Japanese New Year Traditions

In Japan we don't celebrate Christmas as much as we do for New Years.  The time of the year that companies are mandatorily closed so that everyone can spend time with their family which lasts from 1 week to 10 days. Here are some of our traditions:

Kagami mochi (鏡餅, "mirror rice cake")

A traditional Japanese New Year decoration. It usually consists of two round mochi (rice cakes), the smaller placed atop the larger, and a daidai (a Japanese bitter orange) with an attached leaf on top. In addition, it may have a sheet of konbu and a skewer of dried persimmons under the mochi. It sits on a stand called a sanpō (三宝) over a sheet called a shihōbeni (四方紅), which is supposed to ward off fires from the house for the following years. Sheets of paper called gohei (御幣) folded into lightning shapes similar to those seen on sumo wrestler's belts are also attached.

The kagami mochi first appeared in the Muromachi period (14th–16th century). The name kagami ("mirror") is said to have originated from its resemblance to an old-fashioned kind of round copper mirror, which also had a religious significance. The reason for it is not clear. Explanations include mochi being a food for sunny days, the spirit of the rice plant being found in the mochi, and the mochi being a food which gives strength.

The two mochi discs are variously said to symbolize the going and coming years, the human heart, "yin" and "yang", or the moon and the sun. The "daidai", whose name means "generations", is said to symbolize the continuation of a family from generation to generation.

Traditionally the kagami mochi was placed in various locations throughout the house. Nowadays it is usually placed in a household Shinto altar, or kamidana. It has also been placed in the tokonoma, a small decorated alcove in the main room of the home.

Contemporary kagami mochi are often pre-moulded into the shape of stacked discs and sold in plastic packages in the supermarket. A mikan or a plastic imitation daidai is often substituted for the original daidai.

Variations in the shape of kagami mochi are also seen. In some regions, three layered kagami mochi are also used. The three layered kagami mochi are placed on the butsudan or on the kamidana. There is also a variant decoration called an okudokazari placed in the centre of the kitchen or by the window which has three layers of mochi (pounded rice).

It is traditionally broken and eaten in a Shinto ritual called kagami biraki (mirror opening) on the second Saturday or Sunday of January. This is an important ritual in Japanese martial arts dojos. It was first adopted into Japanese martial arts when Kanō Jigorō, the founder of judo, adopted it in 1884, and since then the practice has spread to aikido, karate and jujutsu studios.

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After the New Years celebration the mochi is boiled in a soup with various vegetables and styles, depending on the region.  Some examples:

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During this time we give Otoshidama which is an envelope with money for children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

There are reasons to believe that the roots of otoshidama lie in Japanese folklore, and that the money given to children are simultaneously an offering to the “toshigami”, the Shinto deities of the New Year. In theory, the toshigami would serve as protectors of the children receiving the money.

There used to be a Shinto ritual during which round rice cakes known as kagami-mochi, were offered to the god of the New Year. Once over, the worshippers were given a part. When they returned to their homes, they crushed the rice cakes wrapped the parts in paper, and shared them with the family and servants, which is the origin of Otoshidama. As time passed, when visiting relatives or friends homes during New Year’s Eve, it became customary to bring gifts, originally called onenshi. It is when they started to be given to children that “otoshidama” was born. 

The actual custom of giving otoshidama dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868), when wealthy families and businesses distributed bags of mochi and mikan (a Japanese mandarin orange) to families as a way to spread happiness at the beginning of each year. (This is also related to the traditional New Year's kagamimochi.)

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On NEW YEARS DAY:

We go to an onsen to cleanse ourselves from dirt of the last year.

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Then we eat Soba. 

Toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦), year-crossing noodle, is Japanese traditional noodle bowl dish eaten on New Year's Eve. This custom lets go of hardship of the year.

The custom differs from area to area and it is also called misoka soba, tsugomori soba, kure soba, jyumyo soba, fuku soba, and unki soba. The tradition started around Edo period (1603-1867) and there are several theories believed that long soba noodles symbolize a long life. The buckwheat plant can survive severe weather during growing period, soba represents strength and resiliency.

It is a tradition to not break the noodle while you eat it for good luck for the new year. For Japanese people, we don't feel like it is a new year until we eat soba.

The making is quite easy, you put the soba and cook it the same way you cook pasta. Just a few minutes and then add tsuyu sauce. You can use any topping that you like, for example nori seaweed, negi green onion, ginger, wasabi, etc. These noodles can be eaten cold with a dipping sauce or in a hot bowl.

If they are eaten cold we use a dipping called tsuyu which is a mix of soy sauce, mirin, fish stock. We can also use grinded sesame with soy sauce for vegetarians and vegans.

For hot soba we can use the same stock. For vegetarians, it’s possible to use “dashi” made with Kombu seaweed, not fish.

Toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦), year-crossing noodle, is Japanese traditional noodle bowl dish eaten on New Year's Eve. This custom lets go of hardship of the year.

The custom differs from area to area and it is also called misoka soba, tsugomori soba, kure soba, jyumyo soba, fuku soba, and unki soba. The tradition started around Edo period (1603-1867) and there are several theories believed that long soba noodles symbolize a long life. The buckwheat plant can survive severe weather during growing period, soba represents strength and resiliency.

It is a tradition to not break the noodle while you eat it for good luck for the new year. For Japanese people, we don't feel like it is a new year until we eat soba.

The making is quite easy, you put the soba and cook it the same way you cook pasta. Just a few minutes and then add tsuyu sauce. You can use any topping that you like, for example nori seaweed, negi green onion, ginger, wasabi, etc. These noodles can be eaten cold with a dipping sauce or in a hot bowl.

If they are eaten cold we use a dipping called tsuyu which is a mix of soy sauce, mirin, fish stock. We can also use grinded sesame with soy sauce for vegetarians and vegans.

For hot soba we can use the same stock. For vegetarians, it’s possible to use “dashi” made with Kombu seaweed.

Then we go to the temple to ring bell. For good luck you must be in the first 108 people to ring the bell to represent the 108 sins in Buddhism. During this time the monks light a bonfire where you burn things that are precious and you want to let go of but do not want to throw in the garbage. 

Then the monks open a sacred sake drink that everyone enjoys together. 

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During the next days we eat "Osechi" good luck food with food for health, work, family, ahppieness. In this way we appreciate our living family and ancestors and can say "Akemeshite Omedeto to put the last year behind and open ourselves to the new year.

These are our traditions.

 

 

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