New Year’s Day is the most important holiday in Japan. It is comparable to Christmas in the Western cultures. Christmas is not a holiday in Japan. おしょうがつ is a family day. Presents are given. Adults may be given presents of food and other things. The children, however, usually receive おとしだま, spending money, in an envelope.
It is also a universal birthday. By tradition, the Japanese always added on to their age on the first of Japanese no matter what day they were born. However, this is no longer the case, and Japanese people celebrate and age according to their actual birthdays in the recent times. As well as giving and receiving presents, it is a day of feasting and drinking. Before New Year’s Day, the women prepare large amounts of food which include mochi rice cake, soba noodles and おせちりょうり(vegetables and cooked fish arranged on beautiful open containers).
Some women also dress up in the best きもの.
It is also a day to receive greeting cards, ねんがじょう. The purpose of these is for friends to keep in touch, but these days they are also part of a sort of mini lottery. The cards are purchased at the post office. Each card has a number at the bottom. With good luck, the receive may win a prize.
The greeting cards usually have the animal symbol of the New Year on them. The twelve-year cycle of animals signs is shown below.
Using black ink, children write phrases such as きぼう (hope) on pieces of rice paper and hang them in front of the Shinto altar in their homes. It is a day to make New Year’s resolutions. It is also a day to visit temples and shrines to pray for a prosperous New Year. At the temple or shrine, people buy だるま. Daruma is a round stylised head with a face on it. When you buy one, you paint one eye and make a wish. When the wish comes true, you paint the other eye. At the end of the year, they burn it whether the wish comes true or not and buy a new one in the new year.
Games are also played. Girls often play shuttlecock. The shuttlecock is made from a nut with a coloured feather stuck in it and is hit back and forth over a net using wooden paddles. The boys play with tops and fly kites.
It is customary to visit close neighbours and say
The word おしょうがつ literally means ‘the first month’. By common use, it has come to mean ‘the celebrations at the beginning of the month’, which may extend over more than one day.
Soba is buckwheat noodles. They are made long and thin. Soba is eaten at any time of the year. However, it is the custom always to eat soba on New Year’s Eve. If eaten then, it is called としこしそば (send the old year away soba). Although it is given a special name for the occasion, it is no different from soba eaten at any other time. Soba is either served in a hot soup or cold, on a bamboo plate. When served cold, you pick it up with chopsticks and dip it into a thin cold mix and made from soya sauce and other ingredients before eating it. Cold soba is very popular in summer, while hot soba is popular in winter.
Because soba is long, on certain ceremonial occasions, it is used to represent ‘length’. Thus, when it is eaten on New Year’s Eve, it both farewells the old year, and by superstition, confers long life on those who assemble to partake of it. If you buy a new house, you take gifts of soba to your new neighbour. Here, it symbolises the desire for a long friendship with them. It is then called ひっこしそば (moving soba). Soba is also nutritious fast food served at railway stations and other places. No symbolism. It’s really good when you’re hungry!