New Year is a fur tree, a count down, presents and all-nighter all over the world. But not in Japan. In Japan New Year is celebrated in an extremely modest way, comparing to Japanese Christmas or New Year celebrations in every country.
Here is a list what a foreigner can (or should) do to celebrate New Year Japanese-style.
1. Nengajo (New Year post cards)
It stands for Japanese New Year post cards. Post cards are a inevitable part of Japanese culture, but New Year post cards or 年賀状 (nengajo) are a special aspect of Japanese post card culture. The Japanese have been sending post cards to each other since Showa period. The New Year post cards among them are sent from 26th of December to 7th of January (sometime during this period). They are send all over Japan – to distant relatives, co-workers, school and university friends etc. They are used as a mean to express affection and although time set people apart they still remember and care for each other.
The post cards can be bought in any shop in Japan, they already have stamps so all you have to do is to write a message and an address.
2. Toshi koshi soba (Farewell the ending year soba)
It is a traditional dish that is eaten sometime on the New Year eve. It is a dish made mostly of buckwheat noodles (or soba in Japanese). I would say it has an interesting taste. The Japanese say that the long soba noodles represent the long year they’ve spent. A family gathers together, eats and drinks and the main dish is of course the soba noodles.
3. Hatsumode (the First Shinto shrine visit)
I would recommend you to go to the shrine on NY eve (or omisoka in Japanese) and line with Japanese and foreigners. I would recommend you to go the a big and famous shrine for your first hatsumode. There are a lot of foreigners, and the bigger the shire is the more entertainment they offer. Some shrines offer free amazake, which is the sweet sake – a non-acohol drink made of boiled rice. Some shrines ring in a traditional bell. As a matter of fact I have spent three years in Japan and haven’t heard this bell yet. And some offer a whole market which works during the night, which is so not typical for Japan.
I like amazake very much. Actually most Japanese food that I’ve got accustomed to eat or drink is very tasty. But I learnt to enjoy it through hard effort of accepting the appearance and the sticky or gluey texture.
4. Omikuji (the Japanese written oracle)
I don’t think that omikuji requires any presentation. It is a famous Japanese culture item. It existed over the years and the only thing that changed is nowadays some shrines offer omikuji with English translation on the back of the paper. For me omikuji represents destiny as you have to pull one little piece of paper which says either Kyo (凶 – misfortune), tyukichi (中吉 – some fortune), kichi （吉 – good fortune), or daikichi （大吉 – you are one lucky person). I’ve got Kyo and Kichi many times and I rarely got Daikichi. They say that in such big shrines as Meiji jingu or a shrine is Asakusa there is a Dai Daikichi, which is better then Daikichi on one Dai.
By the way, if you got Kyo (or misfortune) just tie it to the shrine’s tree and the misfortunes will stay at the shrine. If your oracle says fortune, take it with you and keep inside your wallet. It is not prohibited to do omikuji several times a year, but the first omikuji in a new year does have something special. I like omikuji very much. But the less you do it, the more accurate the oracle is.
The omikuji will offer you some practical advice and guide you with a perspective on your life. Saying from personal experience, most of my omikuji were very helpful and they have always depicted the situation in which I am right now very sharply.
I know that this kind of celebration sounds a little boring or dull, but if you put your heart into it, the Japanese-style New Year will make you realise something important for yourself or may be reevaluate some values.
Best wishes and Happy New Year! Akeome