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

January 2, 2016

The Japanese Seasons: January

January (Ichigatsu) is the month that the new year starts in the solar or Gregorian calendar, although technically it is still winter. In fact, Daikan, the coldest part of the year, sets in this month, and the scenery presents a bleak and wintry image. People prefer to stay in their warm homes.

January is traditionally called Mutsuki, the month in which acquaintances come and go and spend a happy time together (referring to the traditional New Year visits). Another name is Taro-zuki as Taro was the name for the eldest son, or simply Hatsu-zuki, first month.

New Year (Oshogatsu) is the major annual festival in Japan, in importance comparable to Christmas in Christian countries. Originally, Shogatsu was a religious ritual in which the auspicious New Year's deity (Shogatsu-sama or Toshigami-sama) who was also the God of Grain was welcomed to the people's homes. Of course, today it is in the first place a vacation period, but there is still a religious element in the form of Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year. Note that, as Japan used to have a lunar calendar in the past, New Year came later in the seasonal cycle (like Chinese New Year), at a time which was still cold, but could also be considered as the first day of spring. That is why traditionally expressions as "Shinshun" ("New Spring") or "Geishun" ("Welcoming Spring") are used on New Year cards. In the Gregorian calendar, however, New Year comes near the winter solstice when the daylight hours are growing a bit longer but when the really severe cold weather is still ahead.

New Year in Japan lasts several days, one speaks of Sanganichi, the first three days of the New Year which are always a holiday, and also of Matsu no uchi, the period with the holiday decorations, which usually lasts a full week (the decorations, including the shimekazari and kadomatsu, are usually removed on the evening of January 6, but in some regions this may be on January 14). Note that while in the past all shops would be closed, nowadays many establishments remain open during sanganichi or already start on January 2. Offices, however, start in January 4.

New Year's Day (Gantan) is a national holiday. The typical greeting exchanged during shogatsu is "akemashite omedeto gozaimasu." Congratulations are offered ("omedeto") because the New Year's deity brings happiness.

People prepare for New Year by a thorough house cleaning (susuharai) and by setting up the kadomatsu (the decorations of pine tree branches and bamboo) and shimenawa (or shimekazari, a rope made of rice straw). Pine trees are considered as sacred and connected with the arrival of the gods and the shimenawa purifies the area beyond it and exorcises evil from those who pass under it. In the Edo-period, susuharai was performed on December 13.

Matsu no uchi is the time for hatsumode, the first visit of the year to a temple or shrine in one's best clothes (haregi, kimono for women and haori and hakama for men, often with the kamon or family crest on it), to pray for health and happiness in the New Year. Hatsumode starts at midnight on the eve of the New Year and there are huge crowds at famous temples during sanganichi. In olden times people visited shrines and temples located in the best direction of the year from their houses (called "eho"), but now they just visit a neighborhood shrine or a famous temple or shrine.

Just before twelve o'clock on New Year's eve, temple bells are rung in a ceremony called Joya no kane. The bells are struck 108 times to symbolically drive away the 108 "attachments" of humans (Christians would talk about "sins") and start with a clean slate.

Wakamizu is the first water drawn before dawn on New Year's day. As it is believed to possess rejuvenating power, it is often offered to the gods and Buddhas. In Kyoto, people also drink fukucha, tea prepared with the wakamizu water, and flavored with an umeboshi (pickled plum) and a slice of konbu (kelp).

The New Year's holiday is celebrated with a variety of sake called (o-)toso, which is obtained by adding powdered Chinese traditional medicinal herbs to normal sake. This started as a custom for good health and a long life among the nobility and later spread to the people. Nowadays, most Japanese drink ordinary sake instead of toso. After the toast, Ozoni and Osechi-ryori are partaken of. Ozoni is soup served with rice cakes, vegetables, fish etc. in it. There are many varieties of ozoni depending on the family or the region in Japan. In Kyoto, white miso is used as the base for the soup. Be careful when eating these glutinous rice cakes, for they can easily stick in your throat! Osechi consists of a variety of colorful, auspicious ingredients, eaten cold, and prepared in advance (or bought at a department store): black beans. dried small sardines, herring roe, rolled kelp, boiled vegetables, sweetened chestnuts and so on. These all keep well over a long time. The ingredients have been selected for their auspicious names such as mame, beans, because of the saying "mame ni ikiru," to lead a healthy life, or sweetened chestnuts because they look like gold (richness), etc.

Children are given otoshidama during the New year's holidays, an envelop with pocket money, a custom originating in giving pieces of rice cakes to members of the family and servants.

In the past people would also make a round of New Year visits, called (o-)nenshi. Nowadays, except in certain traditional professions, this has been replaced by sending New Year's cards, nengajo, with a drawing of the animal of the zodiac (eto) on it (or even more up-to-date, emails). The official postcards of Japan Post have numbers printed on them among which a lottery is held on January 15.

