New Year`s Eve is called Omisoka (大晦日). Unlike in the other parts of the world where New Year`s Eve is a time of partying, in Japan, it is a more solemn occasion and traditionally spent with family. This is one of the times of the year when workers make an effort to go back to their hometowns to be with their families, making travelling very crowded and frustrating.
Omisoka is when everyone gets to eat Toshikoshi soba (年越しそば). This dish is only eaten on New Year`s Eve to signal the passing of the old year.
If you ask Japanese friends what they do during Omisoka,
they will tell you they eat toshikoshi soba and watch Kôhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦).
This is a programme broadcasted by NHK that pits two teams of popular Japanese singers and bands against each other. The Red team are the ladies and the men are in White. The competition is friendly and hugely entertaining to the Japanese.
As we move closer to midnight, you might want to visit
either a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. In Buddhist temples, there is the
ceremony called Joya No Kane (除夜の鐘).
The temple bell is rung 108 times to wash away the 108 passions that Buddhists
believe humans are guilty of.
A lot of temples allow you to have a try but arrive early if you don`t want to wait in a long line!
After midnight, many Japanese like to visit a Shinto
shrine. This first shrine visit of the year is called Hatsumode (初詣). After praying, they can drink
sweet sake called amazake (甘酒)
which the shrines give out to everyone visiting.
People also buy Omikuji (御御籤, 御神籤, or おみくじ). These are small strips of white paper that are supposed to tell your fortune for the coming year. If your future is bright, you take the piece of paper home with you and keep it. If the future is not good, you tie the piece of paper round the trees in the shrine. This way, you leave the bad luck in the shrine to be cleansed by the gods and you go home safe.
Another item bought is the Hamaya (破魔矢). This is an arrow that is supposed to keep evil spirits away from your home. Japanese buy it and put it in the genkan of their homes to ensure nothing bad, unlucky or evil will enter. Plus, they look rather nice as a decorative piece.
Many shrine visitors will drink amazake round the big bonfire in the grounds of the shrine. All the old omikuji are removed from the trees and hamayas are brought back to the temple to be disposed of in this
cleansing fire. Just the thing to warm you up!
One of the popular things to do during the New Year is to go to a place to watch the first sunrise of the year. This could a mountain top or the beach and is called Hatsuhinode (初日の出). Be warned, though, if you want to do this. You should wear warm clothes as the temperature always seems to be bitterly cold!
On New Year Day itself, almost all shops are closed, with the exception of convenience stores. So, most families prepare the traditional new year dish called Osechi Ryori (お節料理). As everyone is supposed to
relax and enjoy and not be working at all, wives and mothers would spend days before the new year preparing it.
Osechi comprises of many different types of dishes placed
in compact boxes called Jubako (重箱).
Many of the dishes are either sweet, sour or dried as when the tradition first started, there were no refrigerators, so food needed to be able to keep for the three days of the holidays.
Some of the food you will find in osechi are prawns, ham, dried sardines cooked in sweet soy sauce, omelets, black soy beans, red sea bream, konbu and mashed sweet potatoes and chestnuts.
However, as making traditional osechi is very time-consuming, a lot of younger families are opting to either buy it or going out for sushi or even fast food.
You will also get to eat Zoni (雑煮). This is a clear soup with mochi and vegetables but be careful, as the mochi is very sticky and can get stuck in the throat.
New Year is also a time for visiting family and friends. At each place of visit, you will be plied with more food and drink so New Year is not a time to watch the waistline!
This is also the time when young kids receive Otoshidama
These are little packets (Otoshidama bukuro (お年玉袋)) that contain money that Japanese children receive from their parents and relatives. As such, many stores catering to children now open early on the second day of the new year, knowing there will lots of children with money looking for a place to spend it.
As you can see, New Year`s preparations and celebrations can be quite exhausting so it`s no surprise when you asks someone what they did during the New Year, to be told that they, the men mainly, spent the entire period sleeping!
Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu! (明けましておめでとうございます)
(Happy New Year)
Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai shimasu. (今年もよろしくお願いします)
(I hope for your favor again in the coming year)