Posted in Culture, Events, Food, Travel

A new beginning!

Gifting money to children during New Year is a common practice for both Japanese and Singaporeans, but Japanese New Year is quite different from how we celebrate our new year. There are some important customs that have been retained through the generations, and is steeped in symbolism and tradition.

Burning of new year decorations to ward of evil after the end of shogatsu |

Shogatsu (正月)

Touted as the most important festival of all, the New Year holidays in Japan is known as shogatsu, while New Year’s Day (1 January) is ganjitsu.

Families welcome the gods and spirits of ancestors which they believed to have been protecting them for the past year by hanging decorations made of pine branches, bamboo and straw rope around the house. This is also the time to reflect on the past year and make new year resolutions!


Nengajo (年賀状)

It is customary for the Japanese to send out greeting cards to friends and relatives before the New Year. The original intention was to let those whom you seldom meet up with to know that both your family and you are well.

Here are some conventional greeting messages:

  • 今年もよろしくお願いします / I hope for your favor again in the coming year
  • 新年あけましておめでとうございます / Happiness to you on the dawn of a New Year
  • 謹賀新年 / Happy New Year
Various greeting cards for 2015 |

Do note that one should NOT send a greeting card if there has been a death in the family during the year. A mochu hagaki (mourning postcard) is send out instead, as a sign of respect for the deceased.

Hatsumode (初詣)

From the first to the third day of the new year, many Japanese make it a point to visit a temple or a shrine to pray for health, happiness and protection over the family and possessions. This custom is known as hatsumode and there is always a long queue on many of the temples and shrines throughout Japan during New Year. Others prefer to visit on the midnight of New Year’s Eve in order to hear the temple bells ringing (joya-no-kane). It is common to see Japanese men and women wearing kimono for their visit.

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Huge crowd at Sensoji in Asakusa |

There, old omamori (charms or amulets) will be burned while new ones are bought to be kept till the next year. These charms can be for matters of love, health, career or studies etc.

Old charms laid on the ground to be burned |

Meanwhile, temple / shrine-goers hope for a good fortune or omikuji by making a small offering and drawing your fortune from a box. The small piece of paper containing your fortune goes into detail about how well you fare in various aspects of your life, from business to marriage.  e, such and business and love, for that year. Bad fortunes should be folded up and tied onto a pine tree in the temple / shrine grounds, as the word for pine is matsu (松), which is pronounced the same way as “to wait” (待つ). Hence, your bad luck will wait by the tree and not follow you home.

Tying bad fortunes to a pine tree |

Popular Shrines & Temples in Japan for Hatsumode

Name Location Visitors (mil.)
Meiji Shrine
Tokyo, Harajuku 3.13
Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple
Chiba, Narita 3.00
Kawasaki Daishi Temple
Kanagawa, Kawasaki 2.98
Senso-ji Temple
Tokyo, Asakusa 2.81
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Kyoto, Fushimi 2.70
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine
Kamakura 2.55
Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine
Osaka 2.35
Atsuta Shrine
Nagoya 2.30
Hikawa Shrine
Saitama 2.07
Dazaifu Shrine
Fukuoka, Dazaifu 2.00

*2013 data |

Osechi ryori (御節料理)

Meticulously packed into special, layered boxes known as jubako, Japanese New Year dishes have been around since the Heian period. Originally, wives would prepare osechi ryori beforehand as stores were closed during the New Year. Each dish has a special meaning in relation to the new year.

  • Kazunoko (herring roe) – symbolizes numerous offspring as kazu means “number” and ko means “child”
  • Kuro-mame (black soybeans) – mame means “health,” symbolizes good health
  • Tazukuri (dried sardines in soy sauce) – symbolizes a plentiful harvest as the fish were traditionally used to fertilize rice paddies
  • Kurikinton (mashed chestnut) – symbolizes wealth and prosperity due to the “gold” coloured chestnuts
  • Ebi (skewered prawns) – symbolizes longevity
Traditional osechi with a modern twist! |

Otoshidama (お年玉)

Similar to how we give ang pao during Chinese New Year, Japanese parents and older relatives will also give New Year’s money to the children. The money is contained in small, attractive envelopes known as pochibukuro. The old practice was to give rice cakes as they symbolize the spirit of the gods. However, this was replaced by money during the Edo period (hurray for the children). There is no fixed amount, but older children general receives more money. Hence, the children really look forward to New Year!

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“Ah! It’s god’s money!” |

Creative adults make use of this chance to play a gentle prank on the child, such as this amazing “3,000,000 yen” otoshidama

Are my eyes deceiving me?! |
Are my eyes deceiving me?! |

…consisting of three cleverly-folded 1,000 yen notes!

We hope everyone had a memorable 2014, and we look forward to bringing you more exciting content on all things Japanese!

Happy New Year!

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