Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

December 2, 2014

The Japanese Seasons: December

The twelfth month is traditionally called Shiwasu. This name is often explained as "Buddhist priests (shi) busily running around (hasu, wasu) to hold year-end Buddhist services in people's houses" - something which etymologically doesn't sound very convincing, but there seems to be no better explanation for the poetical name of the twelfth month. It is the season that the trees shed their leaves (ochiba), although - depending on the weather - the momiji can still be beautiful in early December. But winter inexorably deepens and the sunlight becomes weaker - although never as weak as in my native north-western Europe where it can remain almost dark the whole day. There are more winter showers and a cold north wind starts blowing.

One of the seasonal points is called Daisetsu, Great Snow, around the 7th or 8th of December, when winter is deemed to be starting in earnest. Fifteen days later, on the 22nd or 23rd of December falls Toji, the winter solstice, with the shortest day time and longest night time of the year. There is an old belief that taking a bath with yuzu citrus floating in it (yuzu-yu) will help one stay healthy through the cold winter. Another winter solstice custom is to eat kabocha squash.

Yuzu
[Yuzu]

After November with its enjoyment of nature by way of viewing the gorgeous autumn colors, December is a rather colorless and above all busy month. The 13th of December is called Kotohajime, the Start of Preparations for the New Year, a custom originating in Edo Castle in the Edo period. The first thing to do is housecleaning (soji), not only in order to start the new year with a spic-and-span dwelling, but also as a sort of ritual cleansing of the evil that may have accumulated in the house during the year. At Nishihonganji Temple in Kyoto, Buddhist priests clean the dust away in the huge temple on December 20 in a ritual called Susuharai.

People may also be busy buying and sending out Seibo or Year-End Gifts. Oseibo are given to persons who have supported one personally or professionally during the past year and are generally of a higher value than the summer gifts (Ochugen). Usually expensive food items are bought, of course nicely packaged - many companies devise special gift sets for Oseibo. The busiest time of Oseibo shopping is from early through mid-December when the winter bonus is paid to workers of companies and government agencies.

In December, people are also kept busy with Bonenkai or Year-End Parties. These are held with colleagues or friends to forget the hardships of the past year, to thank each other and ask for continued support in the new year. Depending on the size of one's social network, some people have to attend many of these parties and as the drinking is usually quite heavy, there are a lot of people suffering from head-aches during the daytime.

Kadomatsu
[Kadomatsu]

At the end of December, but before the 28th, the New Year Decorations such as Kadomatsu have to be put up by the entrance to welcome the God of the New Year (Toshigami). This has to be done early so that the deity can be welcomed in a relaxed way. Kadomatsu are placed in pairs on both sides of entrances to homes, shops, offices, etc. These consist of three diagonally cut bamboo poles of varying length, symbolizing strength and growth, and pine branches which symbolize long life, bound with a newly woven straw rope and sitting on a straw mat at the bottom. As these are very expensive, ordinary homes instead may only put up Shimekazari: a small rope made from rice straw (shimenawa), with zigzag-shaped paper strips called shide, small pine branches and a citrus fruit as the daidai to add color - these are hung above doorways, both inside and outside the house, and serve to keep bad spirits away.

Also around the 28th of December (the exact date can become earlier when it happens to be in a weekend) falls Goyo Osame, "Concluding the Year's Work," by the employees of public organizations and government agencies. In companies, this is called shigoto osame. The work of the year is formally completed, so that one can make a fresh start in the new year.

