Akemashite Omedetougozaimasu! Happy New Year!
Oshogatsu (New Years) is a big thing in Japan, equating to how the states feel about Christmas. My parents were often surprised that school would start on the third of January for me, when in Japan the first three days of the New Year are meant for rest and relaxing. New Year’s traditions are an important part of Japanese culture. And while ever-changing and each family celebrating a little differently, New Year’s is an important and memorable time for many Japanese households.
Mochi, mochi, and more mochi
Are you team round mochi or rectangle mochi? While you might think this is just a popularity contest like team takenoko no sato or kinoko no yama (team takenoko btw🙋🏻♀️), there’s a lot more behind mochi.
So, what’s the deal with the round and rectangle? If you go to your local Japanese market, you’ve probably seen both. Maybe you’ve gotten round because your grandma uses that for her ozoni every year. Maybe you like the rectangle because it fits better with your shoyu and nori. But actually, round mochi is from the Kansai region (this includes prefectures like Osaka and Kyoto) and rectangular mochi is from the Kanto region (like Tokyo and Kanagawa). But why? Apparently mochi started out round everywhere but in Edo (nowadays the Tokyo area), a busy city, they didn’t have time to shape each one hand by hand into the round shapes. So the mochi makers would make one big flat mochi and cut it up. The more you know!
Other than eating mochi with shoyu and nori or kinako and sugar, mochi is eaten in ozoni, a traditional Japanese New Year’s soup in a clear broth, with healthy servings of veggies. There are lots of ozoni variations too; some places make it with a white miso broth, others have boar meat or goby fish in it, and one even with sweet anko mochi in it!
Ever seen stacked mochi with a tangerine (traditionally a daidai, or bitter Japanese orange) on top? That’s a kagami mochi, a traditional New Year decoration commonly seen in Japanese households. Each piece of the kagami mochi has meaning, like warding off bad luck or prosperity for the next generations. Nowadays you can easily find them with a plastic casing for you to enjoy the mochi later on.
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
Your traditional New Year’s Eve might be having a party and watching the ball drop in Times Square, maybe even landing a kiss on someone special. In the morning on New Year’s Day, you might feel like starting up a new resolution to actually go to the gym this year. But in Japan, you’d probably be spending it quite differently.
While there are countdowns and fireworks too, traditionally you would stay in on New Year’s Eve and have dinner with family in Japan. There’s no set dinner people eat, but sushi, hot pot, and sukiyaki are one of the more popular last day of the year dinner choices. Around dinner time, many folks watch Kouhaku Uta Gassen (roughly translated as Red & White Song Contest), a big music festival where famous women and men singers (red and white teams, respectively) who represent Japan compete against each other for some fun times.
Of course, the best parts of holidays are that you get to eat and stay up, right? Before it hits midnight, many people indulge in toshikoshi soba, roughly translated to year crossing soba.
Once your heart and stomach are full and warm, close to midnight you might start hearing the bells of your nearby temple. The bells are rung 108 times, to purify the 108 greeds and desires humans are said to hold. With that sound you’d start bundling up, heading to your nearby shrine for Hatsumode so you make it around midnight. Hatsumode is an annual thing done on New Year’s (or a couple days after) to pray for good luck in the year to come. Of course, many people opt to just go in the morning of the New Year as well.
Morning of the New Year, families gather around the table once again for osechi. A traditional Oshogatsu food, stacked boxes filled with food with good meaning, like kazukono (herring roe) for healthy children and a prosperous family, tazukuri/gomame (small, candied anchovies) for hopes of a good harvest, and pink and white kamaboko (fish cakes) for bringing in good luck and cleansing the bad. Shops would often close for the first three days of the year so families would make osechi to eat for a couple days. Nowadays, many people pre-order fancy osechi, some with a Chinese or French twist to it. During this time, the kiddos (or older if you’re lucky) often get otoshidama, a New Year’s money gift, like the red envelope tradition during Chinese New Year’s!
So there you have it! There’s many different ways to celebrate New Year’s in Japan, so your family traditions may look different.
Bonus: Homegrown Family Traditions
With so many fun ways to celebrate, I asked some of my friends on their quirky and fun New Year’s traditions.
Michelle Y: After midnight, we all eat grapes. My aunt told our family that each grape represents a month, and if you eat 12, it’ll be good luck all year. I’m not sure who started it but our entire family does it! All our aunts pre-make the cups, and we pass it out with apple cider or champagne! This year we couldn’t be with family, but my husband and I did it because it felt like it was the right thing to do!
Bryce I: My family used to go to Knott's Berry farm to get fried chicken on New Year's day for dinner since nothing else was open!
Craig I: We drink hot water with umeboshi on New Year’s Day when we get together with my mom’s side. We take a small piece of umeboshi and we put it in a bowl. We then pour a bit of tea on it. We swirl it, then drink it (but not the umeboshi). We do this three times and the last time we're supposed to eat the umeboshi. Unless you're a picky kid and your mom doesn't make you eat it (which was all of us when we were younger and hated umeboshi). I think it's supposed to be for good luck...I think. But we've done it ever since we were kids.
Todd O: We eat our age plus one with kuromame (sweetened black beans). I'm so old that I do it by decades now though.
Kent M: On New Year’s Day, my cousins and I will sneak away from the big party and go get ice cream.