New Year’s or oshogatsu (正月) in Japanese is one of the most important holidays on the calendar in Japan. It is a time to look back to the past and follow the traditional customs of the festive season. Most people will return home to spend the time together with their family, kind of like Christmas in the West. It is also a popular tradition to visit a temple or shrine at midnight on December 31st, as Buddhist temples all around Japan ring their bells a total of 108 times to symbolize the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief and to get rid of the 108 worldly desires.
January 1st or New Year’s Day (元日) is a very fortunate day in Japan. It is meant to be full of joy and happiness with no stress or anxiety. Everything should be clean and you should not work on this day. A popular custom is to watch the first sunrise of the New Year (初日), which is meant to guarantee good luck for the New Year. It is tradition to visit a shrine or temple during oshogatsu for hatsumode (初詣), the first visit of the New Year. The bigger more popular shrines and temples are extremely crowded with people praying for health and happiness. We usually visit Inaba Jinja, which is the biggest and most famous shrine in Gifu City.
Here are some popular traditions and customs that are followed during New Year’s in Japan
Shimekazari (しめ飾り) is a traditional New Year’s decoration made out of sacred Shinto rice straw rope, pine twigs, and carefully crafted zigzag-shaped paper strips called shide. Shimekazari is usually hung on the front door, and is used to keep bad spirits away as well as inviting the toshigami (歳神) or Shinto deity to visit. Unlike Christmas decorations which are usually packed up and used the following year, New Year's decorations must be new as they symbolize a brand new start and a move away from the past. It is good luck to hang up the shimekazari straight after Christmas, but no longer than after the 28th of December. It is custom to remove the shimekazari on either January 7th or after the 15th, depending on which area of Japan you live.
Kadomatsu (門松) is a traditional Japanese New Year decoration traditionally placed in front of homes to welcome ancestral spirits or kami of the harvest. They are believed to bring prosperity and good luck for the family. The bamboo symbolizes strength and prosperity, the pine symbolizes long life, and the rope protects against evil spirits. After January 15 the kadomatsu is burned to appease the kami or toshigami and release them.
Kagami Mochi (鏡餅) is another traditional decoration that consists of two round mochi (Japanese rice cakes). The smaller rice cake is placed on top of the larger one with a daidai (bitter orange) on top. The two mochi represent the past year and the year ahead with the daidai, which means “generations” in Japanese representing the continuation of a family from one generation to the next. These days you can buy a modern version with the zodiac sign for the coming year on top instead of the bitter orange.