|Gantan means New Year's Morning|
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.
|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.|
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|
(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|
|First smile of the new year|
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 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|
- 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|
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.
Two other new year activities I will talk about in a future post include New Year postcards and money envelopes given to children. :-)