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Japanese New Year Holidays: Some relax, some get active!

Foods and customs associated with the most important day of the year

The illustration above captures a retro New Year's scene of two young Japanese women in colorful kimonos relaxing in a kotatsu(table with heating system) in the 1930s. The woman on the left is knitting, while the woman on the right intently reads a New Year's greeting letter. On top of the kotatsu is a basket full of mikans(Japanese tangerines), a fruit indispensable to Japan in winter.

The tokonoma (alcove) on the far right is decorated with Kagami-mochi (Ceremonial rice cakes). The folding screen on the far left is adorned with cranes, which are said to bring good luck, showing the relaxed and festive atmosphere of the New Year.


This article will introduce New Year's dishes and decorations such as Zo-ni (soup with rice cakes) and how and with whom Japanese people spend the New Year.

(Image : “Hatsu-dayori; First Letters in New Year” Shigeru Sudo's collection of lyrical paintings produced in 1939, Kokusho Kanko-kai, 1985)


Table of Contents

1. What is the typical Japanese way of spending the New Year?

2. New Year's special food, “Zo-ni”

3. The meaning behind New Year's decorations (Shime-kazari, Kagami-mochi)

4. What Do Japanese Children do during New Year Holidays?

5. New Year's events and traditions

6. Summary

1. What is the typical Japanese way of spending the New Year?

The New Year begins with the greeting, "Akemashite Omedeto-gozaimasu!" (Happy New Year!) in Japan.

If you haven't done the "New Year's Eve Pilgrimage" on New Year's Eve, you will go out for the "Hatsu-mode" (New Year's Day Pilgrimage) after enjoying Osechi (New Year's special dishes) dinner and Zo-ni (soup with mochi, rice cakes) with your family.

No rule says you have to visit the shrine on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. To avoid the crowds, you can visit the shrine on January 7th (15th in Kyoto and other regions), called "Matsu-no-uchi," or by February 4th, which means the New Year in the lunar calendar.


It is a typical way for Japanese people to spend the New Year's holiday, as they spend the busy holiday season and return home to spend time with their families if they are living away from them due to work or other reasons. They go to their relatives and friends' homes to greet the new year, hold New Year's parties, and read the New Year's cards (greeting cards with words of congratulations for the new year) they receive.


In contrast, some people spend their busy New Year's days going out for New Year's parties, games, events, and bargain sales, which we will introduce later. Some people who live alone decide to spend their New Year's days sleeping and resting instead of going home.



2) New Year's special food, “Zo-ni”


For Japanese people, "Osechi" and "Zo-ni" are indispensable dishes that are served with "Toso" liquor during the New Year. I will focus on Zo-ni and introduce Osechi and Toso in detail in the following article.

(Photos: first one "Kanto-style Zo-ni" and second one "Kyoto-style Zoni" by: Kyoto Hometown Products Association)

https://www.maff.go.jp Image provided


Zo-ni is a soup made by simmering various ingredients and glutinous mochi (rice cake) in a single pot. It took root as a celebratory food among the upper class in the Muromachi period (1333-1573) and spread to the general public in the Genroku period (1688-1704).


Originally, rice was the foundation of the Japanese people and their culture. The original form of Zo-ni was "Shinjin Kyoshoku(God and humans share the same food)," in which rice cakes made from rice (in this case, glutinous rice) were offered to the gods and eaten with gratitude.

Zo-ni is characterized by the use of local ingredients from the land. There are differences in the ingredients depending on the climate, but more than that, each family's individuality is also reflected, and each family has its recipe for Zo-ni. Even though it is a traditional food, there is no set recipe.


In the east of Japan, "square rice cakes" are used for Zo-ni, while "round rice cakes" are used in the west. Zo-ni can be categorized by region: "Sumashi-jiru (clear broth) and square mochi" in most of the Tohoku and Kanto regions, "Shiro-miso (white miso) soup and round mochi" in the Western region, mainly Kyoto, and "Sumashi-jiru (clear broth) and round mochi" in Kyushu, Shikoku and Chugoku regions. In the Kanto region, the most common style is "Tokyo Edo Zo-ni." It is a clear soy sauce-based soup with baked square mochi. The ingredients include chicken meat, Shiitake mushrooms, Komatsuna green, carrots, and topped with Mitsuba leaves. On the other hand, "Kyoto-style Zo-ni" is white miso and contains uncooked round rice cakes. The ingredients are simple, such as sliced carrots, daikon, and taro.


In Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku, they enjoy sweet red bean paste rice cakes in a local specialty Zo-ni with white Miso base soup stock made from dried sardines. The sweet red bean paste melts out of the rice cake and combines with the salty taste of the miso to create a unique flavor, which is a surprising combination for people from other regions. In the Edo period (1603-1867), a sugar called "Wasanbon" was a local specialty and was very expensive. To avoid detection by government officials, they hid sugar by kneading it into the bean paste and hiding it in the rice cake. Zo-ni strongly reflects the climate and history of each region and family.

