Celebrate: Oshogatsu

Akemashite Omedetou, everyone … Happy New Year! Did you all make it to midnight in your respective time zones? We did, though not by design. (I had done laundry earlier and the sheets still needed time to dry. Oops.)

New Year’s is starting to wind down here for my family at least. We did partake in some of the traditional activities on Thursday and we might head downtown tomorrow to check out the shopping scene (fukubukuro!) but other than that, the holiday feels like it’s on its way out the door.

So what did we do on New Year’s Day? Here we go:

Hatsuhinode – Sadly, this is one we missed. It’s tradition to go climb a mountain (or in recent years, a skyscraper or high observatory) to witness the first sunset of the year. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s just as fortuitous (and slightly less physically taxing) to witness the sunrise from the coast. While we could have climbed Mt Kimpo, just north of Kumamoto Castle, the significant chill and subsequent snow flurries definitely deterred all plans of outdoor escapades this year.

Hatsumode – We did manage to rustle ourselves out into the cold for the first shrine visit of the year. Our local shrine is one of the larger ones in this part of Kumamoto City and it’s only a ten-minute walk from our home. So we bundled up, braved the flurries and joined the crowds at Kengun Jinja. The lines to pray at the Honden (Main Hall) were almost backed up to the entrance torii but at least it only took a few minutes of waiting to receive our New Year’s blessing (from priests who looked like they’d been called out of high school algebra class, but still).

Receiving the New Year's blessing
Receiving the New Year’s blessing

We also indulged in a New Year’s charm – an ornament of a sheep. Two years ago, we purchased the more traditional arrow (hamaya) with the attached ema of that year’s new zodiac animal, but it sat gathering dust on our cabinet for over a year. (I suppose it did its job of protecting our house from evil but it’s hard to say.) So this year, we passed on the lucky arrow and just sprang for the talisman (ofuda). (They make great Christmas tree ornaments come next December. 😉 )

Despite the early hour, there were already tons of omikuji, or fortune slips, tied up to the wires around the shrine’s trees. The first fortune of the New Year is said to be the luckiest and, thankfully, any bad predictions are far outweighed by good ones.

Omikuji (fortunes) tied up at our local shrine
Omikuji (fortunes) tied up at our local shrine

Osechi ryori

And then we came home and opened the box I had been drooling over since New Year’s Eve morning – our osechi ryori, or New Year’s food. Traditionally, osechi was a way for families (mostly housewives, really) to get through the first few days of the New Year when most of the shops and markets would have been closed. Without access to anything “fresh”, a flurry of preparation occurred on the day or two before Oshogatsu, when foods were either steamed or pickled or preserved in some way as to last until January 3rd or 4th. It was often stacked in lacquer boxes (and is still sold that way today) and kept in a cool place until totally consumed.

Osechi ryori
Osechi ryori

Yet the food in an osechi box also has meaning for the holiday. For example:

  • Shrimp (ebi) – With its curved back (like a senior citizen), shrimp represent longevity.
  • Herring roe (kazunoko) – These tiny yellow fish eggs represent an abundant harvest and fertility.
  • Rolled seaweed (kombumaki) – Tied up in knots, this vinegar version of a popular seaweed looks like an old scroll and represents luck in education
  • Sardines (tazukuri) – These dried and slightly sweetened fish also symbolize an abundant harvest and were once spread on rice paddies to enrich the soil.
  • Fluffy egg (datemaki) – Rolled tightly into the shape of a scroll, these sweet omelets also represent scholarship and culture.

There were a lot more compartments in our osechi box but I think I’ll do a full post on each food at some point.

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday and are gearing up for the year ahead. I’ll be back next week with more posts from my trip to Tokyo just after Christmas and with my travel goals for 2015!

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