Oshogatsu, New Year holiday in Japan

“Oshogatsu” (New Year) is the most important and celebrated holiday in Japan. It is more like a traditional Western Christmas. New Year is the time where families get together, have a traditional special meal, pray at shrines and temples, and send greetings cards. Buildings and stores quickly take down Christmas decorations and change it to Japanese new year’s decorations as soon as the date changes to December 25th and start playing Japanese traditional music. Entrances to homes and stores are decorated with a festive “kadomatsu” decoration, made with the pine and bamboo. The “shimenawa” decorations which have braided straw ropes are often seen as well.

Families get together and relish a ceremonial meal called “osechi.” “Osechi” is packed in lacquer-coated stacked boxes as it is derived from stacking the happiness. Each food item in “osechi” cuisine represents prosperity, good fortune and health. For example, people eat “kazunoko” (pickled herring roe) to be blessed with many children, and also “ebi” (shrimp) to get a long life until their mustache grows long and their back is bent like a shrimp. The Japanese eat “ozoni” (a soup with rice cake in) in the morning on New Year’s Day. Each family has a different recipe for “ozoni.” They also place “kagamimochi” (a stack of two round rice cakes topped with an orange called “daidai” meaning many generations) in various locations throughout the house. The rice cakes are considered as an offering to the god. Eating “ozoni” is believed to bring good luck to the family.

In Japan, people think what they see in the “Hatsuyume” (the first dream in New Year) sets the tone for the year. Traditionally dreaming about Mt. Fuji, a hawk, and an eggplant is believed to be the best three dreams. However, there are different stories about the origins explaining why these three should be considered so auspicious. There is another unique custom that parents and adult relatives give children money. It is called “otoshidama.” For kids, it is definitely the best part of New Year because after getting money from adults, all they can think about is what to buy. Praying to the first sunrise on New Year’s Day is believed to give people supernatural powers and is a popular practice. For the Japanese visiting a shrine or a temple is one of the musts of a New Year. They pray for their health and their families’ happiness and many of them buy an “omikuji” fortune paper strip.

For those who want to try an “omikuji,” here are the most three popular shrines and temples in the vicinity of Tokyo: Meiji Shrine (Tokyo), Narita-san Shinsho-ji temple (Chiba), and Kawasaki Daishi (Kanagawa).