Happy New Year 2009

Hi everyone,

HAPPY NEW YEAR,
あけましておめでとうございます!


It has been a while since I blogged, and I wanted to start the new year with a new design, new layout and fresh approach. I have been inspired by reading the blogs of some very lovely girls living in Japan and wanted to add my own 2 cents to the blogging world.

First of all ... New Year in Japan...

The Japanese celebrate the New Year in a big way. The official New Year falls on January 1st, however, in actuality the season itself runs from the 31st of December through the 3rd of January.

Preparation for the New Year begins during the middle of December, with people preparing New Year's postcards known as nengajo. These cards are sent to business clients and acquaintances, friends, and family members.

The nengajo often have caricatures of the animal representing the coming year on them (2009 is the year of the OX), together with a standard New Year greeting. The person sending the card will usually add a brief, handwritten message to the back of the card to express his or her thanks for the assistance received during the past year with wishes for continued support in the new year. This year, Yoshi made cards for 6Degrees for the first time... he made them with his own design of some cartoon cow skin (not the picture above, but so cute!)

The cards are delivered on New Year's day by the Postal Service, which employs students (and this year, many out-of-work middle aged salarymen too) part-time to help distribute the huge volume of cards which come in each year. When you consider that each Japanese person sends anywhere from 20 to several hundred cards, the need for the added assistance in delivering the cards becomes apparent.

As the year's end draws near, people begin cleaning their homes and workplaces in preparation for the New Year. This is a time of major cleaning and even temples dust off their Buddhist images.

New Year's Eve is a big occasion and one of the highlights of the season. Buckwheat noodles are eaten during the day or the evening to ensure prosperity and longevity. The noodles are called toshikoshi soba and are very long - to signify hope for a loooong life.

Many people gather with their families on New Year's Eve to watch the Red and White Karaoke Festival ( Kohaku uta gassen ) broadcast by the national television station, NHK. Another popular New Year's Eve program is the K1 which Yoshi and I watched this year - far more aggressive, but lots of lovely six-packs to ogle! As the evening goes on, some families will make an early start for the local Shinto shrine to welcome in the New Year. Others who want to visit more famous shrines will have arrived at their destinations and will be examining the delicious food available at the many stands set up on the walkways of the shrines. Yoshi and I went to the Ishikiri Shrine on January 1st. We ate my favorite vendor snack, tai-yaki (a fish shaped cake filled with baked azuki beans) and Yoshi got a big container of yaki soba.

At midnight, the Buddhist temples toll out the requisite 108 peals on their bells summoning in the New Year. T.V. stations broadcast the centers of activity at the various major shrines around the country and show the ringing of the massive temple bells at famous temples. People at the shrines get as close as they can to the main altar and throw coins and paper money at the doorsteps of the shrine. After making their offering, they clap their hands to summon the gods, then pray.

Having offered their prayers, many people will draw their fortune from one of the stalls staffed by shrine maidens in white kimonos. After paying a small sum to be allowed to draw one's fortune, a box containing bamboo sticks with numbers is shaken until the tip of a stick with a number pokes its way through the hole at the top of the box. The shrine maiden looks at the number then gives the drawer a paper with a fortune printed on it corresponding to the number on the stick. After reading the fortune, many people tie it on a branch of a tree near the shrine, this is most useful if the fortune was less lucky than people hoped. Tying it to a branch near the shrine makes it luckier. I got a normal Blessing (kichi, 吉), which is considered pretty good, but I tied it to the tree anyway ;)

New Year's day is a quiet day, with most adults staying at home, watching T.V. or writing New Year's cards. Children receive monetary presents on New Year's day so young children often visit the local toy or candy stores which are open in anticipation of this. The children are given money in special small envelopes. Amounts are carefully noted by the parents, who have to keep track of the obligation toward the giver. This year, I was included in this event and was given a little envelope with some money (yay!) from Yoshi's mum - soooo lucky!

On the 2nd and 3rd days of the New Year, people start to visit friends, go shopping (many retail stores have begun to open on the 2nd due to the economy), or just continue to watch television.

Food during the New Year's tends to be special as well. Traditionally, New Year's food is placed in nestable, laquered boxes. These boxes contain food which does not spoil easily and which can obviate the need for cooking for the holidays. Contents vary from region to region, but popular items include candied black beans, fish eggs attached to seaweed, kelp, and fish. Another popular New Year's food with a regional flavor is the New Year's soup known as ozoni. In West Japan, it tends to be made with a soybean paste base giving it a whitish appearance, whereas in East Japan it tends to be made of fish stock making it more like a clear broth. This soup is usually eaten on New Year's Day, making it more of a family-oriented dish.

Visitors during the New Year's can be expected to be treated to a saucer of Japanese sake. Lovers of alcoholic beverages are encouraged to drink as much of whatever they favour and it is not unusual to find many inebriated folks making their way home on the trains and streets during this period.

All in all, japanese New Year is quite similar to Christmas back in New Zealand. It is a very family-oriented time, lots of food and drink is consumed, and many people who are not overly religious during the year, make a point of visiting shrines and temples to pray for the coming year!

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