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Japanese New Year

A New Year Drum Session (tanakawho/flickr)

A New Year Drum Session (tanakawho/flickr)

By Taeko Shiota

New Year's is the most important traditional holiday celebrated in Japan. In the pre-World War II Osaka of my childhood, where my parents ran a shop that sold baby clothes and bedding, old customs and traditions were very much respected; by mid-December everyone was busy preparing for the festivities that accompanied the ending of the old year and the ushering in of the new.

For us children, the first indication of the approach of New Year's came when our mother pulled out our festival kimonos to make sure they still fit--she usually had to adjust the shoulders and waists to accommodate our growth over the preceding year. At about the same time, my father and the employees of the shop would busy themselves preparing invoices and paying bills, in keeping with the tradition that called for starting the New Year without any debts. This was also the time when everyone would begin writing New Year's postcards to friends, relatives, teachers, superiors, and acquaintances-practically everyone with whom one had had any significant contact during the past year. The cards were mailed in advance and delivered on the morning of January 1. The cards we sent as children often included our drawings of the animal associated with the year to come. (1991, for example, is the Year of the Sheep, and 1992, the Year of the Monkey, and so on.)

According to the tradition of Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion, a kami (god) enters the house at New Year's. Thus, a complete cleaning of the house from top to bottom—including the attic and the floors under the tatami mats—was required to welcome the god. As children we always helped our mother with this cleaning.

School closed on December 25, not because it was Christmas, but because this was the day that everyone, even children, was mobilized for the final, intense stage of preparations for New Year's. One of the most enjoyable of these preparations was the trip to a big year-end market to buy food, decorations, and Our New Year's toys: hagoita (wooden badminton racquets) for girls and kites and tops for boys. The hagoita had drawings on one side, and my mother used to grow irritable at the amount of time it always took me to make my selection.

On the 28th of December the kadomatsu, a decoration made with cut bamboo and pine twigs, was displayed at the entrance of the house to greet the toshigami (New Year god), who is said to bring good luck. Rice cakes, made by pounding steamed glutinous rice, were originally prepared as offerings to the New Year god as well.

The men would pound the rice with a large wooden mallet while the women reached into the mortar between blows to moisten and turn over the rice. Those not participating in the pounding stood by watching and calling out a rhythm for the pounders, while eagerly awaiting their turn to eat a piece of fresh rice cake with a dollop of sweet bean paste inside.

During the last three days of the year, Mother was always very busy preparing the food we would eat during the holiday. According to tradition, the New Year's god is not to be disturbed by the sounds of cooking for the first three days of the New Year, and most stores were closed for the first week of the year back then, so there was a lot of cooking to do. Most of the foods eaten at New Year's are those considered to be auspicious—among them are kuromame (sweet black beans), kazunoko (herring roe), and kobumaki (rolled kelp). Shrimp is also eaten at New Year's: because a shrimp's back is curved like the back of an elderly person, eating it is believed to promote longevity.

The cleaning of my father's shop had to wait until the business was closed for the year on the afternoon of December 31. When everything was sparkling clean, Father would go around the house putting up shimenawa (a sacred rope of straw with white paper strips dangling from it, marking the temporary abode of the New Year god) over the front door and in various other places. Mother decorated the tokonoma (alcove) with an auspicious scroll-usually one depicting Mt. Fuji—and two round rice cakes decorated with a number of edible items also considered lucky, such as an orange, dried persimmons, and dried kelp.

Late on the evening of December 31, after all of these preparations were completed, everyone would eat a bowl of buckwheat noodles called toshikoshisoba ("year-crossing noodles") and listen for the sound of the Buddhist temple bells, which were rung 108 times at midnight. The sound of these bells is said to purify the listeners of the 108 sins or evil passions that plague every human being.