Because of its pace-making modernity, especially in depictions in anime, it’s sometimes easy to forget exactly how important long-standing yearly traditions are, on a cultural and personal level for Japan. This is especially true in winter, when Japan’s love of celebration and willingness to embrace foreign traditions ensure that Christmas spirit is in full swing, as evidenced by the beautiful, elaborate illuminations (Japanese Christmas light shows), countless ads for “Christmas cake,” and the beloved (though somewhat creepy) Colonel decked out as Santa.
But even more important to the season is Oshōgatsu, the Japanese New Year Celebration. Unlike Christmas, almost everyone has the New Year’s holiday off from work. Where Christmas is more of a date night, Oshōgatsu is a time for family, and practicing long-standing tradition. An essential part of Oshōgatsu is hatsumōde, the first visit to a shrine in the New Year. But what exactly is hatsumōde? Since it’s depicted so frequently in our favorite anime (like Love Live!, Monogatari, The Eccentric Family, and more) we’re here to fill you in.
Then and Now
Although Japan historically celebrated the Chinese New Year, like other Asian nations, during the early years of the Meiji Restoration, to further its efforts to charge into the “Western” world, the country adopted the Gregorian calendar and January 1st became the first official day of the New Year, taking New Year’s traditions with it. While modern Japan is wonderfully tolerant of world religions, its historical traditions are typically rooted in Shinto, “the way of the Gods,” a ritual-heavy religion celebrating kami, divine beings that manifest themselves in sacred objects found in the natural world (and with scenery so beautiful, the reasons for this belief are obvious), or Buddhism, which migrated from the Asian mainland. Hatsumōde is no different, with centuries of practice rooted in Shinto tradition.
As mentioned earlier, hatsumōde is the first visit to a shrine in the New Year. One important (and somewhat tricky) distinction worth noting is that the term “shrine” refers to religious buildings associated with Shinto, where “temple” refers to buildings that are associated with Buddhism. Although Buddhism is equally important in terms of historical tradition and practices, it’s typically not as common to visit a temple for hatsumōde, as evidenced by the millions that flock to the nation’s most popular shrines (like the Meiji Jingu, in the heart of Tokyo) year after year.
New Year’s Resolution
Like its Western counterpart, an important part of Oshōgatsu is starting the year off on the right foot, often times with a resolution, or a wish. This is expressed in a couple of ways in Japan, such as kakizome, the first calligraphy done specifically on New Year’s, where you write your favorite character or a character representing your strongest desire for the coming year. While very popular in its own right, it has become a regular homework assignment for high schoolers and junior high schoolers during winter vacation.
Another way is through the purchase of omamori, amulets or charms dedicated to specific deities that are meant to safeguard against harm (such as charms to ward off illness, or accident), or help in the fulfillment of personal desire (like charms to help in your studies, in your athletic pursuits, or with love). During hatsumōde, old charms can be returned to shrines for burning, and new ones can be purchased to set the tone for the coming months. Although they start off fairly cheap, the cost can vary greatly depending on the quality and artistry of the charm in question, since they range from simple cell-phone strap tchotchkes to beautiful placards and amulets.
There are also omikuji, which are available at shrines throughout the year but are especially popular during New Year’s, and hatsumōde. Omikuji are random fortunes written on strips of paper, but unlike other types of fortunes, the hatchet swings both ways and they can be good or bad. Written on each is the level of fortune or misfortune you’re likely to receive, as well as aspects of your life that will be affected in the coming year. In the unlucky event of a bad fortune, you can tie the strip to a tree on the grounds of the shrine in the hopes of warding it off. Incidentally, omikuji share fortune-telling elements with nengajō, post-cards delivered to far away friends or family members. Nengajō’s fortunes are often scratch off, adding a little bit of agency for your gamble with lady luck.
Providing Encouragement to Pursue Our Dreams
A Full Belly and a Happy New Year
Although not a part of hatsumōde specifically, Oshōgatsu and the beginning of the New Year are synonymous with seasonal, traditional Japanese dishes so tasty they leave even Soma drooling.
First up is osechi, a boxed meal consisting of regional foods, each with their own unique meaning. Most of the dishes are salted or pickled, since that was a traditional way of preserving food before the advent of refrigerators. Of course, no New Year’s in Japan would be complete without mochi, which are sticky Japanese rice cakes. Ozoni, a light soup with regional ingredients, is one of the most popular ways to enjoy mochi for the New Year, and is a perfect way to beat a chilly winter day. Recently, sashimi and sushi have gained popularity as well.
Feasting on such rich food does tend to leave one sluggish once the holidays are over, and everyone returns to work or school. To help their stomachs settle, promote good health, and to get back into the swing of things, they eat nanakusa-gayu, or seven-herb soup, on January 7th.
Around the New Year’s season kids start clambering for another Japanese tradition, otoshidama. This practice is a little less spiritually grounded, and involves gifts of cash for children from their older relatives. The amount varies depending on the means of each family, but it’s quite common for kids to receive ¥10,000 (about $100, depending on the exchange rate) or more, especially if they’re an only child, or have particularly doting grandparents. I love Japanese traditions, but as someone with a huge family and a ton of nieces and nephews, my wallet and I are glad that this tradition hasn’t spread to the rest of the world.
The More You Know
If you’ve come this far, hopefully that means you’ve enjoyed learning about hatsumōde, and Japanese New Year. Are there any memorable scenes from your favorite shows that confused you, that make more sense now that you’ve read this article? Have you experienced hatsumōde first-hand? If so, how was it similar or different from how it is portrayed in anime? Sound off in the comments and let us know what you think. Akemashite o-medetō-gozaimasu! (Happy New Year!)