Oshogatsu is the name for the period of Japanese New Year in Japan. It lasts from December 31 to January 4 and it's a great time to see Japanese traditions and local culture up close and personal!
Truth be told this is one of our favorite times of year... for a lot of different reasons. Before we get on to the cultural kind, the weather at New Year is usually cold but not freezing. It's dry and the sky is clear and blue. It's the best time of year to see Mount Fuji in all her glory and the mountain ranges that circle Tokyo. Get up high and you'll have a great view!
One of the most important rituals during Oshogatsu for Japanese families is a cleansing of the house. From top to bottom, inside and outside.
In the 2 days from December 29 to New Years Eve, you'll see housewives and family members frantically cleaning their homes in readiness for the celebrations.
Once Oshogatsu has officially started on December 31st, Japanese New Years Eve, all cleaning activities, and also cooking, will cease for the duration of the holiday period until January 4. We'll get on to just how they stop all the cooking in a minute.
The ritual of cleaning is particularly important in Japanese culture as the New Year constitutes everything that's new and nothing should remain from the previous 12 months. It's literally a chance to start over each year. Leaving things that are dirty from the previous year means you start off on a bad foot. So... everyone cleans.
Just as cleanliness is key at Oshogatsu, so is the gathering of family. People will travel miles, as they do for Golden Week and Obon, in order to spend this time with their loved ones. It's what makes this time of year an expensive one to travel! Not to mention busy.
Also important is Hatsu-hinode. The first sunrise of the New Year. Households, friends, husbands and wives, and lovers, will be up and about for this particular first on January 1st. Some catch the first rays from inside the grounds of a shrine while others decide to climb a mountain or sit in a garden. There's no right or wrong to this. It's whatever feels right to you.
Actually, the fact is that the first of anything that happens in the New Year is extremely important as it's thought to signify how the rest of the year will turn out for you. So make those firsts some good ones!
There are many kinds of traditional Japanese food at Oshogatsu. Mochi, or sticky rice, is one of the most well known.
Mochi is boiled rice that's been mashed using water and a wooden mallet until it forms a sticky pulp. It's then molded into cakes or bun shapes and is usually stuffed with some kind of bean paste in the middle.
A word to the wise. Due to the texture of the mochi, it can stick in your throat when you swallow it. There are always some cases of people dying by this unfortunate means every year - so be careful!
The picture below shows a very unique kind of mochi which is made specially for New Year called kagami mochi. It consists of 2 rice balls with an orange sitting on top.
The kagami mochi is a decorative food with a symbolic meaning. It's usually placed in the family shrine during the Oshogatsu period as part of the ritual to bring good luck in the New Year. I have heard different reasons behind the origins of this decoration. My favorite is that the two rice balls represent the exit of one year and the entrance of the next. The orange on top, a 'daidai', literally translates as 'generations'. It's supposed to represent the continuation of the family and the generations to come.
Osechi-ryori is how Japanese families manage to avoid cooking over the period of Oshogatsu. It's a very special food that has a long history.
In times gone by, cooking was banned during the period of New Year. All food had to be prepared before the celebrations started so that everyone could down tools and keep the house clean throughout the holiday period.
Osechi-ryori is basically food that is sweet, sour or dried that will keep without the need for refrigeration for a few days. In these modern times, Japanese people start ordering their ready prepared boxes of osechi-ryori from supermarkets and department stores as early as October. Historically, however, this traditional Oshogatsu food had to be prepared at home using traditional food preparation methods that would keep the household fed throughout this holiday period.
Oh yes. Japanese children receive a very special gift during Oshogatsu called Otoshidama. On January 1st, the official date of Japanese New Year, children receive envelopes containing varying amounts of hard cash from grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and more. Depending on the size and wealth of the family, some children can collect a regular gold mine at this fortunate time of year! I think many adults wish they could be kids and be on the receiving end of these beautifully decorated Otoshidama!
It's interesting, having worked with Japanese children, to hear them planning how they will spend their otoshidama money. Although a few will fritter it on meaningless items, many talk of saving and putting it into their bank accounts or of making purchases that have been discussed in advance with mum and dad. I love the fact that Japanese children I've taught have been raised to use their Tokyo money wisely from a very young age. It's such an important lesson to learn!
Not so long ago Oshogatsu was used to establish the age of children.
When the New Year used to occur in Spring in accordance with the lunar calendar, a child born in December, for example, would have 1 year added to their age every New Year. In this case, when the New Year arrived in Spring, the child would now be 2 years old even though on the Gregorian calendar this would only be 1 year and 3 months. I guess that's one way to get your driving license early!
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