A friend asked how Japanese New Year’s traditions differ from those of the US, so Nana assigned me the task of explaining it.
The New Year’s celebration here is more like Christmas, Thanksgiving and spring cleaning rolled into one. Some people spend days cleaning, and set out new socks and underwear for the new year. People used to prepare food for a week so they didn’t have to cook during the holidays, but these days most people buy the food or have it delivered. Nana told me I needed a haircut.
Families gather together and children receive gifts of money. We put decorations like the one above on the door, on cars, and in places where water enters the home. The whole country “downs tools” for four days or so. (Actually there’s a lot to do these days, including early morning bargain sales on the 1st, but when I first arrived here only McDonalds and some convenience stores were open. Even the ATMs were turned off.) People eat special foods known as osechi (but neither Nana nor I care for it, so we have roast beef and other goodies), as well as soba (buckwheat noodles) and mochi (rice cakes) for luck. On the morning of the 1st, many people sit at home and watch TV for the sun rising over Mt. Fuji.
Some people gather at temples on New Year’s Eve to be one of 108 people to ring in the New Year on the temple bell. The 108 rings are to chase away the evil spirits of the year that is ending. And then millions visit the temples in the first few days of the New Year to pray for luck, to purchase ofuda for the home to ward off evil spirits, and to return the previous year’s totems to be burned in the temple’s flame.
New Year’s nengajo are a very important part of the holiday. The post office hires extra workers to deliver all the cards on the 1st. If you fall behind and your card isn’t delivered until the 2nd, then then recipient knows you didn’t think of them until you received their card. You can buy cards at the post office with the postage included, and a lottery number printed on one side, with the backs blank so you can print your own picture or greeting. (But Nana doesn’t do the postcards, so we have it easy … )
On New Year’s Eve, lots of families watch a long musical show called Kohaku which features the hits of the year and old favorites. Overall, it’s one of the most boring programs ever conceived for television ..
Lumber yards put up large panels of wood painted with the animal representing the New Year (rooster, this year).