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att. Culture - Calendar - Japan Now
att. Culture - Calendar - Japan Now
att.JAPAN Issue 20, January 2005

Calendar - Japan Now - January & February


The traditional and unchanged Japan and the ever changing Japan, that I'd like to cover in this issue with a special focus on the present state of Japan, modern and older Japanese life-style issues and events as well as forms of entertainment and spirituality in the nation from January to February each year.

PochibukuroAt the start of the year, Japanese people used to both eat Osechi-Ryori, a Japanese version New Year's feast, and also play traditional games while the majority of shops remained closed. However, as time progressed, this life-style has seen itself changing year by year and so, there are two aspects of the New Year period in Japan; the traditional and unchanged Japan and the ever changing Japan, that I'd like to cover in this issue with a special focus on the present state of Japan, modern and older Japanese life-style issues and events as well as forms of entertainment and spirituality in the nation from January to February each year.

 New Year's Day
"Akemashite Omedeto-gozaimasu," meaning Happy New Year is the traditional Japanese greeting at the start of the year. When families got together for the first time in the year in their newly cleaned houses equipped with fresh calendars, they often did so having entered a gate decorated with kadomatsu (pine branches) and shimenawa (a stylized straw rope). These days though, there are few houses decorated with such traditional decorations as many people now live in less personal apartment buildings and condominiums.
That said, those who usually work in Tokyo and other big cities often go back to their hometowns to celebrate the New Year holidays with their family. It is a precious opportunity in an otherwise busy year to gather the family, as the trend of families scattering on the wind has been increasing in Japan in recent years. Those who brave expressways suffer long traffic jams and airplanes and trains are crowded with people at the end of the year on the homeward trip and after the New Year's holidays as they return to the major cities in which they work.
Family members drink Otoso (special sake) and eat Osechi-Ryori with Ozoni (a soup containing a pounded rice cake), after the initial greeting (covered above) on the morning of New Year's Day. Osechi-Ryori used to be cooked by each individual family at the end of the year and was kept for use in the coming days. More recently though, as Japanese restaurants and department stores have started selling Osechi-Ryori, and with most convenience stores now open 365 days a year, many associated shops now open on New Year's Day and Jan. 2nd. As such, few homes pound their own mochi rice cakes any more.
Furthermore, the number of people travelling abroad and staying at hotels and ski-resorts continues to increase thereby reducing the numbers who opt for New Year at home.
If lucky with the weather, many people want to see the New Year's first sunrise and large numbers of Japanese usually visit a shrine or temple on New Year's Day, for hatsumode - their first prayer to the gods of the New Year. At this time, some people still choose to don kimonos and add a touch of culture and color to the proceedings which is always nice to see.
At New Year, many people exchange New Year's cards. They send cards in December and receive cards from others on New Year's Day. As a result, post offices around Japan hire many part-time workers to deliver the large amount of cards sent, usually on January 1st. To add a touch of modernity to the day as well, there are New Year's cards with a lottery number printed on the bottom with prizes including free domestic or international travel to be won.
Nowadays though, many people print their greeting cards using a PC, but a few people still write calligraphy or make their own prints. Using the cards, people use the opportunity to exchange information, writing their family news and also print photographs of themselves and their families. Although it takes some time to make the cards, many people undoubtedly look forward to receiving cards, making all the effort well worth their while.
On the far more modern side of the fence though, some people prefer to send Happy New Year e-mails, and make Happy New Year phone calls. So much so in fact that it is often difficult to be connected using mobile phones around the start of the year.
Otoshidama A tradition that makes many children happy is the gift of money, given by relatives and known as otoshidama. In days of old, Japanese children often played tako-age (kite flying), sugoroku (a domestic form of Parcheesi), hanetsuki (badminton), karuta, hyakuninisshu (a Japanese card game), and fukuwarai (a New Year's game in which blindfolded players place paper cutouts of ears, eyes, a nose, and a mouth on the outline of a face).
More recently, TV programs broadcast special New Year shows to entertain youngsters and the older Japanese alike and many people often enjoy hatsuwarai programs, with rakugo (a form of comic story telling) and manzai (comic dialogue).
Kakizome, writing a special piece of calligraphy for the New Year, is one of Japan's traditions, these days still carried out by elementary and junior high school students as part of their New Year's homework.
A week into January, and on the 7th, some families eat nanakusagayu, a type of rice porridge containing seven different spring herbs. However, the once common practice of picking them oneself has now become rather more difficult in today's modern towns and cities.
Coming-of Age events are held on and around the second Sunday of January and young men and women who turn twenty during the year are celebrated throughout the land with some of the young, single ladies choosing to wear a furisode (a kind of kimono).

