Celebrate: Omisoka (New Year’s Eve)

Yoi otoshi o, faithful readers! I wish you all a wonderful New Year! My family and I just got back from a snowy break in Tochigi Prefecture – did you see the pics on facebook? That snow was deep! I think Yunishigawa Onsen is my new favorite off-the-beaten-track destination.

We’re back now and gearing up for the Japanese New Year. For the first time in six years of living here, I have ordered the traditional osechi ryori, or New Year’s food. It arrived this morning around 10am and is currently sitting wrapped in a furoshiki in my fridge. I am SO psyched to open it tomorrow … and you’ll see it on the blog on Friday!

The New Year is arguably the most important holiday on the Japanese calendar, even more important I’d say than Obon. Everyone, and I mean practically EVERYONE, takes off of work for at least 2-3 days and heads home to see family (much like Christmas for many of us). The airports were insane this week, as was Tokyo station the other evening after work let out. I have to say, the excitement in the air is akin to that of the pre-Christmas rush back home in the US.

Traditionally, the Japanese new year was a time to prepare to welcome spring. Odd, right (especially since they are calling for snow tomorrow in Kumamoto)? Only if you’re going by the Gregorian calendar, as most of the world does now. By the old solar calendar, the New Year came around February 4th or 5th. (Yes, Japan used a lunar and a solar calendar, both “borrowed” from the Chinese custom.) So while the New Year now falls in a time of deep snow for much of the nation, when it was known and celebrated as risshun (“spring begins”), the trees were budding and the promise of spring was in the air.

New Year’s Day itself has so many traditions (I’ll get to those later this week) but the build-up to the holiday has many special components too. Here are a few:


Kadomatsu (“gate pine”) are a common sight in front of homes, storefronts, restaurants and hotels. They house the toshigami (the “god” of the year) who come to bless the house and the occupants within. The pine symbolizes long life, the bamboo is for strength and prosperity and it’s all bound together with a straw rope that protects against evil spirits from taking up residence. Most kadomatsu also incorporate a red and white fan, colors that are popular around this time (white for purity, red for the energy of the sun). Some displays even include plum blossoms, as these hardy flowers can withstand even the snows of winter. The kadomatsu is left up until after New Year’s and then burned around January 15th to release the kami.

A kadomatsu in front of a shrine in Kagoshima Prefecture
A kadomatsu in front of a shrine in Kagoshima Prefecture


Shimekazari are always the first thing I notice in my neighborhood, come the holiday season. These woven straw ropes – some of which can get quite elaborate – hang on or over doorways of residences and restaurants. They ward off evil spirits (see a pattern?) while simultaneously inviting the toshigami in. You’ll see them adorned with everything from pine branches and lighting-bolt-shaped paper strips (shide, like you find at Shinto shrines) to bitter oranges and, here in my city, figs. The oranges are called daidai in Japanese, which is a term that also means “generation to generation”. So if you want to make sure your family line doesn’t die out, get yourself a shimekazari with oranges. (No clue on the figs. Update 1/1/15: My bad. They’re hoshigaki, or dried persimmons. I didn’t make the connection until I discovered some in my box of osechi, or New Year’s food.)

Don’t ever recycle an old shimekazari though. You have to buy them new each year. Not only is this great for merchants, but it assures the buyer a “fresh start” to each new year. Shimekazari are taken down sometime in the first week or two after New Year’s Day.

Shimekazari for sale at my local market
Shimekazari for sale at my local market
Shimekazari hanging over a neighbor's door
Shimekazari hanging over a neighbor’s door


Nengajo are New Year’s cards, sent out to friends, family and work colleagues. Much like Valentine’s Cards back in primary school, everbody gets one. Even “peripheral” people in your life, like your kid’s senseis at school, should be sent one. This doesn’t always happen, but many people take the obligation of nengajo seriously. (The one caveat here is that you don’t send them to someone who has had a death in the family that year. They’ll actually send you a mourning card in early December, sort of like a reminder.)

Nengajo usually have the zodiac animal for the coming year on them (goodbye horse, hello sheep) though some simple have tasteful designs like Mt Fuji or plum blossoms. You can buy them prestamped, which is a huge help, and they’re always mailed to ensure that they arrive exactly on New Year’s Day. (The post office has whole posters on when to send them.) I’m terrible at sending out Christmas cards, so it’s no surprise that I didn’t get around to nengajo this year either.

Nengajo for the upcoming Year of the Sheep
Nengajo for the upcoming Year of the Sheep

Toshikoshi soba

On New Year’s Eve, it’s customary to eat soba. But not just any soba. These toshikoshi soba noodles are extra-long and thin, allegedly promising the consumer a long life. (Toshikoshi means the end of the old year and the beginning of the new). At my corner market today, I saw both toshikoshi soba and the awfully-unique naganinjin, or super long carrots. I wanted to take a picture of them when I came out of the store but they had already been snapped up. I suppose anything long will do, really. But you have to eat everything before the clock strikes midnight, or your luck will not carry over into the new year.

And that’s only the half of it! A lot more happen on New Year’s Day that I’ll talk about on Friday. For now, I am off to drool over the thought of the osechi in my fridge.

Yoi otoshi o!!!

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