6 Ways to Prepare for the Japanese New Year

Kadomatsu  outside a shrine, Japan. 

Kadomatsu outside a shrine, Japan. 

From eating a spoonful of lentils at midnight in Chile to watching midnight fireworks from the rooftops in Australia, every culture has its own ways to celebrate the new year.  In Japan,  shōgatsu (New Year's Day until January 3rd) is the most important holiday of the year and the days preceding it are often spent in a frenzy of housecleaning or writing New Year postcards to loved ones.  As 2016 begins, we focus on the details that make celebrating the new year in Japan truly special. 

  • 108 is the number of times temple bells ring on New Year's Eve, signifying the Buddhist cleansing of 108 passions like anger, desire, and envy. The bells count down 107 chimes on the eve of the new year and 1 chime after midnight. It's part of the reason why it's also traditional to visit a shrine or temple first thing in the morning on New Year's Day.   

  • A Straw Rope hung in front of the entrance to your home.  It's called shimenawa and is like those seen at sacred natural sites and shrines, signifying that spirits are near and meant to discourage bad luck from entering the house.  

  • Kadomatsu, a decoration of three bamboo sticks and pine branches, placed at the entrance of houses.  The bamboo shoots, which represent heaven, earth and humanity, are designed to be a dwelling place for spirits of the new year and believed to attract good luck and prosperity. 

  • Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with accompanying chorus, is traditionally performed throughout the country during  shōgatsu.  Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" became a standard end-of-year melody after 1945 to lift morale and inspire hope during post-war hardship.  

  • Karuta, a card-matching game played during the New Year's holiday.  In this game, one person reads out part of a poem or proverb from a card and the goal is to be the first to touch the card with the corresponding image.  These cards often include poems from the Hyakunin Isshu, a 10th-century anthology of 100 poems on love and the seasons that according to translator Peter McMillan is "the primer on Japanese classical poetry." 

  • Homemade Mochi, a chewy sweet treat made from pounded glutinous rice, flour and fruit, tea or bean flavors. Mochi is traditionally prepared during shōgatsu, as eating it is meant to bring good luck.