WHILE New Year’s in Niseko usually involves big powder turns on the mountain, soaking in hot spring baths, indulging in Hokkaido’s array of great food and watching the spectacular torch run and fireworks, the rest of Japan has a very different way of ringing in the New Year – one that involves ages old traditions, ritual, and preparation.
New Year’s Day is the most important day of the year in Japanese tradition, and therefore New Year’s Eve – omisoka – is spent doing a thorough clean of the house, taking a long bath to clean oneself, and making sure one has clean clothes to wear in order to bring in the New Year in a fresh, clean state, not just in body, but in mind as well.
Eating a bowl of toshikoshisoba at 11pm is also an important Japanese tradition. Toshikoshi literally means to “cross over from one year to another”, and eating the long noodles are said to help in the crossing. It is considered to be bad luck to leave any toshi-koshi soba uneaten, so make sure you eat every last bite!
Most families across Japan either stay up to listen or go to a temple to listen to Joyanokane, which begins at the stroke of midnight. Joyanokane is the tolling of the great giant bells or gongs at Japan’s Buddhist temples; the bell at the Chion-in Temple in Kyoto weighs 74 tonnes! Every bell is struck exactly 108 times, and it signifies getting rid of each of the 108 earthly human desires, called bonnos, believed to cause earthly suffering. Japanese Buddhists believe, by hearing the bells toll 108 times, you can be relieved of all the bonnos, and begin the New Year with a fresh slate.
On New Year’s Day it is important to eat your first meal with new chopsticks! All the meals eaten on the first three days of the New Year were traditionally cooked on omisoka, and are called osechi. Cooking during the first three days of the New Years was said to be bad for the Kitchen Kami, the Kitchen God, so everything had to be prepared beforehand. Today, in modern day Japan, most people just buy osechi at the grocery or convenience store, and only eat it on the first day of the New Year. Another reason why osechi used to be prepared in advance was in order for New Years to be spent worshipping at Buddhist or Shinto altars, making resolutions, and praying for good luck.