Saturday, January 01, 2011

Oshogatsu - New Year in Japan

Akimashte Omedeto Gozaimasu to all of you out there.

"Akimashte Omedeto Gozaimasu" is the Japanese greeting for New Year. It  means Good luck or congratulations for opening the New Year. The younger people shorten this greeting to “Aki-Ome” when wishing their close friends. But if said to an elderly person, then raised eyebrows are guaranteed.

New Year  known in Japanese as “Shogatsu” or ”O-shogatsu” is the most important holiday in Japan. In fact some companies have a winter break around this time of the year and are shut down from December 29th to January 3rd or 4th.  Most businesses shut down from January 1 to January 3. Families typically gather to spend the days together.

Like Chinese culture, even in Japan, traditionally each year is viewed as completely distinct from the previous year. Each new year provides a fresh start and as such all old year’s duties have to be completed before the year end. However the Chinese New Year is not celebrated in Japan. The Western New Year was adopted as the New Year somewhere in the 19th century.

New Year is family time and usually people travel to their hometowns and spend the holidays together. The new year preparations begin few days before and all family members together clean the homes for the New year. This is called “O-Soji” meaning “ The Cleaning” and it is similar to Spring cleaning in western cultures. It is also a time to throw out unused things or junk and garbage disposal areas reflect this.  Back home in India, we used to do this around Diwali- the Indian festival of Lights.
Homes and entrance gates are decorated with "Kadomatsu". This ornament consists of a pine branch symbolizing Longevity, a bamboo stalk symbolizing prosperity and a plum blossom which symbolizes nobility.
Nowadays with Christmas being popular, Christmas decorations are also popular especially in homes with young children.

There are family gatherings, visits to shrines and temples and meeting up with close friends and relatives. Younger family members are given money in special envelopes. This allowance is called “Otoshidama”. It is popular custom to exchange gifts with close friends and family members on this occasion.

New Year's eve known as “Omisoka”, is a busy day and usually people do the O-Soji on this day. The New year dinner is also special and supposedly the largest dinner of the year. The speciality of this dinner is the “Toshi-koshi soba”. This buckwheat noodle preparation is supposed to symbolise the crossing over from one year to next. These noodles also symbolize longevity and traditionally these are eaten around midnight. Nowadays families prefer to go out to restaurants for dinner and western style food is very popular. Restaurants have special new year menus. Another belief is that cooking during the first three days of the new year is not auspicious and hence families prepare food in advance for eating during these three days. This is called “O-sechi” which means New Year food. Nowadays more and more people prefer to buy “O-sechi” rather than making it at home. Most stores sell the “Osechi” in bento like divider boxes. These colourful boxes are a sight in themselves and tend to be expensive.

In recent years, a television show called “Kohaku Uta Gassen” is telecast on NHK television and radio . This show telecast on New Year’s eve is highly popular among the people. It features many celebrities, primarily actors and singers and pop stars performing in a kind of contest. The pattern is interesting. The male and female participants are divided into two groups- “Shirogumi” meaning White team comprises the male participants and “Akagumi” meaning Red team comprises the female participants. The popularity of this show is such that it is said that upcoming singers consider it to be a honor to be invited to participate in the show. The songs which are performed are decided after survey among viewers. This show spans over 4 hours. Each team has about 25 participants and this explains the 4 hour duration of the show. The winning team is selected by the audience voting and panel of judges which again comprises notable celebrities. The popularity of this show which began in 1951 has been declining in the recent years with more and more youngsters preferring the New Year eve parties.

It is believed that January 1st is a very auspicious day. Viewing the first sunrise of the year is a very popular activity and it is called “Hatsu-hinode”. Many spots in Japan are famous for the sunrise viewing. Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture is one such popular place in Tohoku region and as such hotels in Matsushima are crowded at this time of the year. Since the first day of the New Year, called “Ganjitsu” in Japanese is a representative of what the year ahead will be, people spend the day doing their favourite things, having fun. People don’t prefer working on this day as they feel the year ahead will be a year full of work related stress and they will have to slog. In a country which is reputed for its “workaholic attitude” this does seem strange!

As per tradition, three Shinto shrines or Buddist temples are visited on the first day of the New Year. This custom of visiting shrines or temples is known as “Hatsumode” and visiting three shrines/temples is called “Sansha Mairi”. At the strike of new year, many shrines and temples ring the bell repeatedly. In some shrines the bell strikes 108 times as it is believed that 108 earthly desires are the cause of human suffering and each strike is for overcoming these desires in order to attain enlightenment. Many people visit the shrines or temples at midnight. Infact many temples or shrines are popular for their Shogatsu crowds – Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari shrine and Kamakura’s Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrines  are reputed for the New Year visits. Infact more than a million visitors visit these shrines during the first three days of the Shogatsu !  Many shrines have a tradition of burning the lucky charms which visitors have offered in the previous year. People also buy lucky charms for New year for good luck.

Even the Imperial Palace has a special New Year tradition. At sunrise on the 1st January, the Emperor worships the four quarters – offering prayers in the direction of various shrines and tombs. On the 2nd of January, the Emperor makes a public appearance and when the Imperial Palace inner grounds are open to public. This is one of the two days in a year, the other being the Emperor’s Birthday (currently December 23rd). The Emperor flanked by the other members of the Imperial family makes an appearance on the balcony of the palace, makes a small public address and waves out to the crowd below. The crowds wave Japan flags and cheer “Banzai” meaning Long Live the Emperor. In fact this routine takes place a few times during the day.

At workplace too, New Year celebrations are common. Friends and co workers usually get together in a year end party called “Bonenkai”. Bonenkai or "Forget-the-year Parties" are held throughout December. It is held with the purpose of leaving the old year’s troubles and worries behind and to begin the new work year with new hopes. There are also New Year parties called “Shinnenkai” which are “Welcome the year parties” and these are usually held in January. Since these parties are not family events, these are generally not held during the Shogatsu holidays.

Tips for Tourists:

1. New Year holiday is a peak travel period in Japan and public transportation, highways and airports are crowded. Hotel reservations are also very difficult during this time of the year. Many Japanese people travel to hometowns and as such highways are crowded and traffic is slow.

2. Many tourist attractions are closed on certain days during the Shogatsu holidays, especially on 1st January. The closure days are not common and some sights may be open and others closed. However temples and shrines are not closed but they can be crowded and have long queues. Many shops

3. Shops are usually closed on January 1 or may be closed for certain hours of the day. But usually shops are open on other days during the Shogatsu holiday. Some shops are open even on January 1 especially in big cities but they tend to operate with skeletal staff.

4. Even many restaurants are closed on few days during this holiday. January 1st may usually be the closure date having had a peak day on December 31st. However fast food joints, restaurant chains and restaurants in big hotels and malls are generally open.

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