Image provided by Kagawa Prefecture Agricultural Community Development Division


3. The meaning behind New Year's decorations (Shime-kazari, Kagami-mochi)

" Shime-kazari" is a decoration placed on the front door or gate before welcoming the New Year. The Shime-kazari signifies that one's house is a suitable and purified place to welcome the New Year deity. Rice straw is used for the base of the traditional Shime-kazari, and various festive motifs are incorporated into it. For example, as shown in the photo of the Shime-kazari, it is decorated with cranes, a symbol of longevity, pine trees, which are green and firm all year round, and"Man-ryo" (Man=10,000, ryo= the unit of old money) , a red fruit that is believed to bring good luck. The gold and red fan is also gorgeous.


Like Shime-Kazarri, "Kagami-mochi" ( literally, “mirror rice cake") is also an essential part of Japanese New Year's decorations. The typical style of Kagami-mochi is to pile up large and small round rice cakes and put a mandarin orange on top.

Kagami-mochi displayed on the altar or in the alcove is believed to be the dwelling place of the New Year's deity during the New Year period. The round shape resembles a mirror in which the soul is believed to abide. Two tiers of round rice cakes, one large and one small, are stacked on top of each other to signify the beginning of a new year. At the top is a Daidai, a citrus fruit that symbolizes family prosperity.


Depending on the region, other auspicious materials such as dried persimmons and kelp are also used as decorations. Traditionally, Kagami-mochi was made at the end of the year during the mochi pounding gathering. Still, more and more people are buying the simple vacuum-packed version in recent years.


4. What Do Japanese Children do during New Year Holidays?

"Tako-age," a traditional kite flying" to wish for safe growth for kids, "Sugoroku" (classic Japanese board game played with dice), "Karuta-tori" (traditional Japanese playing cards), "Fuku-warai" (traditional Japanese game similar to "pin the tail on the donkey." and "Hane-tsuki," a traditional Japanese badminton-like game with "hagoita" (battledore) and "hane" (a shuttlecock), has been played as "New Year's games" for a long time.

As depicted in the illustration “Hane-tsuki,” above, the black ball at the base of the shuttlecock is called "Mukuroji" ( literally means "child without illness"), and it is said to be a symbol of good luck to prevent children from falling ill. If a player loses a shuttlecock in the "Hane-tsuki" game, she/he will be marked with an X on the forehead or cheek or have their face scribbled with a brush full of ink. However, this was not originally a punishment but a spell to ward off evil. (Top image : Original Produced in 1938, from the catalog of the Takabatake Kasho Taisho Roman Museum in 1990)




5. New Year's events and traditions

The New Year's holidays are filled with various "first events." In the world of calligraphy," Kaki-Zome," the first day of calligraphyis usually held on the 2nd to pray for better penmanship, and people write their hopes and congratulations for the new year. In the world of tea ceremony, a New Year's celebration tea ceremony called "Hatsu-gama" is held around January 10th. The first tea ceremony of the new year means the beginning of the training or the New Year's party. It is a time to enjoy Kaiseki cuisine and Koi-cha,(very thick, whipped tea) then Usu-cha(whisked Matcha tea). This is also the time when the first sumo tournament is held.


"Fuku-bukuro(Lucky bags)" is a New Year's shopping event that many people look forward to every year, as the bags are filled with items that are more expensive than the actual price and can be purchased at a discount. These days, various fuku-bukuro are available, including clothing, food, and home appliances. There are also luxury versions that cost several million yen and contain precious metals and jewels and experience-type such as travel and beauty treatments. These days, some bags are sold in transparent bags that allow you to see what's inside, and you can choose the items you want to buy in advance. Many people buy fuku-bukuro as good luck betting for the new year.



6. Summary

The first auction of tuna in Tokyo's Toyosu market is a hot topic every year, and as the first auction of the year, it is also an indicator of economic trends for the year. The highest price to date was 333.6 million yen (US$3 million) in 2019 by Kiyomura, the owner of the famous sushi chain Sushi Zammai. With a tuna weighing 278 kilograms, that's a whopping 1.2 million yen (over US$10,000) per kilogram, an amount that was raised for the purpose of making the year more exciting and newsworthy.


In this article, we have introduced some of the traditional ways to spend the New Year in Japan, as well as some of the more recent ways. Did you find any Japanese New Year's customs that you know of? Or are there some that are the same as in your country?


The New Year is the perfect time to make a fresh start and start something new.

Why don't you start your career in Japanese cuisine at JCI this year?

The year 2022 has begun! We wish you a wonderful and glorious year.

We'll be waiting for you in Japan!



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