fortunes left behind (and maybe some good ones?) There sure are a lot, but thousands of people visit the shrines during Oshogatsu.

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Watching people purchase “omikuji” was the most entertaining.  “Omikuji” are fortunes.  Each person unfolds their fortune, reads it, and if they do not like the fortune, it is left tied to the omikuji rods at the shrine.  I read that sometimes people will also tie their good fortunes and leave them behind.  However, traditionally, your good fortune should be kept close to you, for example in your purse or wallet.  I should also mention that you can visit a shrine any time of the year to get omikuji.  It’s not just a New Year’s purchase.

The visit to the shrine was so fascinating because there were so many people and there was such a positive energy of happiness and hope for a better year ahead.  The rituals for how to enter and the different steps for each person to complete were all so interesting.  When you are living in another country with such different customs, it is just awesome to be able to witness it first hand and not just read about it.

Happy New Year! or “Akemashite oedetou!” in Japanese

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7 comments on “Celebrating the New Year in Japan

  1. Corey says:

    I don’t know about you, but they have some interesting customs. I even dare to say better ones than in the western countries.

  2. jnqc says:

    Very insightful post, Shannon, thank you! It looks like you had a great time! It’s so fascinating to see how different cultures celebrate and live so differently!

    • Shannon Murphy says:

      Thank you for reading it! I am really enjoying experiencing the Okinawan culture. Our time is almost over though. 😦 We leave this summer.

  3. David Miller says:

    How awesome it is to experience another culture. Does everyone else in Japan get drunk like in most western countries?

    • Shannon Murphy says:

      Glad you found this interesting! To answer your question, I saw young people that had too much to drink when I was in Kyoto. But it is a very serious offense to drive intoxicated here. The alcohol level limit is much lower than in many states in America. One drink could put you over the limit. They offer a service called “daiko,” where two men arrive in a taxi and one drives your car home for you while you ride in the taxi. You can get your license immediately suspended if you are caught driving while intoxicated.

  4. Jane Bolton says:

    What a great article. I’ve always wanted to visit Japan, especially Okinawa. I hear they are really healthy there, but judging by the street vendors food, not sure so anymore. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing with us your experiences.

    • Shannon Murphy says:

      Thanks, Jane! They are generally pretty healthy, but I always see the fried foods during big events. Maybe it’s similar to how you never eat funnel cake until you are at an oysterfest or Oktoberfest in the states? Ha!

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