New Year or Oshogatsu is the most important holiday period in Japan for families and it is rich in customs and tradition.
End-of-year Cleaning (Oosoji)
An important preparation is oosoji, which means the end-of-year cleaning, when household members including children start a massive house cleaning in order to purify the home to greet the New Year in clean state. I remember I had to clean the windows and balcony of my room top to bottom as my responsibility during oosoji. Though it was exhausting for me as a child, I felt a good sense of fulfillment. Oosoji is also done at work and school before New Year's holiday.
New Year’s Eve (Omisoka)
As people also take time to organize cooking, placing decorations and getting ready for the family gatherings, it makes sense that New Year’s Eve is traditionally celebrated very quietly in Japan. Instead of parties and fireworks, most people spend the evening at home watching TV and eating toshikoshi soba (yearend noodles of longevity) with the family.
Temple Bells (Joya-no-kane)
People come to listen to hundred and eight strikes on the temple bell started to ring before midnight on New Year's Eve. The number 108 means the evil passions and desires inside a man and each strike of the bells helps us to let go of the worldly desires.
The Year’s First Visit to a Shrine (Hatsumode)
For many Japanese, the New Year is synonymous with hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year. There are tens of thousands of shrines and temples across Japan, and almost every single one holds Hatsumode. At a popular shrine or temple, you can see a huge crowd of people waiting patiently in long lines to make wishes and prayers for the year. I liked to join hatsumode with my parents when I was a child because of the special food stands and lucky charms and written oracles my parents purchased for me.
New Year’s Food (Osechi)
The food doesn’t get more traditional than osechi. While osechi differs by region and from family to family, it usually consists of 20 to 30 various dishes stored in a traditional, multi-tiered, lacquer box called jubako. Every one of the dishes is symbolic of luck and fortune in the year to come. For example, one of the most popular osechi dishes kazunoko, herring eggs, is believed to bring a lot of offspring into the family because herring has a large number of eggs. Another popular dish, datemaki is a rolled omelet which looks like a rolled document. Due to its resemblance, the dish represents a wish for the acquisition of scholarship and culture. Today, families who do not have the time to make osechi order it from a restaurant instead, but still most families try to keep the tradition and make their own osechi from their family recipe.
Datemaki and Kazunoko
Small envelope with money (Otoshidama)
A present from Santa is not the only gifts kids in Japan look forward to each winter. Sometimes the most cherished gift of the holiday season is otoshidama, a small envelop with money given to children on New Year’s. Otoshidama is usually given by parents, grandparents, as well as uncles and aunts. The average amount is reported as 5,000 yen (approximately USD 50) per envelope, and a kid usually receives otoshidama from 5 to 6 adults. Having grown up in Japan, every New Year’s I was excited to receive otoshidama from parents and relatives, but as I became a parent I realized it can be quite expensive because we not only give otoshidama to our own kids, but to the relatives’ children as well.