What is Shogatsu? – Japanese New Year Explained

What is shogatsu

Konnichiwa! As dawn breaks over Mount Fuji, Japan welcomes Shogatsu, the New Year, with ancient traditions and vibrant festivities. For the Japanese, this isn’t just a new year; it’s a fresh beginning, a chance to cleanse the slate and embrace prosperity.

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From Emperors to Everyone: A Historical Glimpse

The roots of Japanese New Year can be traced back to ancient agricultural festivals, where prayers were offered for bountiful harvests and good fortune. The imperial court, however, had its own elaborate rituals, celebrating the transition of power and the renewal of the cosmos. By the 8th century, these imperial customs merged with folk traditions, giving birth to the Shogatsu we know today.

Over the centuries, Shogatsu evolved, adapting to changing times and influences. The adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1873 ushered in a new era, marking January 1st as the official New Year’s Day. Yet, the spirit of the old calendar, with its focus on lunar cycles and seasonal changes, remains woven into the fabric of modern celebrations.

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Leading Up to the New Year

Before Shogatsu begins, the lead-up to Shogatsu is a flurry of activity. Many people in Japan observe the following traditions as a way of cleansing for the New Year and preparing for a new start.

  • Oharaiki (大掃除): The meticulous cleaning of homes and shrines before New Year’s Eve signifies a symbolic washing away of negativity and past troubles.
  • Kadomatsu (門松): Tall pine and bamboo decorations placed at entrances of homes welcome the Toshigami (New Year’s god) and symbolize prosperity and longevity.
  • Shimenawa (注連縄): Rice straw ropes adorned with paper shide (cuttings) mark sacred spaces and ward off evil spirits.
  • Mochi-tsuki: Traditional Japanese New Year’s activity involving the pounding of steamed glutinous rice to make mochi, a chewy rice cake, symbolizing prosperity, unity, and the strength to overcome challenges
  • Toshikoshi soba: Long buckwheat noodles symbolizing longevity, are slurped down as the clock strikes midnight. This tradition signifies the “cutting off” of the old year and entering the new one with renewed hope.
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Three Days of Festivity: A Time for Family and Traditions

Shogatsu is not just New Year’s day in Japan. It is a 3 day event starting New Year’s day, filled with traditions and time spent with family. Traditionally, families feast on Osechi ryori for all three days.

The Three Days Explained

  • Ganjitsu (元日): New Year’s Day is spent with family, offering prayers at shrines, and indulging in the first day of Osechi Ryori. Many venture out to witness the first sunrise (hatsuhinode) for good luck and prosperity.
  • Futsuka (二日): Family games, visits to relatives, and continued feasting on Osechi Ryori mark the second day.
  • Sanjitsu (三日): The final day often involves visiting temples, indulging in local festivities, and reflecting on the new year ahead (and of course finishing off the Osechi Ryori!).

Osechi Ryori

Osechi ryori is a traditional Japanese New Year’s cuisine consisting of a variety of meticulously prepared dishes, typically served in beautifully decorated lacquerware boxes called jubako. Each dish in the Osechi ryori has symbolic significance, representing wishes for health, prosperity, happiness, and longevity in the coming year.

The dishes included in Osechi ryori vary depending on regional and family traditions, but some common components may include:

  • Kuromame (Black Beans): Symbolizing health and vitality, these sweetened black soybeans represent a wish for a healthy and fruitful year ahead.
  • Kamaboko (Fish Cake): Slices of colorful fish cake are often shaped into intricate designs, symbolizing joy and celebration.
  • Kazunoko (Herring Roe): These tiny, golden fish eggs represent fertility and a bountiful harvest in the upcoming year.
  • Tazukuri (Candied Sardines): Small dried sardines coated in a sweet soy sauce glaze symbolize a bountiful harvest and a prosperous new year.
  • Datemaki (Sweet Rolled Omelet): A sweet and savory rolled omelet made with fish paste and eggs, symbolizing good fortune and wealth.
  • Kohaku Namasu (Pickled Daikon and Carrots): This colorful dish of pickled daikon radish and carrots represents joy and prosperity, with the red and white colors symbolizing celebration and good luck.
  • Nimono (Simmered Vegetables): Assorted vegetables such as carrots, lotus root, and bamboo shoots are simmered in a flavorful broth, symbolizing family harmony and peace.
  • Ebi (Shrimp): Whole shrimp, often served with their heads and tails intact, symbolize longevity and a wish for a long life.

These are just a few examples of the many dishes that can be included in Osechi ryori. The preparation and presentation of Osechi ryori are highly traditional and often involve elaborate techniques to create visually stunning arrangements that reflect the spirit of the New Year.

Osechi ryori
Osechi ryori

Osechi ryori is typically prepared in advance and enjoyed over the first few days of the New Year, allowing families to relax and celebrate without the need for extensive cooking during this special time. It’s not only a delicious culinary experience but also a deeply meaningful tradition that brings families together to welcome the New Year with hope and auspicious wishes.

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Beyond the Feast: A Tapestry of Rituals and Revelry

Shogatsu is more than just delicious food; it’s a tapestry of traditions that weave together faith, family, and fun:

  • Hatsumode: Visiting a shrine or temple at the first sunrise of the year is a deeply spiritual experience, offering prayers for good fortune and blessings.
  • Otoshidama: Children receive lucky money tucked in decorated envelopes, symbolizing growth and prosperity.
  • Hatsuhinode: Witnessing the first sunrise of the year is believed to bring good luck and guidance for the year ahead.
  • Kakizome: The first calligraphy of the year is written with deliberate focus, setting intentions and aspirations for the coming months.
  • Karuta: This traditional card game, featuring Japanese proverbs and poems, brings families together for laughter and friendly competition.
  • Fukubukuro (福袋): Mystery bags filled with surprises, a fun way to celebrate the new year and grab some bargains.
  • Hakone Ekiden: This prestigious relay race, winding through the picturesque Hakone mountains, draws thousands of spectators and celebrates athletic prowess.
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The Essence of Shogatsu – A Celebration of Hope and Renewal

Japanese New Year is more than just a holiday; it’s a cultural tapestry woven with ancient traditions and modern celebrations. It’s a time to connect with loved ones, express gratitude, and embrace the promise of a fresh start. As the bells toll at midnight, marking the arrival of the new year, a sense of joy and anticipation fills the air. It’s a reminder that every year holds the potential for new beginnings, and that with hope and dedication, we can weave a brighter future.

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Summing it Up

So, whether you’re planning a trip to Japan, the land of the rising sun, to experience this vibrant celebration firsthand or simply want to incorporate some of its traditions into your own New Year’s festivities, remember that the essence of Oshogatsu lies in the spirit of renewal, family, and the promise of a fresh start. Let the joy of Japanese New Year wash over you, and embrace the magic of a new year filled with possibilities.

Beyond the borders of Japan, Shogatsu has captivated the world with its unique blend of tradition and modernity. It’s a testament to the enduring power of human connection and the universal yearning for a new beginning. So, as the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, and the world prepares to usher in a new year, take a moment to appreciate the rich tapestry of Japanese New Year. Let the spirit of Shogatsu, with its focus on family, renewal, and hope, inspire you to create your own unique traditions and celebrate the new year with a grateful heart and a joyful spirit.

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