 Bargain Sales
Department stores and boutiques around Japan offer their first major sale of the New Year soon after January 1st and the fukubukuro (lucky grab bags) are always popular - selling one after the other to those in search of a true seasonal bargain.

 Companies, Schools and New Year Firsts
In spite of all the celebration around the turn of the year, some children and students still have to study hard for upcoming entrance exams. There are entrance exams for junior high schools, high schools, universities and other education institutes soon after the year begins and the tests of the National Center for University Entrance Examination are held in January. The first day of business each year is on or around January 4th and often sees some women going to work in their kimono.
Many companies are busy checking their budgets for the coming year and also start to make plans for the next year as they begin to settle their accounts which are due to close at the end of March.
The National Diet session convenes at the end of January and the Lower House Budget Committee starts discussing the next year's fiscal spending policy.

 Winter Sports
When it come to winter sports, skiing, snowboardinging and skating are all popular, and particularly so during vacations, as is the soaking of a tired body in hot springs.
For the less energetically inclined too, the period can still be a sporty one as many sports events take place over the New Year in Japan and are broadcast on TV.
The New Year Ekiden (relay race) is held on January 1st, and the Hakone Ekiden (a student's version similar to that on the 1st) is held from January 2nd to the 3rd. The New Year Grand Sumo Tournament is held in Tokyo from the Sunday closest to the 10th in January and there is also the national rugby championship and the high school rugby championship to enjoy. The Emperor's Cup, representing football, in addition to the high school championship are focal points for fans of the round ball game and skiing and skating championships are also held around the nation.

 The Japanese in Winter
January and February are the coldest months of the year in Japan and while the Pacific shore of the archipelago is comparatively warm with only a little snow, the Sea of Japan coast, of Honshu and Hokkaido in particular suffers very heavy snowfalls.
People often warm themselves under kotatsu (tables heated underneath with a blanket-cum-skirt around the edge) while eating oranges. Nabe-ryori (dishes cooked in a large communal pot), fugu, and fried oysters are delicious during this time but with colds and flu ever present at this time of year the cases can be so numerous as to cause school classes to be closed temporarily. A month or so later, in February, some people suffer from hay fever caused by wind borne cedar pollen and can feel just as bad.
Another aspect of life in Japan as March and the end of the fiscal year approaches are regular encounters with traffic jams at unexpected places. Often caused by road works, said to be a means to use up all of the previous year's fiscal budget, it is often an unavoidable hazard of Japanese travel as the New Year festivities start to wind down.

 Festivals and Events
Various festivals such as snow festivals, ice festivals and evening illumination events are held in most of Japan's snowy regions. The Sapporo Snow Festival, the biggest such festival, attracts millions of visitors annually and is always popular.
What's more, with the Japanese people's love of baseball, many are happy to see professional baseball teams resume spring training from February 1st, and also starting to give exhibition games around the country from around the end of the same month.
February 14th, Saint Valentine's Day, is the day women alone give chocolates to men while their gifts are reciprocated on March 14th in the uniquely Japanese White Day festivities
Setsubun originally meant the beginning of the new season, and there are actually 4 setsubun each year to coincide with the seasons. Setsubun in February, or the day seen as the Coming-of-Spring day, has traditionally been the most celebrated as people shout, "Out with the demons and in with fortune," as they scatter parched beans. Afterwards, some people eat the beans: the number matching their age and many temples even hold bean-scattering ceremonies - some with their own take on tradition. In Osaka for example, there is a custom to eat rolled sushi on this day.
Kamakura Kamakura is the name of both snow huts and a festival held in northern Japan on Ko-Shogatsu (the New Year's: January 15). Featuring snow huts in which children play house, the kamakura enshrine the god of water.
Almost as far north as Japan goes, ice floes can be seen floating on the Sea of Okhotsk in Hokkaido as the sea is covered in pack ice from mid-January to the end of March.

 Signs of Spring
At the end of February, the coldest month of the year, haruichiban, or the first strong southerly winds of the year, start to blow. Ume (plum, or more accurately, Japanese apricot) blossoms bloom in gardens up and down the archipelago and ume-matsuri or plum blossom festivals are held in plum orchards. Spring colored clothing starts to appear in shops and cherry blossoms are at their best now in Okinawa with early cherry blossoms starting to bloom too in Kawazu; a sure sign Spring is just around the corner.

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