Japanese New Year Traditions

This is my sixth new year in Japan, and although I have been embracing Japanese New Year’s traditions, I am still learning something new!

As in the previous years, I have bought a small zodiac animal to display in my apartment. This year is the year of the boar (elsewhere it’s the pig, but the Japanese go more rough on this one), and I am surprised at how cute my little ceramic boar actually looks!

I did not go on hatsumode yet, some people say it’s fine up to January 7th. But I will visit Kitano Tenmangu tomorrow and write my first kanji of the year there. People do it as a symbol to what they want to achieve in the coming year. I have settled on the rather vague word “success”, but with overarching success I think I’ll be just fine.

One new thing I have learnt this year has to do with osechi ryori, the traditional Japanese New Year’s meal to be eaten right on January 1st. I had done that already (always store-bought of course, making it yourself is quite a hassle), but this year I have eaten it with the proper chopsticks too! I was always wondering about all the packs of special chopsticks that were on sale throughout December, and I had correctly identified as having something to do with New Year. However, I thought they were something like party chopsticks, but, of course, it is something more serious.

The chopsticks I mean are different from the standard ones. Standard Japanese chopsticks taper to one end, but the New Year’s edition tapers on both. The idea is that when you eat your osechi, that on the second tapered end your ancestors and the gods will eat together with you. It sounds a bit weird, but since the New Year is the largest celebration in Japan with strong religious undertones (literally everyone visits a shrine these days), it does make sense. Buddhist teaching says that your ancestors are watching over you, and in some households there is a Buddhist altar on which at least a bit of rice is offered to the family ancestors every day.

Osechi Ryori with the correct chopsticksSo, this year, I bought a pack of special osechi chopsticks and ate my modest (but still expensive) osechi meal with it. Everything in there has a special meaning, but the only one I can remember is the meaning of the black beans on the top left: They are meant to be lucky and also indicate industry and hard work. To be brutally honest, as far as Japanese cuisine goes, osechi ryori is not a highlight when it comes to taste (decoration can be quite different), but at the same time, it is a nice tradition and I’m all for it!

It was so funny: when I bought the little box above, the cashier in the supermarket asked if I indeed ate osechi. “Of course”, I said, and when I showed her my special chopsticks, she nodded approvingly. As if foreigners can’t eat osechi! Natto, on the other hand…

 

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