Updated: Jan 6, 2019
New Year’s is Japan’s biggest holiday. It is known as Oshougatsu. The New Year is a time to give thanks and receive blessings for the coming year. Prior to the Meiji Period, the holiday was determined by the lunar calendar, but in 1873 the Japanese New Year was changed to the first of January, based on the Gregorian Calendar.
Since this is my first New Year in Japan, I intended to do something more special than my usual routine, which mostly involved falling asleep before midnight and missing the entire event. Japanese New Year is a time for family and food. We started making plans to go up to Yokohama and spend a few days with Miho’s family. However, the more I read about the Japanese festivities, I realized that Kamakura is one of Japan’s hot spots for New Year celebrations. It made me think that if you live near Times Square, you wouldn’t normally leave New York City for the holiday, right? So, with a quick change of plans, the family came to us this year and it was terrific since there is so much to experience here in Kamakura.
Florists were busy creating arrangements for everyone’s front entrance way called Oshougatsukazari (which literally means New Year decorations). They can be made of pine, straw, bamboo, paper, ferns, rope, and oranges. These simple, but beautiful holiday decorations are meant to ward off evil spirits yet invite the friendly Shinto deities to visit as well. I have had fun taking photos of many of these on my walks around town over the past several days.
Joyanokane is the practice of ringing the Buddhist temple bell 108 times to get rid of the 108 evil passions and desires. Apparently the Buddhists discovered that there are more than just seven deadly sins. I tend to agree! Ringing the temple bell is the Buddhist way of bridging one year to the next.
We walked over to Myohonji Temple at about 11:00 New Year’s Eve for the festivities. People were lined up to strike the giant bronze bell and receive a blessing from the monks, who were carrying out purification and prayer rituals. Families rang the bell together and a monk kept count so the bell would only sound 108 times. We were number 33. Many temples were doing the same and you could hear the bells all over town as the midnight hour approached.
We passed through nearby Hongakuji Temple as well, where lanterns were lit and crowds were gathering with food and drinks to ring in the new year.
Hatsuhinode is the tradition of watching the first sunrise of the year. For those still awake from the night’s festivities or those who got some sleep and set their alarms like us, seeing the first sunrise of the year is also a form of worship. We are lucky that we live close to the beach, so we could sleep in a little. There were quite a few people down there this year even though it was chilly and the sky was a bit cloudy.
Hatsumoude is the tradition of making your first Shinto shrine visit of the new year to pay respect to the deities and pray for a healthy and happy year ahead. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine here in Kamakura is one of the most visited shrines in all of Japan for the New Year holiday, attracting up to 2 million worshipers. Most roads here in Kamakura were closed to traffic as this became a pedestrian-only town for three days while people made their way to the shrines for worship. Only the trains were running. I wondered how a town of 50,000 residents could possibly accommodate that many visitors, but miraculously it went smoothly.
We went out to see the crowds out of curiosity, but preferred to practice Hatsumoude at our smaller neighborhood shrine of Sasuke Inari Jinja.
Toshikoshi Soba is a popular dish eaten at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Soba are thin noodles made from buckwheat. It is served in a bowl of hot broth often with vegetables and shrimp tempura. We ate our soba prior to going to the temple and ringing the bell. It was a perfect dish before going out into the cold.
Osechi Ryori is the name of the specialty New Year’s food that is carefully prepared and, if purchased, can be ordered months ahead of time. Osechi Ryori usually includes a large selection of different foods or dishes and typically comes in a package of tiered boxes, much like a bento box. It is traditional for families to come together and taste the Osechi Ryori delicacies. Special chopsticks are used to eat Osechi Ryori that are double-sided so that the Kami can enjoy the food with you (not easy to define, but essentially, Kami are the multitude of Shinto deities around us who are found in all things that have an impact on us . . . mountains, trees, rocks, waterfalls, etc.).
Mochi is a sticky rice cake made from boiled rice that is pounded. The tradition of making it is called mochitsuki and it is quite a labor-intensive process of pounding the rice with a wooden mallet while an assistant quickly folds it between strikes. How their fingers don’t get hit by the mallet is a true skill. The final product is smooth, sticky, and dumpling-like in texture. Some is used with sweet bean paste, called Anko, while other Mochi is used in soups.
Otoshidama is the word for New Year’s money given to children. The Otoshidama is handed out in small, decorative envelopes, called Pochibukuro.
Nengajou are postcards that everyone sends for New Year’s. Often they are handmade. Apparently this is the busiest time of year for Japan’s post office, who will actually hold on to the Nengajou until January 1st to deliver them, since you are not supposed to receive them until after the new year begins. Indeed, while everyone else had the day off, I saw the postal carriers riding around on their motor scooters as promised.
As we look back, 2018 was quite a year for us starting this new adventure in Kamakura. Thank you, everyone, for your support, encouragement, and helpful advice. Thank you for following us on Instagram, Facebook and the website as “Life in Kamakura” took shape. I once saw a sign at a Buddhist temple that said, “Let yourself unfold.” As we continue to assimilate our lives into Kamakura, we have been thinking about what we can offer to the Japanese community. As a result, we are pleased to be starting an English Coaching Service. We are also exploring a way to integrate English coaching with a space where locals can gather to practice their language skills over a cup of coffee or tea and have some fun doing it. Please watch as our ideas unfold. In the meantime, we are wishing all of you a happy and healthy year ahead.