Kera-mairi, Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto
[Kera-mairi - lighting the rope with the sacred fire]

Then comes December 31 or New Year's Eve, in Japan called Omisoka. People stay up late and many visit a shrine or temple at midnight to make an auspicious start of the new year. One way to spend the long evening is to watch Kohaku Utagassen, the Red vs. White Song Competition, which is broadcast live by NHK since 1951.  In the four hour long show a red (female) and white (male) team each consisting of about 25 of the most popular artists of the year compete in acts that are often the highlights of a singer's career. New Year's Eve is also the time to eat Toshikoshi Soba, buckwheat noodles, something which originally started as a simple and quick dish for merchants who were still busy settling their books on this day, but which now continues because of the expression "to live long like a soba noodle." Finally, at midnight on New Year's Eve, temple bells are rung 108 times to eliminate the 108 delusions and false attachments to which human beings are subject. This is called Joya no kane. There are many temples where visitors can join in ringing the bell. A nice custom exists in the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, where on New Year's Eve watch fires and toro lanterns are lit using the roots of a medicinal herb called Okera, which is believed to help cast away evil influences from the past year. This festival is called Okera-Mairi. In the past, visitors, used to take back embers from this fire to prepare the ozoni for New Year. Nowadays, visitors can buy a bamboo rope and kindle this symbolically with the herbal root fire. You have to keep swinging the rope to keep the fuse burning, and it is a nice sight to see people walking in the darkness with those small red flames - although it is now impractical to take these ropes home.

There are several other festivals in December. One, also in Kyoto, is the Kyoto Minamiza Kichirei Kaomise, or the annual Appearance of the All-Star Cast of Kabuki at the Minamiza Theater. It is a stage for actors from east and west Japan to meet each other and also a greeting by the cast to the audience, asking for their continued patronage.

December is also the month of Chushingura or the story of the Forty-seven Ronin. This tale of feudal loyalty, based on a historical incident, has inspired countless media, from kabuki and bunraku to film, theater, novels and manga. The Forty-seven Ronin refers to the 47 loyal retainers of Lord Asano of the Ako clan, led by Oishi Kuranosuke. As their revenge on Asano's rival, Kira Yoshinao, took place on a snowy night on December 14, this has become the day of the Gishisai or Festival of the Loyal Retainers at Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo - Sengakuji is the temple where they and (some years earlier) Lord Asano himself were buried after committing seppuku. On December 14, many people visit their graves and also come to watch a parade of persons dressed up as these 47 loyal retainers. (in Ako in Hyogo Prefecture, the location of the castle of Lord Asano, a similar parade is held on the same date - see my post about Ako).

Sensoji, Tokyo (Hagoita Fair)
[Hagoita Market, Sensoji, Tokyo]

A more bright event are the Hagoita Markets (Hagoita Ichi) held throughout Japan from mid-December. A hagoita is a paddle used in the game called hanetsuki, a sort of badminton which in the past was a popular pastime at New Year. However, the hagoita sold at these markets today are purely ornamental - they are beautifully decorated with pasted pictures of Kabuki heroes, geisha, film/TV stars and anime characters. By far the largest and most famous Hagoita Market is held in the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo from Dec. 17 through 19.

The flower of December is the tsubaki (sancha) or camellia, an evergreen shrub with flowers that range from white via pink to deep red. Depending on the sort, tsubaki can bloom either in winter or in spring. The winter type starts blooming in October, keeps blooming during winter, and looses it flowers in spring. The flower is indigenous in China and Japan and was brought to Europe by the German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer, who called them "Japan Roses." In the 19th century it was a popular luxury flower in Europe, as appears from Dumas' La Dame aux camélias.

Tsubaki
[Tsubaki]

A popular fruit of December is the yuzu, which was already mentioned above. Winter is also the time that enormous amounts of mikan, Japanese mandarins, are consumed. Typical vegetables of December are shungiku (kikuna), edible chrysanthemum leaves, which add a bitter note to stews and one-pot dishes, and of course the versatile daikon or giant white radish that is eaten boiled in various dishes. Several temples and shrines in Kyoto have days that they serve daikon-daki, boiled slices of daikon, often with abura-age, for example Daihoonji (also called Senbon Shakado, Dec. 7 & 8) or Ryotokuji (Dec. 9 & 10).

A popular fish of December, finally, is buri or yellowtail, This is an auspicious fish that has its name changed as it grows from infant to adult as though it were given a "promotion." It is also a must for the New year dinner in West Japan, and often used as a year-end gift.

Japanese seasonal customs according to the months of the year:
January - February - March - April - May - June - July - August - September - October - November - December