Konnichiwa! Akemashite Omodetou Gozaimasu! あけましておめでとうございます Hello and Happy New Year! I hope that 2017 has been treating you well so far.
As I post this, it is officially a year since I moved to Japan! 2016 was a year of firsts in Japan, including my first holiday season and Christmas away from home. I wanted to fully give myself to the experience of celebrating the holidays in Japan and learning more about some of the traditions.
The biggest difference between the holidays in Japan and in Canada is that while in Canada, Christmas is the focus, and New Year’s secondary, it is the other way around here. In Japan, less than 2% of the country is Christian (or from a Christian background), therefore Christmas is not celebrated in the same context. There was Christmas music in coffee shops and stores, decorations in department store, and lights and illuminations around the city. All of these elements helped to capture the joy and festivity of Christmas, however, the actual day was anti-climactic.
Christmas is not a National holiday, and although it was a company holiday for me, I chose to work. In the evening, I came home to celebrate and have dinner with my housemates. It was a quiet, but fun celebration, with food and a small gift exchange. It was different from Christmases back home with my family, which usually starts early in the morning with breakfast and goes on late in the evening with board games and more food and drinks. Still, I was grateful that I had a good meal, and people to share it with.
There were a few interesting things about Christmas in Japan that I was not expecting. For example, Christmas Eve is seen as a romantic day, and here some couples celebrate it in much the same way that they do Valentine’s Day. Eating Kentucky Fried Chicken is also a Christmas tradition here. “Kurisumasi ni wa Kentakkii”, began in the 1970’s when a group of foreign visitors to Japan, unable to find a turkey, substituted it with buckets of fried chicken from KFC (which opened its first Japanese franchise in 1970).The idea caught on quickly with and KFC Japan who capitalized on it with campaigns promoting Christmas KFC dinners. Eating KFC became a Japanese Christmas tradition, and today, it is estimated that 3.6 million Japanese families eat KFC during the Christmas season.
Food is a huge part of many holiday celebrations and Oshogatsu is no different. Osechi Ryori (New Year’s foods) are traditional Japanese foods eaten in the New Year. Each food has a significant meaning and wishes for the upcoming year.
To start the holiday, mochi is prepared and made (mochi-tsuki), cooked and eaten, mochi is made from whole rice which is rinsed and soaked overnight. In the morning, it is placed into a seiros (wooden steaming baskets) which are stacked one on top of the other and steamed. The steamed rice is then placed in a larger usu made of mortar, wood, stone or concrete. At this stage, one person hits the rice with a wooden mallet and another person turns the rice, so that it is eventually smooth and there are no individual grains of rice.
The process is quite labor-intensive, which is why it was appropriate that the mochi-tsuki party that I attended took place at my boxing gym. Unfortunately, I missed the preparation part, but was there for the food. Mochi can be eaten savory or sweet, with sugar and soy sauce, roasted soybean flour and sweetened red beans.
Some of the other Osechi Ryori dishes that I ate were: Namasu (a Daikon & Carrot Salad), because of its color’s red and white, is a good omen. Kuri Kinton (Candied Chestnut with Sweet Potatoes) symbolize economic prosperity in the New Year. Tazukiri (candied dried anchovies) symbolize a bountiful harvest. Kuromame are sweet black soybeans and they symbolize good health for the upcoming year. Yakizana (grilled fish), symbolizes a wish for a successful career. Finally, we ate soba noodles (which are traditionally eaten before midnight). Their length is supposed to signify a long life. Some other traditions are seeing the first sunrise, something I was not able to stay up long enough for.
Another important part of the New Year is Hatzumode which is the first Shrine or Temple visit of the year. In case you are wondering, as I was, what the difference between a shrine and a temple are, below is a brief illustration*. As these are the predominant religions in Japan, people go to both to say the first prayer of the year. I went to Sensōji, which being one of the most popular temples for locals and tourists was an hour wait, to get in. I was able to find a smaller temple closer to home in Imado. At the temple or shrine, you can purchase some incense to burn, once you get to the front (alter) you say a prayer, purchase some incense to burn, and get a fortune (for 100 yen, approximately $1). If the fortune is not good you tie it in a knot and leave it there, and you can of course purchase another one.
After burning my incense, I made my way to the front, where I said a quite prayer of gratitude for the year that had passed, and prayed for a happy, healthy and prosperous year ahead! And I wish you the same for 2017! Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu! As always, ご読了ありがとございました～ thank you for reading until the end.