Once the bells are done ringing, everyone gets ready to visit the temples and shrines in order to make pledges for the coming year and pray. As late – or early depending on your point of view – as 4:30am (which is the time I visited a shrine last New Year’s day), there are many people lined up outside of the temples and shrines in order to pray. People of all ages, both young and old. Outside of these areas are vendors selling their wares. Cotton candy, candied apples, and okonomiyaki are all well and good but the best are the taiyaki (red bean cakes) and custard filled pastries. Inside the temples and shrines are vendors selling omamori (good luck charms) to ward off evil, prevent accidents, and maintain good health. There are also items like paper arrows and cardboard plaques decorated with the animal of the year. This year, that animal will be the fat, long-tailed rat. On these items, people write their wishes and then burn them so that they will become true. There are also omikuji (sacred lottery), which you shake loose from a wooden box. Once you’ve unraveled the scroll, you will discover whether your year’s predictions will be blessed… or cursed. There are many levels of blessings and nearly as many of curses. However, if you pull out a bad prediction, there’s no need to worry. All you need to do is fold it up and tie it to a nearby pine tree in the temple, therefore abandoning your curse(s) to the tree. If you receive a blessing, I’m sure that you won’t mind taking it home with you. Last year, I was fortunate to receive the lowest form of blessing but still pocketed it for further analysis. This year, I think that I’d like to be able to read it in detail so I will be careful not to misplace it as I seem to have done the last time.
Having finished praying and worshipping, you would think that most people would go home to sleep. However, this is far from being the case since everyone is either too full from all the snacking or hungry after being out in the cold fresh air. After we returned to my in-law’s house on New Year’s morning, we stayed up for an additional two hours watching more TV and eating again. And then, finally, we retired to our rooms to get what little sleep we could before noon.
New Year’s Day… and more food
New Year’s morning is greeted with osechi ryouri (a layered box filled with homemade or bought Japanese traditional dishes). A lot of work goes into the osechi ryouri the day before. It contains yummy items like sweet beans, sweetened eggs cut into rectangles, fish cakes, vegetables, seaweed, fresh ham, inari (sweet rice stuffed into fried tofu), and maki sushi (roll sushi). This rather generous meal is complimented with ozoni (a soup with homemade mochi), and otoso (sweetened rice wine). New Year’s is probably the only time where I would consider eating so much immediately after waking up.
If there are children in the family, on New Year’s day or afterwards, the children receive otoshi-dama (lucky money) inside special envelopes. This money is most often promptly spent at a department store sale. I remember seeing a survey last year that revealed what the children spend the money on. Of course toys were number one on the list, closely followed by clothing, books, and school supplies.
Nengajo and the rat of 2008
The few weeks leading up to New Year’s is spent creating and printing out nengajo (New Year’s postcards) with the coming year’s representative animal. They are then mailed out so that they will be received on New Year’s Day – a fact which I just learnt of. Postcard creating materials are in high demand at the moment, indicating that many Japanese people like to make their own designs. There are a large array of rat stamps with greetings and stamp pads in a rainbow of colors. Glitter, stickers, and felt rats are also very popular. These postcards are to be given to co-workers, friends, or anyone that you wish to keep in good acquaintance with in the New Year. If they are mailed by a certain date (December 25th I’ve been told) they are guaranteed by the Post Office to arrive on New Year’s Day. So whereas most North Americans focus their seasonal cards on Christmas and sometimes include the New Year, Japan solely concentrates on the New Year. Needless to say, the Japan Post Office is kept extremely busy with the piles of these postcards that keep coming in.
In one survey, it was indicated that the average family sends over 100 nengajos when combined. And some businesses send them out to all of their customers. I received a fair number of nengajos last year, some of which I hadn’t been expecting. On every ‘official’ nengajo there is a printed lottery number on the bottom. The lottery is drawn on TV and then published in the newspapers on January 15th. Prizes like commemorative postage stamps, widescreen TVs, and cash could be yours if you get a lucky nengajo! Actually, I started to draw my fat rats on thick marker postcards a few days ago but… after being told that my postcards don’t have lucky number on them, I’ve begun to contemplate replacing them with lottery postcards. But I’m not so sure that I’ll be able to finish all of them in time if I do that… I guess that I should have thought about that before I started to color them in.
This year, I’ll be celebrating New Year’s in both the traditional North American way as well as the Japanese. There are many aspects of both cultures that I respect and enjoy so it won’t be too hard finding a good balance between the two.