Celebrating the New Year, oshogatsu (お正月), is one of the most important holidays in Japan and takes place from December 31- January 3rd.
During this period, special foods are eaten, sayings of gratitude are exchanged, and auspicious decorations are displayed.
Additionally, it is one of the few times during the year you can expect almost all businesses to be closed, save for the few most essential.
Compared to New Year’s celebrations in the US which typically consist of a night of partying and counting down until midnight, Japan’s unique traditions are incredibly fascinating and rich with history.
Read on to learn about how Japan celebrates the New Year!
New Year’s Food in Japan
Soba is commonly eaten as the last meal of the year on December 31st. The long noodles represent long life and deep relationships with others.
Why soba noodles and not ramen or udon you ask? Soba is stiffer than other noodle varieties and cuts cleanly when eaten (as opposed to being stretchy or chewy). This image of cutting cleanly and being able to start fresh is why soba is eaten at the end of the year.
Read more about eating soba as the last meal of the year!
The most famous dish that is eaten during the New Year is called osechi ryori (おせち料理 ). Osechi ryori consists of small portions of colorful food, each with their own significance.
In olden times, osechi ryori was eaten for the first three days of the year.
However, since osechi ryori is quite cumbersome to prepare and is expensive to purchase, nowadays many people only eat it on the first day of the year.
What makes osechi ryori so interesting is the meaning behind each of the different items inside!
Eat shrimp to live long… Long enough that your back curves, just like a shrimp!
This sweet, rolled, egg omelet resembles a scroll. Eating datemaki provides academic success in the new year.
Chestnut and Black Beans
The round goldenness of a sweet chestnut signifies wealth, while black beans represent hard work and diligence.
Red and white are the colors of celebration in Japan so this colorful fish cake is often included in osechi ryori.
Kombu, an edible seaweed, sounds similar to the Japanese word for joy, yorokobu. Eating a kombu roll means a joyful year to come.
A lotus root is filled with large holes from end to end making it easy to see through once cut. To have a year void of unforeseen negativity, make sure to eat renkon!
During my homestay in Tokyo, my host made osechi ryori. Read about that experience here!
Ozoni soup is made of a light broth filled with veggies, chicken, and grilled mochi. Most notably, the chewy stretchiness of the mochi symbolizes tenacity and resilience.
While delicious, this mochi should be eaten with caution as death from choking occurs every year.
New Years Greetings – What to Say
In English, the main greeting that is exchanged at the end of the year is “Happy New Year”. While it is acceptable to say “Happy New Year” on December 31st before the new year officially begins, things are a bit different in Japanese.
Up until December 31st, the saying yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai (良いお年をお迎えください) is used. This translates to “Have a good year”. When used with friends, it can be shortened to yoi otoshi o ( 良いお年を ).
Once the new year has officially begun, a new set of phrases is used. The first part is akemashita omedetou gozaimasu (あけましたおめでとうございます). This means “Happy New Year”.
The next phrase follows: kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu (今年もよろしくお願いします ). This roughly translates to “Please treat me well again this year” and is used to convey the speaker’s gratitude.
Wishing others a happy new year in Japanese is a bit more difficult than in English, but after using these phrases over and over, it becomes much easier!
Many stores and homes are adorned with special decorations to bring good luck in the year to come.
Kagami mochi (かがみもち)
Kagami mochi is an offering to the Shinto Gods made up of two pieces of mochi (a smaller piece stacked on top of a larger one) with a tangerine (symbolizing posterity) on top.
While it is traditional to make the mochi from scratch, plastic replicas are widely available at stores. Don’t worry though, inside the plastic, there is still real mochi you can eat!
These pine decorations are set out from Christmas until January 7th. Arrangements are made out of three diagonally-cut, tall bamboo poles, pine, and plum branches. These serve as temporary homes for the gods.
These decorative wreaths are hung on the doors of houses and businesses to attract and welcome the Gods of good fortune.
Four components make up Shimekazari: straw rope called shimenawa, zigzag strips of paper called shide, pine leaves (that symbolize longevity), and an orange or tangerine (a symbol of posterity).
Note: many of these decorations are burned at shrines after use.
Curious about other Japanese customs and traditions? Check out these blog posts!
- Giving Customs in Japan – Sure know might know of Valentine’s day, but in Japan, there is a special twist!
- The First Meal of the Year: Osechi Ryori (おせち料理)
- The Last Meal of the Year: Toshikoshi Soba and Tempura