January is known as the month of Mutsuki in Japan. This month is a harmonious moment for families and relatives getting together “Mutsu-majiku”.
Among events and habits that have been handed down from generation to generation, the traditional event of January is “Shogatsu”. New Year's Day is the most important holiday for Japanese people throughout a year. This article explains how to spend Shogatsu in Japan.
What is Shogatsu?
In Japan, New Year’s Day of a calendar year is called Gantan to welcome Shogatsu. The word Shogatsu originally meant the first month of the year, in other words it was up to January 31. Nowadays, the period from January 1st to the 3rd is called "San-ga-nichi" and the period until January 7th is called "Matsu-no-uchi", and Shogatsu is generally celebrated until this period.
The origins of Shogatsu are unclear, but the custom of celebrating the new year is said to have existed since before the mid-6th century, when Buddhism was introduced to Japan.
During this holiday season, most stores and companies are closed and many people return home to celebrate Shogatsu with family and friends. In the past, it was customary for families to gather together to celebrate the new year with a festive dinner table. Nowadays, the ways of spending Shogatsu have diversified, and more and more people are spending it in their own way.
Nevertheless, Shogatsu is still an important time for Japanese people. The Japanese tradition of celebrating the beginning of the year in grand style has been handed down through the ages.
Traditional events and customs
In Japan, it has been believed since ancient times that the god of the new year, Toshigami, comes to each household to bring happiness in the new year. In order to welcome and entertain the Toshigami god, various customs and events were born. Even though the times have changed, these customs have remained strong.
In order to welcome the Toshigami god, Japanese clean and purify their houses and home shrines from the "Kotohajime" day on December 13th. It originated from the Heian period (794-1185), when dust and soot cleaning was a court event. Originally, it was a ritual to ward off bad luck, but in recent times, it is used to clean the dirt of the old year and welcome the new year with the freshness of the cleaning.
Shogatsu ornaments such as Kadomatsu and Shime-kazari are displayed at the front door as a landmark for the Toshigami god to reach the house without getting lost. These decorations are also used to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. In addition, Kagami-mochi (rice cake) are displayed in the Tokonoma bedroom as a preparation for welcoming the Toshigami god.
It is a custom to eat soba noodles on New Year's Eve for good luck. It is said to have rooted in Japan during the Edo period. There are many theories about the origin of Toshikoshi Soba, but the most common is that it is a wish for longevity because soba is long and thin.
Joya no kane
This is a traditional event held at temples in Japan. On the night of New Year's Eve, a large bell is rung 108 times during the hours around midnight. According to Buddhism, the human mind has 108 vexations (mental effects that annoy, torment, vex, and pollute the body and mind), and the bell is rung to get rid of them.
First sunrise “Hatsu-hinode
The sunrise on Gantan. It is said that the Toshigami god descend to the earth on the first day of the year, and it has become popular to worship the god at a place with a good view.
First shrine visit “Hatsumode”
This is the first visit to a shrine or temple to give pray for the new year, good health and peace. Usually, people make a visit from midnight right after the beginning of new year to January 7th. The temple grounds are lined with food stalls and crowded with worshippers.
Osechi is a special dish eaten to celebrate Shogatsu. It is packed in multi-tiered food boxes with the meaning of piling up the auspicious events. Filled with delicacies from the sea and the mountains, each dish contains wishes for a good harvest, safety in the home, and prosperity of descendants.
New Year's gift “Otoshidama”
This is a gift to celebrate the new year. The rice cakes offered to the Toshigami god were given to family members, as in the past, the rice cakes were thought to be souls given by the gods. Nowadays, it is often used to refer to money given to children and other young family members.
Stories related to the four seasons
- January, A Harmonious Family Moment
- February, Demons Out! Fortune In!
- March, Hina Festival for Girls
- April, Cherry blossoms in full bloom
- May, Carp streamers swimming in the sky
- June, Rain falls when plum fruits are ripening
- July, Lovers Meeting across the Milky way on Tanabata
- August, Obon to welcome ancestors back home
- September, Can you see the moon rabbit?
- October, When 8 million deities gather at Izumo Taisha
- November, Shichi-Go-San Festival to celebrate kids' growth
- December, Japanese way of spending Christmas