The typical Japanese New Year’s Eve is not marked with a countdown at midnight, balls dropping from buildings in New York, or the unfortunate dragging out of Dick Clark once a year. It’s a somber affair actually, an opportunity to realign yourself with Kami-sama, the Gods that oversee the islands, your town, your neighborhood even the tiny unheated room that houses your toilet. Kami-sama is everywhere, so it pays to keep him… or her happy.
New Years in Japan is a family time, when modern spread-out families return to their hometowns just to be with each other. It’s a different sort of rebirth – not so much about resolutions as simple renewal. It’s a chance to reach down and touch the earth from which you come.
The tradition is more or less like this: On New Year’s Eve you go to the local Shinto shrine, or jinja to pay your respects for the New Year to Kami-sama. Expect to be waiting in line for awhile before you have your chance to approach the honden, main hall. Even if you go alone don’t worry about being lonely, you certainly won’t be. I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few marriages.. or at least nights in a love hotel… started in the New Year’s shrine line.
If you’re too weak to face the cold night (as I was), don’t worry. You can go New Year’s Day, or even during the next several days after that. Not only do families go to the Jinja on New Years, but businesses, schools, companies and even civic workers join at the Jinja once a year for New Years greetings.
On New Year’s morning it’s tradition to wake up in time for the sunrise and watch the New Year come into the world. Then it’s OK to go back to sleep. At least I hope so, because that’s what I did. I must confess it was very touching to watch the New Year’s sunrise. It did feel like a new beginning of sorts. Sleeping after the sunrise felt good too. I think I’ll try to do more of that in 2012.
The New Year holiday in Japan is steeped in culinary tradition. Tradition calls for soba topped with a tempura shrimp on New Year’s Eve. Then New Year’s day begins the three day enjoyment of Osechi Ryori: food that has been somewhat preserved using vinegar, sugar, salt and other preservatives. The concept here is that for three days no one has to work. Not even Mom will have to lift a finger to prepare the meal. Most Osechi dishes have symbolic significance for luck and prosperity in the New Year.
In addition to Osechi, mochi is an important New Year’s food. Mochi is simply sweet short-grain rice pulverized by ritualistic pounding until it becomes a glutinous blob–delicious wrapped in nori seaweed, sprinkled with kinako or slathered in soy sauce. Two common preparations for mochi are ozoni, a soup with mochi and mitsuba, and zenzai a dish with mochi in a thick soup of azuki red beans. Every year it’s reported that at least one elderly Japanese passes away with a ball of mochi stuck in his or her throat. Why do they keep doing it?
In Shinto kami-sama exist everywhere–in trees in mountains, and your cold little toilet room. Naturally some Kami are more notable than others. The Kami enshrined at Nagoya’s Atsuta Jingu is a biggie. She is AMATERASU-OMIKAMI, the goddess of the sun. Many consider Atsuta Jingu as second only to Ise Jingu in Mie prefecture in importance. As a result Atsuta Jingu at New Years is worse than Macy’s on the day after Thanksgiving. I’d never go to Macy’s on the day after Thanksgiving but for some reason we went to Atsuta Jingu. What a fool am I. Just look at these pics…