New Years in Japan – How to Celebrate

So it’s holiday season in Japan. Christmas and New Years are both coming up, and it’s the time for gift giving, partying, being with family right? Yes, but not like the typical American would expect. Christmas is actually party time in Japan, where companies and friends hold get together’s. Maybe for a small few presents are given (namely Christians in Japan), but the majority of presents given on Christmas are more of a potluck style. New Years, however, is a time for serious family get together and celebration.

Celebrating New Years is a three day event in Japan. The first day, Jan. 1st, comprises eating special food called “osechi ryori”: When you wake up on January 1st you’re supposed to eat crab, shrimp, specially prepared roots, potatoes, etc. Each combination of food will bring you a different kind of luck in the new year. These baskets of specially prepared food can be bought at your local department store, and generally run about 100 dollars or so.

After eating, Jan 1st through 3rd are the most important 3 days of the year for a Japanese shrine. Families get together, dress up in formal wear such as a kimono, and visit their local shrines (and larger famous ones, depending on your preference) to bring in the New Year. While at a shrine on New Years everyone buys an arrow, a symbol of good luck for the coming year. As a foreigner myself, I always forgot to do the second part of the ceremony, and that was bring your old arrow in from last year and burn it in a communal fire. After receiving the arrow, every visitor needs to line up and pray for the coming year, and ring the bell of the shrine for good luck.

Culturally celebrating New Years in Japan is a unique experience, but of course any article about celebrating New Years  wouldn’t be complete without teaching how to say “Happy New Year.” In Japanese, it’s three words: akemashite omedeito gozaimasu.

1 – A KE MA SHI TE (A as in HA sound, KE as in OKAY, MA as in WOMAN, SHI sounds like SHE, TE as in LATTE)

akemashite represents the coming of the new year, literally “opening”

2 – O ME DEI TO (O as in hoe, ME as in MAY, DEI as in DAY, TO as in TOTAL)

omedeito means congratulations

3 – GO ZAI MA SU (GO as in go, ZAI as in Zaion, MA as in WOMAN, SU sounds like SUE)

gozaimasu is a word that adds formality to the expression

So the expression literally means “I formally congratulate you on the opening of a new year”

I hope you enjoyed learning about how to celebrate new years in Japan. Next time you have the opportunity to ask a Japanese person about celebrating the new year in Japan, please say “akemeashite omedeito gozimasu” and ask about their experiences with osechi ryori and shrine visits. Culturally and linguistically it should be an interesting conversation!

Osechi – New Year’s Food in Japan

Special dishes known as osechi-ryouri (御節料理 or お節料理) are served on New Year’s in Japan. Large stackable boxes known as juubako (重箱) hold the food, and the dishes can stay good for several days since osechi are traditionally eaten through January 3rd. Cooking was finished by New Year’s Eve since long ago it was forbidden to cook during the first three days of the new year. These days, many people purchase osechi in stores since the cooking process is long and difficult, and waiting lists for some of the most popular or well-made kinds begin in October. Each osechi dish has a special meaning for the new year, whether it be for long life or a good harvest. More information can be found here.

Common Osechi:

Konbumaki (昆布巻)
Rolled kelp seaweed, often stuffed with salmon and tied with strips of kanpyou (干瓢 – dried shavings of the calabash gourd).
Kuro-mame (黒豆)
Black beans simmered in a sweet sauce of sugar, soy sauce, and salt. Mame also means “health” in Japanese, so these represent a wish for good health in the coming year.
Datemaki (伊達巻 or 伊達巻き)
A kind of rolled, sweet omelet containing white hanpen (半片) fish paste or mashed shrimp.
Kurikinton (栗きんとん)
Mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts, often formed back into a chestnut shape.
Kinpira gobou (金平牛蒡)
Burdock root braised with sugar, sake, soy sauce, and mirin. It is often served with carrots and sesame seeds.
Tazukuri (田作り)
Candied dry-roasted sardines which you eat whole (head and all). The kanji in Japanese literally means “rice paddy maker” since tazukuri were used historically to fertilize rice fields. The symbolism is of an abundant harvest.
Namasu (膾)
Raw vegetables and sometimes seafood slightly pickled in rice vinegar. Often features daikon radish and carrot.
Nimono (煮物)
Simmered vegetables that often include gobou (burdock root), taro, renkon (lotus root), carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and pea pods.
Kazunoko (数の子)
Herring roe. It clumps naturally, giving it its long shape. Kazunoko literally means “many children,” and it symbolizes fertility and family prosperity.
Ebi-no-saka mushi (えびのさかむし)
Sake steamed shrimp, served whole. You eat everything – head, legs, and all. In this photo, it is being served with edamame.
Kamaboko (蒲鉾)
Processed fish cakes made from varieties of whitefish and additives like MSG. Spiral-shaped loaves are often called “naruto” after the Japanese city which has a well-known whirlpool. The white fish paste is called surimi (擂り身), and is also present in fake crab in the US. Red/pink and white cakes are often layered or arranged in a pattern on New Year’s. The half-circle shape is similar to that of the rising sun, and the food has a celebratory, festive meaning.
Tai-no-shioyaki (鯛の塩焼き)
Sea bream grilled with salt, and served whole. I’ve seen people eat the head, though it’s not required. But the fins and tail are fair game. The word tai (sea bream) is associated with the Japanese word medetai, indicating an auspicious event and present in the phrase omedetai gozaimasu (congratulations).
Daidai (橙)
A Japanese bitter orange. Daidai written in a different kanji is 代々, meaning “from generation to generation.” It symbolizes a wish for children in the new year.
Zouni (雑煮)
A soup made with mochi rice cakes either in a clear broth (mostly in eastern Japan, with rectangular mochi) or miso broth (in western Japan, with round mochi). Sometimes taro or tofu is used instead of mochi, usually in areas where rice isn’t abundant. Other ingredients include meatballs (often chicken or fish), komatsuna (コマツナ) or spinach greens, mitsuba (similar to parsley), kamaboko, carrot, and yuzu citrus peel (similar to grapefruit).
Toshi-koshi soba (年越し蕎麦)
“Year-crossing soba.” A traditional dish, but also a practical one in kitchens where special foods have been cooking for days. Soba is an easy meal during the hectic holidays, but it is considered unlucky by many to leave any toshi-koshi soba uneaten.