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

Beautiful Colors in Japan

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Carp streamers hanging at home near the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.  Photo by: Shannon Murphy

By: Shannon Murphy

Japan is full of amazing tradition and customs.  At the end of April, I began seeing beautiful and colorful fish streamers displayed at many Okinawan residences and schools.  I was sure they had a special meaning.  After a little research, I found out the fish streamers (carp) are displayed during the month of May to celebrate Golden Week.

Golden Week is celebrated annually as a collection of four national holidays that fall within seven days.  Schools are usually closed during Golden Week and many businesses will either close or have limited hours.

In fact, if you ever plan to visit Japan, it’s a good idea to avoid this week!

Golden Week is one of the three busiest times of the year to visit Japan (New Years and Obon week are the other two.)  Public transportation can get quite crowded and it would be challenging to make hotel and airline reservations.  Popular sightseeing spots and beaches will also be very popular.

The national holidays making up the Golden Week are (Descriptions by www.japan-guide.com):

  • April 29 – Showa Day (Showa no hi):

April 29th is the birthday of former Emperor Showa, who died in the year 1989.  Until 2006, Greenery Day (see May 4) used to be celebrated on this day.

  • May 3 – Constitution Day (Kenpo kinenbi):

On this day in 1947, the new postwar constitution was put into effect.

  • May 4 – Greenery Day (Midori no hi):

Until 2006, Greenery Day used to be celebrated on April 29th, the birthday of former Emperor Showa.  The day is dedicated to the environment and nature, because the emperor loved plants and nature.  Before being declared Greenery Day, May 4th used to be a national holiday due to a law, which declares a day that falls between two national holidays, a national holiday.

  • May 5 – Children’s Day (Kodomo no hi):

Traditionally it was called Boy’s Day, but it is more commonly referred to as Children’s Day.  The Boy’s Festival (Tango-no-Sekku) is celebrated on this day.  Families pray for the health and future success of their sons by hanging up carp streamers and displaying samurai dolls inside the home, both symbolizing strength, power and success in life.  Girls have their own festival celebrated on March 3rd.

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Okinawan school flying the colorful carp streamers. Photo by: Shannon Murphy

Back to the colorful carp streamers…

Tradition calls for homes to display one streamer for each boy in the household.  The eldest gets the largest carp, the other sizes range down according to the age of other boys in the home.  They are usually found flying in the breeze above school grounds, the balconies of apartment buildings, or the front porches of houses.

The Japanese chose the carp because it is seen as the most spirited of fish, so powerful that it can swim up streams and cascades.

The carp stands for courage and for attaining high goals.

Modern day celebration of Tango-no-Sekku also include decorations inside the homes of boys consisting of “a miniature helmet, suits of armor, a sword, a bow and arrow, silk banners bearing the family crest, and the warrior dolls which represent Kintaro, a Herculean boy who grew up to be a general; Shoki, an ancient Chinese general believed to protect people from devils; and Momotaro, the Japanese David the Giant Killer.” (Source: Ginkoya)

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Decorations displayed inside the home of boys. Photo source: Ginkoya

I know many of you are now wondering if the Japanese celebrate their girls.  They do, but very differently.  Their day is celebrated on March 3rd, Girl’s Day or Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri), with a set of ceremonial dolls and peach blossoms displayed in their homes.  These dolls are passed down from generation to generation.  On this day, families with daughters wish them a successful and happy life.

The dolls are replicas of an ancient emperor and empress and their subordinates.  The peach blossoms symbolize happy marriage and signify the feminine traits of gentility, composure, and tranquility.  After the celebration, the dolls are boxed up and put away until the following year.  If a family can afford it, each daughter will have her own set of dolls.

May has come to an end, but I am still finding carp streamers on display.  I am sure they will all be stored away soon (or maybe it’s like in the United States where you still have neighbors with Christmas lights on the house in June?)  I have really enjoyed seeing them, especially because they make buildings and homes more colorful.  It has been another fascinating tradition to discover.

Okinawa’s Wild Rides

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By: Shannon Murphy

Okinawans definitely know how to have a good time.  No, I am not talking about bars and dance clubs.  I am talking about their love of roller slides.  I have never seen a roller slide in the United States – probably because they are too much of a liability for local government to install in public parks.   However, they are not afraid to build these here, and they are available for free in public parks for all to enjoy.

I have found several, but here are my favorite three roller slides (so far… I still have plenty of island left to discover more!)  Enjoy the pictures and do not miss the link to my video going down the fastest roller slide I have found!

Toguchi beach

Toguchi Beach:  This is a fun, short roller slide at Toguchi Beach.  You have a great view of the beach from the slide,  and you can go play in the sand and water after you are done having fun on the slide.   Photograph: Shannon Murphy

Manta park

Manta Park:  This roller slide is at Manta Park.  A climb to the top of the tower provides great views of the surrounding communities and Awase Bay.  The roller slide is nice, with a long, gradual slope, so  you don’t build up too much speed.  However, see the concrete slide on the right side?  It is dangerously fast!  It’s not recommended to slide down with a child on your lap, unless you want to land on top of them (speaking from personal experience!)   Photograph:  Shannon Murphy

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Mantra Park:  View from the top of the roller slide at Mantra Park.  Photograph:  Shannon Murphy

slide seat

The first few times we went on a roller slide, I ended up with a sore bottom.  Then my friend surprised me with a plastic seat that you can use on the slide.  They only cost 100 Yen (approximately $1.10 US with the current exchange rate.)  Not only do you go faster, but your bottom is shielded from the rollers on the slide.  They are a must!  Photograph by: Shannon Murphy

big roller slide at Tobaru Park

Tobaru Park:  This is the tallest, fastest, roller slide I have found so far.  It is in Tobaru Park, located in Chatan and just a couple of miles from my son’s preschool; a very convenient stop after school!  If you climb to the top of the tower, you can see the ocean in the distance.  It takes 103 steps to get to the start of the slide.  Go up a few times and you’ve accomplished a killer workout (especially if you are carrying a 30 pound child.)

In the above link, you can see a video of my son and me going down the tallest and fastest roller slide.  The second half is super fast!

from top of slide at Tobaru Park

Tobaru Park:  View from the top of the slide at Tobaru Park looking down.  Photograph: Shannon Murphy

My own common sense rules for going on these slides:

  1. Keep your hands, arms, and legs close to your body.  We’ve heard of people sticking out an arm to slow down, only to get it caught in the “cage” surrounding the slide (which is there to keep people from falling off.)
  2. Wear shoes, not flip flops.  Those rollers are not comfortable for bare feet or skin and if you rub against the metal on the sides, it will burn.
  3. Using a piece of cardboard or a plastic seat will make the ride a bit more comfortable (and faster.)
  4. Want to go even faster?  Don’t keep your legs straight out in front of you. Fold them so that the bottoms of your shoes are flat along the rollers.
  5. Small children will fly on these slides.  I always slide with my young son in front of me, so that I’m straddling him with my legs.