New Year’s Day in Japan

girls making mochi the old fashioned way on New Years Day in Kyoto

New Year’s Day in Japan is, like New Year’s Eve, a spiritual and significant time. Many people visit their local Shinto shrine on the 1st, 2nd or 3rd of January. Known as 初詣(hatsumode-or first temple visit) this is very important. Last year we arrived at Harajuku station on the 2nd of January, to find an extra platform operational and barriers and thousands and thousands of people visiting the Meiji Shrine.(In 1998 3.45 million people visited the Meiji Shrine over the three days- . So, I guess, more accurately, millions of people. It was crackers.

Making mochi on New Year’s Day is another tradition which we got to partake in. We had experienced it, the modern way, in Kochi a few days earlier, (read about that here) but on New Year’s Day, we did the old fashioned, usu and kine way. An usu is like a large wooden mortar and a kine a heavy wooden mallet. It is hard work… but fun, and maybe just a little dangerous for the person who is kneading the dough in between pounds with the kine. Mochi is also served in soup on New Year’s Day, called zoni. Unfortunately, most years there are a number of deaths in Japan, caused by people choking on mochi in zoni. Last year, 9 people died and 128 were hospitalised, according to Rocket News 24.

A very humbling and unexpected tradition that my kids got to experience was the receiving of お年玉(otoshidama). This is a small envelope of cash given to children by their relatives. The amount varies depending on the age of the receiver, but it is usually ¥3,000 to ¥5,000. And…. the children receive them from many relatives. My kids were given otoshidama by my dear friend Maki’s mum. Very unexpected, but happily accepted and then joyfully spent at Kyoto Yodabashi Camera.

Finally, the tradition that amazes me in it’s logistical brilliance. Nengajo are New Year postcards. Sent much in the same vain as Christmas cards in the West, a way of letting people know you are well (or, in the old days, alive) and sometimes more personalised than that, these cards are all delivered on the 1st of January, so as long as they are posted before 25th December. This is around 4 million cards delivered on that day. Students are hired by the Japanese Postal service in order to ensure the cards are all delivered on the correct day. My mind boggles at the thought, however, while in Kochi last year, I saw Maki’s mum’s pile of Nengajo, and there were hundreds of them. Maki said that her mum wrote one to every person who had ever worked for her and every friend. This amounted to several hundred cards, all in her perfectly beautiful kanji…. wow!!!

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