Thursday, December 26, 2013

Memories of Japan: Ōsōji – Getting Ready for the New Year

Today is Thursday, December 26, 2013.
How to write Ōsōji in
Chinese characters

The New Year holiday is the biggest, most important holiday in Japan.  Preparations begin early, and the actual holiday period lasts for several days. There were a number of customs that I really liked, but the one that affected me the most, and the one that I both loved and hated the most, was the custom of year-end housecleaning called Ōsōji.  Literally, it means "big cleaning."  It reminded me of the Western custom of spring housecleaning, except that it's done in winter, and it's not only done in homes, but also in temples and shrines, in schools and in the workplace.  Can you imagine a whole country getting clean all at the same time?  Ōsōji is a time to purify and refresh our living spaces, work areas and places of learning and worship in order to properly enter the new year.  It is not only a literal cleansing, but also a spiritual one.

This is a martial arts studio being cleaned.
During Ōsōji you do the deep cleaning that doesn't get done at any other time of year.  You get down on your knees to scrub the floor, take things out of the cupboards and wipe everything down, even clean the walls and ceiling.  You sweep, scrub, wax, dust and polish.  You clean behind things, under things, and on top of tall things that you don't normally bother with.  You clean out the fridge, and the oven, if you have one. In the old days, people would take the old rice paper off the shōji sliding doors and re-paper them.  Fortunately, most people have only one or two rooms, at most, with these paper doors.  These days, most people don't bother with that, unless one of the panes has a hole in it.  Once you have finished the cleaning indoors, the entrance of your house or business is swept clean and a little water is sprinkled there.  

This couple is replacing the rice paper in the sliding doors.
Ōsōji must be finished well before New Year's Eve, and as soon as the cleaning is done, the new year decorations are put up, and in the old days, that was a job in and of itself, because these decorations had to be made by hand each year.   

One type of decoration is shimenawa, sacred twists of rope made of rice straw from the past year's rice crop. (In this sense, they are symbols of gratitude for the past year's harvest and the hope that the coming year's crop will be bountiful.)  The ropes can be very thin or extremely thick. Rice paper tassels representing rice straw roots are often attached to the ropes. These tassels are called shide, and are specially folded to be shaped like lightning bolts


Izumo-taisha (出雲大社)
Shimenawa ropes are used in entrances of Shintō temples to signify a a sacred area where kami are nearby, or a space that has been purified.  According to an ancient historical document called the Kojiki, these ropes were first used to prevent the sun goddess, Amaterasu, from re-entering a cave in order to save the world from eternal night.  Shimenawa mark the boundary between the sacred and the profane.  They keep impurities out and purify the space within.  Shimenawa express the values of purity and protection from evil.  They discourage wicked spirits from entering, and are hung in the hope of protecting the shrine from evil in the coming year.  No wonder they are hung at the entrance to homes and other structures that have been cleaned so thoroughly each year! 

The ropes are sometimes tied around trees, as well.  The largest one is always hung at the Grand Shrine of Izumo, or Izumo-taisha (出雲大社) in Shimane Prefecture.  It is 42 feet long and weighs several tons.  The Grand Shrina of Izumo, by the way, is Japan's oldest shrine.  There are no documents that describe exactly when the shrine was first established. 

Kami are the gods of the Shintō religion.  They are the spirits of the natural world, the elements of nature, animals, and forces of creation in the universe. They are also the spirits of the deceased.  As manifestations of the interconnecting energy of the universe, they are examples of what human beings should strive for in life.  They exist in a hidden world, parallel to our own physical world.  The word kami can be translated in a number of ways, which is probably for the best, as no one translation captures the full range of meaning.  Since Shintō is an inclusive religion (which is why it gets along so well with Buddhism in Japan), the word kami has also come to include Buddhas and the Judeo-Christian God.

Shimenawa ropes are used as the basis for new year decorations called shimekazari.  While shimenawa themselves are hung in shrines, shimekazari are used in secular spaces.  The ropes are made into loops, on which are fastened pine branches and sometimes fern branches with white-backed leaves, shide, and bitter oranges.  These days, most people prefer to buy their shimekazari, rather than make them at home.  They are placed at the top of the entrance to the home, for somewhat the same reason as a horseshoe is hung above entrances in the West. 

Shimekazari hung over a door
One other decoration that is commonly seen in Japan is the kadomatsu, or "gate pine," which stand guard at the gate of a home or place of business. This particular custom originated during the Heian Period (794 - 1185). They can be placed anytime after Christmas, and aren't taken down until January 7.   They're made not only of pine, but also bamboo, which symbolizes growth, strength, long life and endurance.  Bamboo is not a tree, as commonly thought in the West, but actually a type of grass that can crow from one-foot dwarf plants to giant timber bamboo that grow to a height of over 100 feet.  Designs for kadomatsu vary according to the region in which they are made.  Sometimes sprigs from ume (plum), an early blooming tree, are used.  The three bamboo shoots are usually cut on a diagonal to different heights, with the tallest representing heaven, the middle one humankind, and the shortest representing earth.  All the elements of the kadomatsu are bound with woven straw mat and newly woven rope.  They are placed on either side of a gate or entrance, representing male and female.  Kadomatsu are considered temporary housing for kami.  

It may surprise Japanese people who visit Hawaii during at New Years' time to find that kadomatsu are placed in front of many homes, whether the residents are ethnic Japanese or not.  The ones in Hawaii also feature ironwood branches, as well as local bamboo.  

Once the home is cleaned and decorated, there are lots of other things to do in order to get ready for the New Year celebration.  I'll talk more about that as we get closer to year end.  :-)

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