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Reiko Remembers The Meaning of Japan’s True New Year

This blog is written by the Morikami’s Director of Education Reiko (pronounced “Lay-ko”) Nishioka, who is native Japanese and later moved to the United States. In 2010, she will contribute to “More Morikami…” and share her cultural inspirations and memories. Happy New Year!

I was asked to write about my favorite holiday/celebration by a local magazine several years ago. I chose Oshogatsu, the Japanese New Year celebration, even though I have been living in the U.S. for more than 30 years. I miss it dearly, although I work at the Morikami and celebrate Oshogatsu with visitors every year.  (The 2010 festival will be held January 10, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.)

In Japan, the New Year is celebrated for three days, from January 1 through 3.  So when December 31 approaches, people become very busy. They clean and decorate their houses, cook meals for the time of holidays, pound rice for mochi (rice cake), write greeting cards and attend year-end parties. There is one more, very important thing that Japanese traditionally do at the end of the year, and that is clearing away all debts and obligations. PHEW!

Lots of effort is given in preparation for the New Year, but on December 31 at midnight, the above activities stop. Bells at all temples ring 108 times which, according to the Buddhist religion, symbolize human desires. The last peal drives the desires away, and the new year is greeted in a pure condition.

What I like about the Oshogatsu observance is the symbolism of time. Graduations, weddings or retirements are lifetime experiences; they are “knots” of life. Japanese call these fushi, like the knots of bamboo. This is where the significant border between the old and the new, and the symbolism of time, lie. For example, yesterday was December 31 and the end of the year; today is January 1, and everything is treated new, like a new “knot.” A lot of people go to see the first sunrise; we even cherish the first dream of the new year. Whatever we do, we call it the “first …..of the year.” Oshogatsu is the time to renew.

My memory of Oshogatsu is quiet and calm during the three days of observance. Stores are closed, and there is no cooking as meals have been prepared in advance. Therefore, we have enough time to reflect on the past year and make a wish or set a goal for the upcoming year.

Oh, how I miss the quiet of those three days!

Families watch "shishimai," or the lion dancer, at Oshogatsu, the New Year's celebration; Jan. 10, 2010 at the Morikami

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