Oshogatsu: Spending New Year’s the Japanese way
Like everywhere else in the world, the 1st of January in Japan is New Year’s Day; also known as oshōgatsu (お正月). Back in my hometown, New Year’s Day usually meant countdown celebrations with friends, followed by fireworks displays and parties. It was a form of celebration that seemed universal—we’ve all seen those elaborate videos of fireworks shooting out of skyscrapers everywhere from New York to Shanghai. I was therefore very surprised, when my first time celebrating New Year’s in Japan turned out to be a very different affair.
When I first came to Japan, I was a foreign student at a local university who could barely order her food in Japanese, let alone hold a conversation in the language. Still, with the help of Google Translate and a lot of hand gestures, I made my first Japanese friend—my roommate at the time—who incidentally, spoke very little English. We met in April at the start of the school year, and when the year-end holidays came around in December, she invited me to celebrate the new year’s with her family in Sano City (佐野市 Sano-shi), a town in Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県 Tochigi-ken) where she was from. I of course jumped at the opportunity—so here’s how I spent my first New Year’s in Japan, the traditional Japanese way.
(Image credit: photoAC)
In Japan, New Year’s is all about family. When the year-end holidays begin on the last few days of December, many Japanese folks who live in big cities make their way out of the city and to the homes of their parents or grandparents. Because of this, most shops close for a few days—even the large department stores in the city. In exchange, the usually less-populated areas in the country get a lot more lively.
Sano (佐野) was just a 2-hour bus ride away from Tokyo (東京); a relatively quiet, mostly residential town that was very local and charming. I was to meet with her family and stay at their home for a few days, which I was admittedly quite nervous about. I wasn’t sure how to behave at a Japanese family home, if there were any customs or taboos, and I still wasn’t great at the language. Once I met everyone though, it turned out that I didn’t have to worry after all. Despite the fact that I was probably the first foreigner they have ever met, let alone welcomed to their home, it was clear that there were no barriers. New Year’s is for spending with family, and just by being there, I was one of them.
Hatsumode (初詣): Setting yourself up for a good year
Instead of red packets, otoshidama come wrapped in origami. (Image credit: Winnie Tan)
Having arrived in Sano (佐野) from Tokyo on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, my friend and I had the evening to settle in. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I guessed there wasn’t going to be any fireworks when the clock struck 12. As it turns out, the last minute of the year was a very subdued, almost ordinary affair of warming up inside a kotatsu (こたつ a table over an electric heater with a quilt to retain heat) in the living room, watching Kohaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦), a popular New Year’s Eve TV special and counting down the seconds to the New Year. The celebrations will commence the next day with hatsumode (初詣), or the year’s first visit to the temple or shrine.
Not many Japanese people are religious, but hatsumode is a custom that a lot of people still like to partake in because it’s a good way to kick start the new year. Shrines and temples are packed with worshippers who are there to pray, wish for happy blessings, and to purchase omamori (お守り good-luck charm). This is usually done early in the morning, so before it was even time for breakfast, we were in her dad’s car on the way to a shrine up a hill. It was also there when to my surprise, I received otoshidama (お年玉) from my friend’s grandmother, which is the Japanese equivalent to a Chinese New Year red packets.
Food for the festivities
A typical osechi box. Fancy ones sold at department stores can cost tens of thousands of yen! (Image credit: Winnie Tan)
Another important aspect of Japanese New Year’s Celebrations is food. There are a few dishes that, aside from being delicious, are symbols of good luck for the new year. One of these new year must-haves is osechi (おせち), which are lacquered bento boxes that contain a beautifully arranged assortment of seafood, vegetables, and other small dishes, each carrying a different meaning such as longevity, fertility, prosperity, good luck, and more.
Because a lot of shops are closed around New Year’s Day, a lot of meals are eaten at home. For me, it was a wonderful opportunity to try some Japanese home cooking, from toasted mochi rice cakes and steaming sukiyaki, to the customary toshikoshi soba (年越しそば), which isn’t so different from regular soba, but when eaten around the new year’s, it symbolises longevity.
Fukubukuro (福袋): Good luck and even better bargains
What’s in the fukubukuro bag? You’ll just have to buy and find out! (Image Credit: Winnie Tan)
If you know anything about shopping in Japan, you have probably heard of fukubukuro (福袋), or lucky bags. Stuffed full of goodies and available at a fixed price, these exclusive bags that only appear around New Year’s are guaranteed to make any shopper feel lucky. Shops anywhere from Starbucks to name-brand cosmetics and fashion have their own version of the fukubukuro, and the key to these bags is this: no matter what the price listed on the tag, the value of items within the bag is sure to exceed it. Some shops will provide sneak peeks as to what’s in the bags, and for others, it’s a complete mystery—but it’s all part of the fun!
Many places take pre-orders for these lucky bags, but sometimes you can just show up and try your luck. A day or two after New Year’s Day, that’s exactly what my friend and I did at the Sano Premium Outlets (佐野プレミアム・アウトレット). You can typically score some great deals at outlet malls, but the savings get even more satisfying this time of year, with slashed prices and huge fukubukuro selections. Needless to say, the half-empty suitcase I brought with me to Sano returned to Tokyo stuffed to the brim with new clothes and products.
If I were to pick my favourite part about spending New Year’s as they do in Japan, it would definitely be how everyone comes together as a family. How the Japanese celebrate the holidays truly shows that when you’re with those you love, things like fancy food and fireworks are just bonuses. In the face of a world full of things new and exciting, traditional oshogatsu celebrations might just teach us a thing or two about appreciating the simple pleasures in life, and cherishing time spent with people important to you.
Header image credit: Winnie Tan