Sunday, January 3, 2016

To Beginnings...New and Old

--Susan, every other Sunday

Happy New Year, everyone!

People get reflective at New Year's time, and the evidence is everywhere. People post good wishes and resolutions (some serious...others, not so much) on social media sites and blogs, and "Top-X lists" are everywhere.

As long as people have tracked the year with calendars, and perhaps before, new years are a time for new beginnings...meaning that, while some of our traditions are new, others are centuries old.

Prior to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese celebrated New Year according to the lunar calendar (like the Chinese, and many other Asian countries do). However, in 1873, the Japanese government decided to recognize both the Gregorian New Year (January 1) and the lunar new year--and many households still celebrate both.

In Japan, the New Year carries its own set of traditions--some new, and others centuries old:

Shrine Visits

Many people visit one or more shrines on New Year's day (or in the days that follow) to leave offerings and pray for the gods' protection in the coming year.

The brightly-colored strings are actually origami (folded paper) prayer chains, popular at New Year's.


Traditional Japanese poetry features heavily in many celebrations, particularly those which have a reflective or seasonal component. Given that the turn of the year involves both, it's hardly surprising that samurai often composed special poems to celebrate the New Year, particularly haiku and renga (a form of collaborative poetry that gave birth to the haiku form).

A picture, not a poem. But this caption is Haiku. Happy New Year, All.
Modern Japanese poets also often write special verses to celebrate or welcome the new year, and people often read or reflect on poetry during the final days of the year and the first days of the new one.

Games and Kites

As in the West, Japanese people often gather to celebrate the new year, and both adults and children like to play games at New Year's time. Cards and board games are popular, as is kite flying. (Kites are particularly popular in Japan, and flown on many different occasions)

Hanafuda - a traditional Japanese card game.

New Year's Postcards (Nengajō)

The custom of sending New Year's cards originated hundreds of years ago, but blossomed in popularity during the Meiji Restoration (after 1868) because of the introduction of postcards. Like Western Christmas or Holiday cards, nengajō contain pretty pictures and holiday greetings, but nengajō differ from Western cards in a couple of very important ways.

First, nengajō should be handwritten, generally in the sender's own best handwriting.

My handwriting sucks. Instead, please accept this photograph of a seahorse.

Also, nengajō are supposed to arrive precisely on January 1 (or, before the Meiji era, on lunar New Year's Day). Japanese post offices accept nengajō for mailing for several weeks in November and December, and as long as the cards are marked "nengajō" and placed in the proper postal drops, the post office guarantees New Year delivery.

Finally, nengajō are not sent to anyone who had a death in the family during the previous year, in recognition of the family's mourning. (Some people even send special cards--again, available through the Japanese post office--to friends and relatives following a death in the family, in order to ensure they're not on the nengajō list for the coming year.)

Osechi-ryōri (New Year Foods)

Like many cultures, the Japanese eat special dishes on New Year's day, and during the first few days of the new year, to bring good health and good fortune in the coming year. The Japanese custom of eating osechi began during the Heian Period (794-1185), and the most traditional foods have changed very little since that time.

Not a New Year's cake. I bought it in the train station in Tokyo. However, it was quite delicious.
Among the most popular items: sweet cakes, seaweed, prawns (cooked with heads and tails on, they look like elderly, bearded men bent over at the waist--symbolizing a wish for long life), broiled fish cakes, oranges, and zone, a clear broth (in some places, miso soup) with grilled mochi.

And Money for the Kids...

As in China, children traditionally receive colorful paper envelopes filled with money from friends and relatives during the New Year celebration. The amount in the envelopes varies widely, but traditionally the envelopes are supposed to hold the type that folds as opposed to the type that jingles.

The kind that folds.

New Year customs exist in every culture, and with good reason. The turn of the year represents a new beginning, full of potential, as well as a chance to reflect on the years we've lived.

I hope 2016 lives up to that potential for every one of you, in wonderful ways, and I hope we'll see you here frequently at Murder is Everywhere.


  1. To me the origami looks like a 60s tie-dyed festival, and the holiday cake like a seahorse's tail. I guess I'd better switch back to booze for holiday celebrations.:) HAPPY NEW YEAR, Susan.

    1. At holiday celebrations, booze is always the right answer.

      I thought the origami looked like tie-dye too, Jeff. The amazing part is, many people fold all those strips (many are strips of cranes) and say a prayer with each one, then string them and bring them to the shrine so the god can hear their prayers. It's an amazing amount of work and faith, when you look at the strings that way.

  2. Thanks Susan. I was watching a programme about British comics abroad. One was asked by an Australian compere what a typical Glaswegian New Year's custom was. The comedian's answer was immediate.. 'Throwing up in a telephone box!'
    Hope wee Magellan has a good 2016!

    1. LOL! That's a holiday tradition I think I can safely skip.

      The wee one is eating his dinner as we speak. I hope you (and he, and all of us!) have a lovely 2016 too!

  3. Akemashita omedeto Susan. Love this! Our osechi-ryori was quite modest but we lap up the little sweet crunchy fish goma-me! Best in 2016

    1. Thanks Cara! I've always thought the crunchy fish looked fantastic. (Sadly, I'm allergic to fish, proving the universe does in fact have a great sense of humor.)

      Happy 2016!

  4. Fascinating! The picture made me wonder why they were making offerings of tie-died shirts at a shrine. The amount or work in those paper chains is a sign of faith. Very cool! Hoping you and your horse herd are blessed with a wonderful new year!!

  5. Dearest Susan, from afar
    I send my love and blessings
    Haiku--JOY TO YOU.