Japanese New Year Celebrations

December 21, 2023

Japanese New Year is a much bigger celebration than Christmas for the Japanese and is in fact, one of the biggest celebrations in the Japanese calendar. It's been celebrated on January the 1st since 1873, but traditionally it was celebrated on the same date as the Chinese New Year.

New Year in Japan is when many will make and buy celebratory food, either at home or from street vendors, traditional dishes include osechi-ryori, which are sort of like a fish cake made from mashed potato, seaweed, fish, chestnuts and soybeans. Ozoni soup is also popular, which contains mochi rice cakes, although in more modern times, sushi and sashimi have become very popular at new year. 

Mochi are also made for New Years day, many people will often pound the rice themselves and make mochi from scratch if they have the means. Much like we use oranges and cloves to decorate around Christmas time, the Japanese will create New Year's decorations out of mochi and tangerines, called Kagami Mochi. These are supposed to be auspicious!

The Japanese celebration of New Year is such an occasion for eating and overindulgence that there is a herb soup cooked by many households on the 7th January, which helps rest overworked tummies!

There are many religions in Japan that celebrate the new year, but it is often at Buddhist temples where the day is most recognised. Buddhist temples ring a bell 108 times on New Year's day, to symbolically rid the citizens and themselves of the 108 worldly desires, or sins. Many people in Tokyo still visit the Watched Bell, to ring it and rid themselves of sins. Often, soba noodles are eaten afterwards. 

We may send Christmas cards this time of year, but the Japanese post offices are busy dealing with New Year's postcards! You think the Royal Mail has big commitments at Christmas? Well the Japanese mail office guarantees that all post cards will arrive on January 1st! That means even if you send them early, they have to organise the postcards to arrive on the right day.

Postcards are usually expected to be addressed by hand too, so you must use your very best handwriting!

Homes are decorated with items like kadomatsu (bamboo and pine arrangements) and shimenawa (sacred rice straw ropes) to welcome good luck and ward off evil spirits. Families engage in various games like fukuwarai (a blindfolded game similar to pin the tail on the donkey) and hanetsuki (a badminton-like game). Kite flying is another popular activity during the New Year holidays.

There are many other New Year's traditions, including the act of giving money to children on New Year's day (Otoshidama), poetry, TV specials and strangely, Beethoven's Ninth symphony, which was introduced by German Prisoners of war in the 1920s. 

Japanese New Year celebrations emphasise cultural and familial connections, as well as a deep sense of renewal and optimism for the coming year. The blend of traditional rituals and modern customs makes this holiday an integral part of Japanese culture.

Why not add a Japanese theme to your New Year's celebrations this year?  

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