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Archive for January, 2007

15th of January

On this day, every 20 years old youngsters are honored, be given rights of citizenships, allowed to vote, drink, etc… in short, they are considered as adults. Ceremonies are hold in the local prefecture offices, small gifts are given and the women wear the most elegant kimonos.

photo: kimono girls

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New year is probably the most important event for the Japanese since they consider a beginning of a year as the beginning of so many aspects in their life. During shougatsu sanganichi, which is January 1st, 2nd and 3rd; banks, government offices and nearly all companies and stores are closed. Therefore, although new year in Japan is worth seeing, tourists might find it difficult to get around in this time of the year.

The 1st of January is called Ganjitsu, and as the most important day of the year’s beginning, many rituals are performed. In the morning of this day (Gantan), families drink o-toso together. O-toso is a sake (japanese rice-alcohol) spiced with medicinal herbs, served in a decorative sake pot and cups. Japanese believe that o-toso drive away evil and preserve health (scientifically, the spices are simply good for digestion and effective for a stomach heavy with New Year’s dishes).

It is also customary to eat o-zouni and osechi to celebrate New Year. O-zouni ingredients and manner of cooking varies on each regions or families. It mainly contains of rice cakes (mochi) in plain broth with little fish and vegetables. Osechi originally meant dishes served on seasonal festive occasions as an offering to the gods (so it is not strictly for new years day). Osechi dishes – which consists of a wide variety of ingredients such as a seasoned herring roe, sweet black beans, seaweed rolls, carrot-radish salad, as well as western and Chinese dishes nowadays- are made ahead as preserved food and served through the first three days of the year. This is meant so that the women of the family can take a break from daily cooking during the new year’s holiday.

Enough about food, one of the most interesting thing of New Year is that greeting cards are delivered all at once on the 1st of January. Japanese look forward to receive these cards, thus on this day the post offices employ many part-timers, most of them are students, to make sure every single card is delivered.

You will find similar decorations on every entrance of houses and buildings during the New Year holidays, to invite the god of the year and to welcome ancestral spirits. (Most Japanese are Buddhist which mainly believe that gods are everywhere in the nature and Shintoism which pray to the spirits of the ancestors).

Traditionally, the decorations are kadomatsu and shimekazari, but nowadays the materials are difficult to find and costly, thus today’s decorations are simpler. Kadomatsu is made from pine boughs, bamboo stalks and plumtree sprigs, while Shimekazari is a sacred straw rope made into a loop (festooned) with strips of white paper, piece of bitter orange ( symbol of long good health), a lobster (symbol of longevity) and green fern leaves. Japanese families hang shimekazari on the entrance to keep the purity of the house and to keep the devils on the outside.

When you are in Japan for New Year’s day, make sure you visit any surrounding temples or shrines, you will find a sea of people praying and celebrating, some are in kimonos. As in most other events, money are being thrown into an offertory box and they buy a good luck talisman or a sacred arrow with white feathers.

buy the luck

My personal hobby whenever I visit a temple is to draw a slip of paper-fortune, containing Chinese (Kanji) characters meaning either good or bad luck. After reading the fortune (or take a picture of it and later show it to someone who can read Japanese), tie that slip of paper to a branch of a tree in the shrine area, as it is believed to deliver a better luck.

fortune paper (omikuji)

wish upon a paper

In the late Muromachi era (1336-1573), nobles and warriors exchanged gifts (otoshidama) for the New Year. Now otoshidama in a form of moeny is given by parents to their children.

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