Oshōgatsu - The Japanese New Year

Posted: 13/01/2021
Category: Japanese Festivals

Oshōgatsu is a very important festive period within which the traditional harmoniously combines with the modern, especially in urban areas. It is still highlighted by carefully prepared objects and rituals that are deeply rooted in the agricultural past.

First, mention should be made of the seasonal objects, many of them enjoying a particular significance: the decorations at the shrines and the houses, the offerings, the charms, all kinds of masks as well as various types of food. Most of them are conceived so that they might symbolize fertility and purity.

Kadomatsu at the entrance of Miwa-shrine, Nara

The first to draw our attention is kadomatsu, which is placed at the entrance of the shrines and (to a lesser extent of late) in front of the house gates. According to folk belief, the beneficial influence of the pine’s spirit results in chasing away the malevolent spirits and in winning over the divine protection of Toshigami – the God of the Year, which is said to abide here for a couple of days (usually starting on December 29 until January 4).

Kadomatsu at the entrance of Miwa-shrine, Nara
Photo ©Angela Hondru

A traditional kadomatsu consists of three pieces of bamboo set at different heights so that they might represent heaven, people and earth. The evergreen bamboo is of good omen and a symbol of vitality. The bamboo stalks in the arrangement are cut either horizontally or obliquely (according to the region), the latter being likened to the cut slashed with a sword. In both cases, the cuts are supposed to discourage malevolent spirits to draw near. The plum tree sprigs that accompany the bamboo tubes add to the charm and the meaning of the arrangement: plum flowers, which bloom in February, stand for longevity, prosperity and steadfastness. The flowering kale to be seen in the arrangement lately is looked upon as an adornment, but it also has a fortunate meaning. Most of the traditional kadomatsu include fern leaves, as they are said to enjoy magical properties. Their aspect itself seems to speak about a harmonious family and rich life.

Fern leaves are to be seen in shimekazari, as well. Such decorations are hung at the entrance of the houses, stores, hotels, public toilets, cars, etc. They look like luring good luck and wealth. The fern leaves are usually attached to the sacred rope – shimenawa – which is said to mark the border line separating the sacred from the profane. Besides fern leaves, one can also see: yuzuri leaves that never fall off before the new ones have sprouted, being thus considered the symbol of uninterrupted tradition; daidai, a type of bitter orange that is a homophone of “generation after generation”; the lobster whose bent back suggests long life; the tangle weed konbu, that makes us think of health and happiness.

Most of the traditional arrangements also include sheets of paper cut in zigzag – shide – which were originally considered to be the deities’ clothing. Nowadays, they are looked upon either as an offer brought to the deities or as an object of worship.

The old year draws to an end by the ringing of the Buddhist temple bells. Both in 2000 and in 2005, I spent the New Year’s Eve in the campus of the University of Foreign Languages in Ōsaka. I listened to the bell of the little Buddhist temple nearby ringing out the old year. I knew that each of the one hundred and eight long-drawn peals, of which the last is struck just at the turn of the year, is believed to subdue one of the thirty six celestial and the seventy two terrestrial evil and earthly lusts. I felt as if I had been absolved of my sins.

Bell at a Buddhist temple
Photo ©Angela Hondru

Knowing that I was not to cross any Japanese threshold during the familial festive days, the Sobakiri family provided me with some traditional food. Back from the temple, my eyes assailed the two boxes exquisitely lacquered in red, black and gold. I didn’t feel like spoiling that magnificent “work of art” achieved with much trouble and sensitivity and I tried to think of the right approach so that I might enjoy it as long as possibl

All the types of food that make up osechi ryōri, which are to be eaten on the first day of the New Year, are of good omen owing to their form, color, name or taste, each of them offering symbols marvelously decoded by the Japanese: gomame (sardines) remind one of tameness and friendship; kuromame (black beans) urge one to be careful; kazunoko (herring roe) stands for innumerable offspring; ebi (lobster) symbolizes long life; kuwai is a kind of vegetable shaped like a bud and makes one think of the beginning of the universe; through the little holes of the renkon (lotus root) we can see the bright future; konbu (a type of brown seaweed) suggests health and happiness.

Early in the morning I left for Inatsuhiko-jinja in Ōsaka in order to feel for the first time the beat of the New Year. I dared not go to a bigger shrine in Kyōto or Nara for fear that I might have been overwhelmed by the crowds and nothing more. At Inatsuhiko-jinja I stood aside and watched people pulling the sacred rope and clapping their hands for the kami to learn about their presence and to listen to their thanks and prayers.

The first visit to a shrine on the first day of the year is called hatsumōde, as we can see in the photos. The prefix hatsu- means “beginning” at it can be associated with a lot of other beginnings, out of which I would like to mention hatsuhinode (“the first sunrise”) and hatsuyume (“the first dream of the year”), the latter being usually interpreted by a specialist.

The first sunrise seen from Tokyo Tower, January 1 2011
©Diana Tihan

Before leaving, I could not help buying a mikuji – a little piece of paper inscribed with prophecies and recommendations supposed to be the deity’s message. The prophecy was good, so I didn’t need to tie it up to a tree branch in order to get rid of words likely to worry me.

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