By Eve Corbett ’17
In The United States the New Year is a time of new beginnings, partying, and lists of resolutions that are frequently abandoned just a couple days into the year. What is it like in Japan? Well actually all that I said above remains true here in the Land of The Rising Sun. Partying does indeed go down and resolutions are certainly written, but even still there are some differences in the celebration of the American and the Japanese New Year. In Japan Christmas decorations are taken down the day after Christmas and replaced with New Years decorations. The wreath on the door is removed, and the okazari (Japanese New Year’s door decoration) hung up. That is the beginning of the Japanese New year preparations.
Preparing for the New Year starts long before the current one even comes to a close. It was many days out from New Years and I was over at my grandparents’ house helping my family make mochi. Mochi are a special type of dumpling made entirely from rice. The rice is steamed and then, traditionally, pounded with a mallet until it turns into a sticky dough. Of course nowadays Japanese people can purchase a mechanical mochi-maker that saves a whole lot of time and mallet swinging. Once the dough is the right consistency it is pulled apart into smaller pieces and rolled by hand into a smooth, circular blob. Basically the idea is to make it look like the moon, ideally with no wrinkles. We used rice flour on our hands so that the mochi wouldn’t stick to them so much, although it still did quite a bit. Eventually I improved enough to proudly say that I have become a fairly decent mochi-maker.
A few days passed and soon it was New Year’s Eve. My host mother and grandmother worked hard all day to make various different foods for our New Year’s meal. The traditional Japanese New Year’s food is something called “osechi.” It is basically a large bento box from which the whole family eats. For those who don’t know, a bento is a wooden or plastic box with small sections that are all individually filled with different foods. Think of it as being similar to those sectioned plates that are made for children except that it is beautifully decorated and definitely not for picky eaters! Some of the foods found inside of osechi are whole tiny fish, sweet black beans that are not the same variety that most westerners consume, many different types of pickled vegetables, more fish but not whole this time, mashed Japanese sweet potato, and more. Osechi are extremely expensive when bought from a store, and take a long time to make by hand. It certainly did look nice once we were done though.
When New Year’s day arrived my host family and I took the car for a quick drive to my grandparents’ house again. My host father’s sister and nephew also came. We all set up the osechi and sat down around the kotatsu (a low-rise table with a built-in blanket and heater) to eat. We all ate from the osechi, but we also had our own individual bowls of soup with mochi inside called ozoni. The texture takes a bit of getting used to since the mochi is extremely sticky, but I liked the flavor. Once we were done eating we played some card games together for a bit.
There is one last important part of the Japanese New Year and that is visiting a shrine. Although many people here in Japan are atheist, nearly everyone goes to a shrine at the beginning of the year to pray. My host sisters and I went to the shrine dressed in kimonos. Kimonos are very expensive pieces of traditional Japanese clothing. They also have many different layers and take a lot of time to put on. One of my host mother’s friends came over to help us get dressed, and another came to do our hair. I chose the traditional hairstyle while my host sisters chose a modern style; both ways of setting hair are very pretty. All three of us also got beautiful hair pins to wear with our kimonos.
When we got to the shrine it was pretty cold, even if I was wearing socks in my sandals (this is traditional footwear.) My host sisters and I spent a lot of time posing for pictures and it was all very fun. Next we went up to the shrine. First you grab hold of a large hanging rope and shake it so that the bells attached to it ring and get the god of the shrine’s attention. To pray at a Japanese shrine one must pay a very small fee to the god who lives there. It is usually about five or ten yen, which is about five or ten cents in The United States. You throw it into the money box and then clap your hands together and pray. Each Japanese god specializes in something different and there are famous shrines to pray for education, fertility, careers, etc. However, this time we just went to a local shrine and prayed for the New Year.
Although many aspects of the Japanese and American New Year remain the same, there are differences unique to the two cultures. Mochi making, Osechi eating, kimono wearing, and shrine visiting are the main differences I experienced during my stay. Like Christmas, I found this experience very entertaining and interesting. I loved learning about how another culture celebrates a familiar holiday and I am looking forward to celebrating other holidays here such as St. Valentine’s Day (which I hear is quite different in Japan than it is back home) and Easter, although I am not so sure it is celebrated here. I hope everyone back in The Pine Tree State (or any state for that matter) has success with following through on that New Year’s resolution, has loads of fun, and has a prosperous 2016!
Eve Corbett is a junior at Lincoln Academy, currently spending the school year in Okayama, Japan with Greenheart Travel. She is the daughter of Jody Corbett and Elizabeth Proffetty of Newcastle.