The Japanese place great importance on the New Years holiday, known as ‘shogatsu‘, a period that is rich in tradition and culture. Japan does not really celebrate Christmas, yet New Years is the time the family gathers and celebrates a fresh start together.
The entrances to homes, guest houses or the places of worship are usually decorated with pine ornaments, known as ‘kadomatsu’. It is made of fresh pine and bamboo representing a long life and prosperity. The kadomatsu leads the deity (god) the way to the entrance to receive it in the house.
‘Kagami-mochi‘ is another decoration that is put out before the New Year. It consists of 2 round rice cakes and a ‘mikan‘ (mandarin) on top. Another name for mandarin is ‘daidai‘, which is refers to the colour orange and additionally means’ generation after generation’, representing the prosperous continuation of a family.
It is a custom to write or make New Year greeting cards (‘neganjo‘) and send these to friends and extended family so that they arrive on the New Years Day. As I woke up on the first of January and looked out of my window I saw a scooter driving through the snow and delivering neganjo to the various houses.
Another New Year’s tradition is known as ‘kakizome‘. This entails the first calligraphy of the year.This may include writing poems or wishes for the fresh start. Hanasaku-no-yu invited everyone to kneel in front of a long white sheet of paper and try their skills at paintbrush and ink.
Typical Japanese New Year dishes are ‘osechi’. These are like obento boxes filled with small dishes that each have a special meaning, like daidai, fishcakes and seaweed. Also people often like to eat ‘o-zoni‘ on New Years Day, a soup with mochi, vegetables and fish or chicken.
‘Mochi-tsuki’, the process of pounding rice to make mochi (race cakes) is another New Years tradition. A special sticky rice called ‘mochigome‘ is soaked, steamed and as it is still hot it is placed into an ‘usu‘ (large wooden bowl). The rice is pounded with heavy wooden hammers. Usually 2 people swing their hammers alternately beating the rice into a smooth and sticky substance.
Once the consistency is right the mochi is taken out of the usu and placed onto a table. The small portions are formed, while sweet rice flour is used to prevent it from sticking too much.And then it’s done – tadaa. The mochi is eaten with different toppings – either kinako (sweet roasted soybean flower), anko (red bean paste), daikon (raddish) or miso. It’s best you try all of them as they all have a unique taste – but beware mochi is really filling!
Traditionally, ‘soba‘ (buckwheat noodles) is eaten on the 31st of December either for dinner or as midnight snack following a temple/shrine visit. The long ‘toshikoshi soba‘ represent a long and healthy life. In Katashina we visited a soba (buckwheat) farmer and learnt how to make our own soba noodles.
The flour used contains 70% buckwheat and the other 30% is normal wheat, using 100% buckwheat makes the noodles too brittle. There is a difference in the buckwheat harvested in summer and autumn – thus making two kinds of soba noodles that differ in colour and texture: ‘natsu‘ (summer) and ‘aki‘ (autumn) soba. The flour is carefully mixed with water and kneaded until it is soft as an ‘earlobe’ (mimitabu 耳たぶ) – this is a Japanese expression describing the softness of dough. Then by swiftly turning the dough along and pressing the ball of your hand into it, a round flower shape is formed. The dough is folded inwards creating a big drop or blob of dough, which is then pressed flat with one circular motion. This is an important procedure to keep air out of the dough and to keep it of consistent texture – this is more difficult than it sounds or looks and only the farmer could properly do it for me!
The dough is then rolled out in a circular shape using a big wooden pole. Using plenty of flour it is folded together and the cutting can begin. With the help of a sharp knife, small strings of dough are cut – the first time I tried this my soba unfortunately turned into Tagiatelle, but my cutting improved and I made thin long soba noodles.
The noodles are then cooked only for several short minutes and then served either hot or cold. We directly ate our freshly made soba cold with ‘sobatsuyu‘ (dipping sauce), to which you add wasabi and spring onions. – Delicious & remember to slurp as loud as you wish!
Continuing the customs of a Japanese New Year’s Eve is ‘Kouhaku uta gassen‘. Almost all households watch this music show starring many famous Japanese artists competing as two teams (red vs. white). When I came home to my host-family on the 31st the TV was on and the three teenagers were kneeling on the floor watching “Kouhaku uta gassen‘.
At midnight or on the New Years day people visit a shrine or temple to pray for a fortunate year. I went to a small temple here in Katashina, just a bit after midnight. Walking up the snowy stairs we heard the temple’s bells being rung repeatedly.
At the front of the temple, a couple of people gathered around a heater, ate radish pickles and drank warm ‘amazake‘. Amazake is a sweet non-alcoholic drink made from fermented rice that is traditionally consumed during the New Year. As we were nipping away on the nutritious and sweet milk we wrote our name and wish for the next year into a book. The priest of this temple spends the first 3 days of the month going through the book and praying for everyone that left a message. After having finished our amazake we washed our hands and mouth at the ‘temizuya‘ (a little water pavilion), purifying body and mind before praying.
Then, in the dark and cold, we climbed up the little bell tower. I sprinkled some incense onto the already burning pile, rang the bell producing a big loud ‘gong’ and prayed. According to buddhist New Years traditions the priest rings the bell 108 times, representing the 108 kinds of evil desires that we suffer from. By listening to the loud gongs we can liberate ourselves from these desires and eliminate our sins of the previous year. A very atmospheric and profound way to start the new year.