Monday, December 30, 2013

Memories of Japan: New Year's Day Customs

Gantan means New Year's Morning
Today is Monday, December 30, 2013. 

Celebrating the New Year in Japan is so important that the list of special customs seems to go on and on forever.  When I arrived in Japan, it was just after the New Year had been celebrated, so I had a year to get accustomed to the country, the people and the customs before I was subjected to the whirlwind that is often referred to as "New Years Days."  If you're new to Japan at this time of year, I sympathize, for it surely must feel like information overload to you. Sometimes I felt like asking, "Is there anything you don't have a custom for?  Am I breathing the right way?"

I've already talked about some of the foods for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, but I left out a couple, so that's first on the list.  You may remember that I wrote about pounding sweet rice into mochi in a large wooden mortar on New Year's Eve.  Mochi is made from the short-grain, polished, glutenous rice the Japanese love so well.   

To make mochi, you wash the rice and let it soak overnight.  Then you cook it and let it cool slightly.  You pour the cooked rice into the mortar and pound it with wooden mallets.  This is a two-person job.  One person pounds while the other keeps the mochi wet and turns it every so often.  The two people have to coordinate their work, or risk injury with the heavy mallet.  When the rice is completely gelatinous,  the sticky mixture is then shaped into little round mounds and left to dry a bit.  The mochi can then be used in decorations or eaten.  If you want sweet mochi, you use sweet rice flour (mochiko) instead of cooked rice.  You mix the flour with water into a thick paste and cook it on the stove or even in a microwave.  

Fresh, soft mochi is delicious, especially if it's slightly sweet, and I came to love not only the taste, but the texture, as well.  Once mochi hardens and if it is kept for a while, mold can develop on it, but you can scrape the mold off with a knife and eat it anyway, no problem.  This is not something you want to try with other types of food, but with mochi, it seems to work OK.

The mochi you can buy from the store often comes in the shape of a thin rectangle.  Except for New Year's, most people just buy their mochi from the store.  Mochi can be eaten by itself, if it is fresh and slightly sweet, but it's often used in other dishes. Sometimes sweet azuki beans are put into the center of a mound of mochi, or you can make sweet azuki bean soup with pieces of mochi in it.  Delicious!

The most auspicious dish you can eat on New Year's Day is
o-zōni, a consomme type soup with mochi and vegetables.  In Eastern Japan, the soup stock is dashi, which is clear or slightly yellow in color, made from flakes of dried bonito fish or kombu (seaweed) and soy sauce.  In Western Japan, the soup stock is made from white (light colored) miso paste, so the stock looks a little cloudier.  (Miso is a paste made of fermented rice, barley or soybeans.)  In Eastern Japan, the mochi is grilled first, before being put into the soup.  In Western Japan, round mochi are boiled.  In areas of Japan where rice is not grown much, tōfu (soybean curd) is used in the soup, instead.  

The spiced sake is heated and drunk in the three
cups on the little stand.  Sake is always drunk warm.
Source: midorisyu
Another thing to do on New Year's Day is to drink o-toso (屠蘇), which is spiced sake.  This is drunk in a more "medicinal" than recreational way, in order to flush out the previous year's maladies and to lead a long life.  The characters used to write toso  (the o at the beginning is an honorific), mean "defeat evil spirits."   O-toso is drunk as a family, using three sizes of cups, starting with the smallest, which is passed around to each person, who takes one small sip.  In China, the youngest person in the family drank first, to test the drink for poisons, but in Japan, the head of the household takes the first sip.  In the second and third cups, different varieties of the drink are made.  This custom is still done in Western Japan (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe), but not so much in the east. 

New Year's badminton  羽根つき - hane tsuki
The shuttlecock for Japanese badminton is
made of brightly-colored feathers stuck into
seeds.  These are called hane.

The paddles for the badminton game are called hagiota.

There are some traditional games played on New Year's Day, but some of them seem to be dying out.  A form of badminton used to be popular, and if the weather is OK, they may do some kite-flying out in the country, but for city folk, the most popular game played anymore is a card game called karuta (a Japanese rendition of the Portuguese word for "cards").  The cards are small and printed on thick cardstock paper.  There are different types of karuta games, some involving knowledge of poems, and others are more of a matching type game.  Children play a form of karuta where the cards have hiragana characters on them  (Iroha Karuta or "ABC Cards").  

Kite flying, or tako-age, is still popular in some areas.

Hanafuda cards.  Click to enlarge.
The kind of karuta I played was called Hanafuda, or "flower cards."  The deck has 48 cards with four cards representing each of twelve "suits," one for each month of the year.   Each month is represented by a different type of flower or plant. Point values can be 1, 5 or 20 points. Cards with pictures of animals or scenes mean those cards have a higher point value.  The game is played by three players who try to match cards from the same suit.  To determine who deals first, each player takes a card, and the one with the earliest "month" deals first.  There are variants of the game played with more players and rules that make it a little harder to match cards.  Like all popular games, the rules vary slightly from area to area and from family to family.

Fukuwarai game
Another game that reminds me of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey is called fukuwarai (福笑 "lucky smiling face game") is also a traditional Japanese game. A blindfolded person tries to place eyes, eyebrows, a nose and a mouth on a printed poster face.  The image is from someone who played the game in Japan.

