Japanese New Year: Traditions and Inspirations

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Happy year of the sheep/goat/ram!

For the third year in a row, on January 28th NWLA and friends welcomed in 2015 with help from the monks at Tahoma One Drop Zen Monastery.  Our New Year’s ceremony, led by Tahoma’s Kozan and Kogen, took inspiration from the ancient New Year’s traditions of Japan.

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Kozan and Kogen leading the ceremony at NWLA

The New Year is Japan’s most important holiday by far.  Although originally based on the same date as the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean New Years, since 1873 it’s been celebrated the night of December 31st through the first several days of the year.  Its roots though stretch back centuries, to a time when Japan was a country of farmers and the end of the year was seen as a time of thanksgiving.  It was a time to finish old tasks, and prepare to start again.  Many of the traditions – such as decorating homes with straw rope and bamboo and pine “kadomasu,” or the end-of-year cleaning of office and home  – are Shinto in origin, harking back to Japan’s indigenous animistic religion, but continue to be practiced by a large portion of the population.

A toy dressed up for the year of the sheep

A toy dressed up for the year of the sheep

In the Edo period (beginning in 1603), the New Year’s Eve tradition of eating buckwheat soba noodles became common – the long noodles symbolize a long life.  It is considered unlucky, however, to eat soba after midnight on the 31st.  In some parts of Japan, udon noodles are eaten instead.

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NWLA’s Japanese New Year

The Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples of Japan are a gathering place on New Year’s Eve for Japanese, religious and secular alike.  The temple bells are rung 108 times at midnight, as the new year arrives, a practice called “joya no kane.”  It is said that the ringing of the bells is a way of guarding against the 108 human desires.  Even Japanese who do not usually go to temples and shrines will make the trip on New Year’s day – many women even put on their kimonos for the occasion.  At Shinto temples, incense is burned and waved over the head to purify oneself for the new year, and visitors are given a wooden arrow, or “hamaya,” to place in their home.  At Meiji Shrine in Tokyo and Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, hundreds of thousands of people visit over the first few days of the year.  Ever since the Meiji period (beginning in 1868), it has also become common to pray, on mountaintops or on beaches, to the sunrise, for wellbeing throughout the year.

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Kozan and Kogen with NWLA Director Josette Hendrix

After a visit to the temple or shrine,  many Japanese will go home to enjoy the traditional o-sechi meal – a variety of foods that are thought to bring good luck.  It’s customary to send New Year’s cards to business associates and friends, and children are given gifts of money by their relatives, to spend on “fukubukaro,” or lucky grab bags, offered by department stores on this day.  Another, more contemporary tradition is the several-decades-old annual televised concert “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” a popular event in which two teams of musicians, red and white, compete against one another.

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Happy New Year!

Thanks to all who attended our New Year’s event, and wishing all a healthy, fulfilling new year!