There are several traditional games (Shogatsu no asobi) played by children at New Year, such as flying a kite (takoage), battledore and shuttlecock (hanetsuki), Japanese backgammon (sugoroku) and spinning a top (komamawashi), but these have nowadays been replaced by electronic games... The only game one sees is karuta, small rectangular cards with poems or proverbs on them, which have to be matched up quickly after the first half has been recited. This is often played with a set featuring the hundred poems from the Hyakunin-isshu. On Jan. 3, karuta-hajime is held in the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, by persons wearing beautiful court costumes. By the way, there are also electronic karuta games...

Another popular pastime in the first days of New Year is a tour of the seven temples and shrines of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, Shichi Fukujin Mode. There are many such circuits in various locations in Japan - popular in Tokyo is for example the circuit of the Sumida River. At the seven temples, people receive a stamp on a shikishi (square piece of cardboard) or on a small scroll, and sometimes they also buy clay effigies of the seven deities that have to be placed on a small clay boat (the Treasure Ship).

Kakizome refers to the first calligraphy practice in the New year, held on January 2. Kakizome contests are held and the calligraphies of children are put on display. People always write something auspicious, such as "Happy New Year" or "The First Dream." That last expression refers to hatsuyume, the first dream of the New Year which was considered especially lucky if one dreamed of Mt Fuji, a hawk or an eggplant (fertility).

There are many other "firsts of the year," such as hatsu-gama (the first tea ceremony), hatsu-ike (the first flower arrangement), hatsu-ni (the first cargo) and hatsu-akinai (the first trade).

On January 2 also the public's New Year's Greeting to the Emperor is held (Kokyo Ippan Sanga). The Emperor will appear behind glass windows at the Imperial palace and greet the public.

The first day after sanganichi, usually January 4 (unless this happens to fall in the weekend) is called Goyo-hajime, the day when government offices start their work after the New year's holiday and now referring to the first working day in general, also in private companies. The president of the company usually gives a speech to set out the plans for the new year, and women often come to work in kimono.

Nanakusa-gayu or "seven herb porridge" is a dish traditionally eaten on January 7. Small amounts of seven different herbs are added to the porridge. This custom is believed to invite good luck and longevity in the new year.

January 11 is called Kagami-biraki, "opening of the mirror", the day that the rice cakes (mochi) that were displayed during New Year as an offer to the gods, are broken into small pieces and eaten in shiruko (a sweet soup made of azuki beans) or as zoni (mochi in New Year soup). To eat them in some sort of soup is necessary as the rice cakes have become hard in the two weeks they have been on display.

While on display, the rice cakes have been sitting on a stand, a smaller cake on top of a larger one, and that again topped by a small daidai orange. The flat rice cakes resemble traditional copper mirrors, which led to the name of the custom. And as words like "breaking" have a negative meaning, the positive "opening" is used - as if opening a road to the future, as the custom of kagami-biraki is supposed to bring good fortune in the New Year.

The second Monday in January is Coming-of-Age Day, Seijin-shiki, the second public holiday in January, when all young people who turned twenty between April 2 the previous year or do so at the latest on April 1 of the current year celebrate that they are now adults and therefore allowed to smoke, drink and vote. They will also finally be punished as adults if they do anything wrong. Of course, on such a momentous day those wild youngsters have to be encouraged to become responsible members of society and therefore local governments host coming-of-age ceremonies (seijin-shiki) where politicians and educators exert themselves to pound some morals in. Considering the festive character of the day it is not surprising that the subjects of those speeches are not always in the same grave mood as their elders (as the press laments more strongly every year) and sometimes follow the letter of the law by grabbing the bottle even before the ceremony is over. After the ceremony, often a visit to a local shrine is made, and then finally everyone is allowed to party. The ceremony, however, is an old and hallowed one. In the past it was called genpuku and the transformation from youth to adult was signified by a change of dress. In those early days maturity came much faster than in our present cutesy times: for boys at 15 and girls already at 13. The boys had their forelocks cut off and the girls had to start the hateful custom of dying their teeth black. 

January 15 is Koshogatsu or "Lesser New Year's Day," going back to the old Japanese custom to start each new month on the day it was full moon. Nowadays, this day has lost most of its importance, but people may eat the remainder of the kagamimochi with rice porridge in which azuki (red beans) have been mixed (again thought effective in preventing illness). It was also called "Onna Shogatsu" or "Women's New Year," because on New Year's Day itself women are usually very busy with osechi-ryori and this was a day they could finally rest (and, ideally, the men would prepare the supper).

On January 14 or 15 the New Year decorations are burned at a nearby shrine in a ceremony called Dondonyaki. As these decorations were offerings to the gods, it is believed that exposing oneself to the flame and smoke of the fire helps prevent illness.

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