In a previous blog, I told you that there were different ways to wish someone a Happy New Year before and after New Year's Day.  The most common way to say Happy New Year anytime after midnight on New Year's Eve is to say Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu. ( 明けましておめでとうございます。) The first word is a verb, "to open," so you are congratulating someone on the opening of the year, which is why it is said on or after New Year's Day, but not before.   It is very important when you see someone for the first time on or after New Year's Day to wish them a happy new year.  This is done until about the middle of January. 

First sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji
There are a number of traditional "firsts" that Japanese people like to pay attention to.  These include hatsuhinode
(初日の出) the first sunrise of the year, which some people celebrate by climbing a mountin on New Year's Eve so they can see the sunrise from the top of the mountain.  Mt. Fuji is a tough climb, but even those who are not "mountain climbers" can do it, with the right shoes and gear, and there are rest stops along the way, albeit fairly primitive. If they live near the coastline, many Japanese go to the shore to view the first sunrise.  

First visit to a shrine on New Year's Day
Another first is hatsumōde (初詣) is the first visit of the year to a Shintō shrine, although some people do visit a Buddhist temple, instead.  Most people do this on the first, second or third day of the new year.  People buy new omamori (lucky charms) and bring the old ones back so they can be burned.  (I always kept mine, however.)  At the shrine, people pray for good health and good fortune in the new year, which doesn't take long.  They basically stand in front of the shrine and clap their hands a couple of times, then bow their heads toward their clasped hands.  They also generally make a small monetary donation to the temple that they visit, but the crowds are so fierce that some of them have to throw their money into the box over the heads of others.  If any money doesn't make it into the box, it will be picked up later – the Japanese are honest that way.  I'll talk a bit more about the custom of visiting shrines in a future post. 

First smile of the new year
The first laughter of the year waraizome, is a good omen.  They have a saying, 笑う門には福来る。"Good fortune and happiness will come to the home of those who smile."  Playing the fukuwarai game described above is a good way to get people to smile and laugh.

The first dream hatsuyume (初夢) is also important, as the dream traditionally fortells the dreamer's fortune in the coming year.  Since Japanese often spend the night of December 31 without sleeping, the first dream is often not seen until the night of January 1.  This is why January 2 on a traditional Japanese calendar is called hatsuyume.  It is particularly good luck to dream of Mount Fuji, a hawk or an eggplant.  (The word for eggplant is a homonym for the word "to achieve.") 

First calligraphy of the year, for kids and adults

The first letter exchanged in the new year is called hatsudayori and the first calligraphy that you do in the new year is called kakizome.  I imagine that nowadays the first letter custom is dying out, but perhaps the young people remark on the first email or the first text message. People get together in big groups in gymnasiums to do the first calligraphy of the year. There are events for children and for adults. 

Girls dress in silk kimono with the
obligatory fur stole on the first day
back at work.  Long sleeves are worn
by single women.  Married women
wear shorter sleeves.
The first day back at work in the new year is shigoto-hajime 仕事始め, and people often dress up for work in traditional kimono or their very best suit the first day back after the new year begins.  When I worked at Berlitz, the secretaries all came wearing kimono. 

The first practice of any of the martial arts is called keiko-hajime  稽古始め.  The first tea ceremony of the year, hatsugama 初釜,  is often given by the tea master for all of his or her students, and it is a full one, including a meal as well as tea and sweets.   The first shopping sale of the new year is called hatsu-uri 初売り.

First tea ceremony

The Emperor and his family have already greeted people on the occasion of the Emperor's birthday, which occurs on December 23, but in 2014 they will once again wave to the people from their balcony in the Imperial Palace on January 2, 2014 sometime between 9:30 am and 2:30 p.m. The gates are closed to visitors after 2:10 p.m.  The family will make several appearances. 
  • First Appearance: Around 10:10 a.m.
  • Second Appearance: Around 11:00 a.m.
  • Third Appearance: Around 11:50 a.m.
  • Fourth Appearance: Around 1:30 p.m.
  • Fifth Appearance: Around 2:20 p.m.
Crowds wave to the Imperial Family

The first and second appearances will be with the Emperor and Empress, the Crown Prince and Princess, and other adult members of the imperial family.  (By this I think they mean other members of the family of the Emperor's generation.)  The third appearance onward will also include Prince Akishino (brother of the Crown Prince) and his family, including their daughters and their son, who will one day inherit the throne. I assume that the Crown Prince's daughter will also be included in the third appearance onward.) 

Starting on the second of January, many people travel to visit relatives and friends, or more formal visits to a special teacher or mentor to ask them for their help in the new year.

First sale of the new year.  Notice the huge bags called fukabukuro
or "lucky bags."  The retailers make them big on purpose.
Stores were never open during the first three years of the new year when I was there, but recently, some department stores have been holding sales on New Year's Day.  That's quite a change in routine, but with the economy the way it is now, I can well imagine retailers feel it necessary, since so many Japanese are out and about on these days, and free to do some shopping.   Nowadays shops give out fukubukuro (福袋, lucky bags) in early January. Small outlet stores as well as big department stores give these out.  Even Mr. Donuts in Japan does it.  The bags contain a variety of the shop’s products, but you have to buy the bag in order to look at the contents. 

Two other new year activities I will talk about in a future post include New Year postcards and money envelopes given to children. :-)


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