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Ja, ja, I'll do this New Year's post just now

Yelp! I'm doing a "Japanese New Year's customs" post on Africa time, six days ex post facto, but I plead your indulgence: New Year's decorations are traditionally removed on the first Saturday of the new year, in other words, I haven't caused deadline mayhem yet.

"Just now", by the way, is a South African expression that means shortly, later, eventually, in a minute, tomorrow, next year, maybe never, probably never, ha ha never, shut up I'm busy. It can also mean a minute ago, a while ago, two hours ago, in my previous life. You can also say "now now", which means as soon as possible, shortly, later, eventually, etc etc etc.

Nakamise-dori in front of Sensō-ji in the New Year's period

Decorations

Japanese New Year’s decorations are called o-shogatsu kazari (お正月飾り). It’s usually made of natural materials such as straw ropes, pine branches, bamboo and paper. 

They should be put up by December the 28th, since December the 29th includes the number 9 ( ku), which is regarded as a bad luck number because it’s pronounced in the same way as the word for agony or suffering ( ku). You’re still OK if you decorate on the 30th, but the 31st is not acceptable. 

The 31st, in a country in which everything happens exactly on time? No no no. Bad manners, bad timing and bad luck!

As already mentioned, they’re usually removed on the first Saturday of the new year.

Pine and bamboo decoration in front of a temple in Yanaka




Stalls selling New Year's decorations at Chichibu Jinja. Yup, I went hiking in Chichibu,
but that's another story for another day.




Shimekazari

A shimekazari (注連飾り) is usually put on the front door to keep bad spirits away and to invite the so-called toshigami (歳神) or New Year gods into the home. The exact components of a shimekazari differ from region to region, but it usually includes: 
  • sacred twisted straw ropes called shimenawa (注連)
  • a small folding fan that symbolizes fertility (spreading your seed)
  • a Japanese bitter lemon or Satsuma orange that represents generations (see explanation below)
  • a fern called urajiro (裏白),  which is an evergreen that symbolizes a long life
  • a lobster that, with its bent back, represents old age
  • seaweed, which is associated with joy
  • sacred white paper called shide (紙垂) that prevents impurities from entering your home


Kagami mochi

During the New Year’s period in Japan you see rice cakes called kagami mochi (鏡餅) everywhere. This traditional decoration has two rice cakes representing the old and the new year, topped with a Japanese bitter lemon or daidai (ダイダイ). That’s because the Japanese word for generation is also pronounced dai, but written with another kanji (); in other words, daidai can be read as “generation after generation”. Japanese loves puns, word play and homophones.

Nowadays, though, mikan or Satsuma oranges are used more often. Incidentally, it’s important that the fruit should still have leaves attached. The top photo, which is home-made mochi photographed in the traditional neighourhood Yanaka, is the real deal. The second photo is mass-produced mochi which you can buy in any supermarket.

You’re supposed to break and eat the kagami mochi during the second weekend of the new year.

PS: Another New Year's tradition is mochi mortality (link). I'd feel seriously sheepish if I departed thus despite numerous warnings in every single Japanese newspaper every single year.



The year of the sheep

According to Chinese astrology, 2015 is the year of the , which can be interpreted as sheep, goat or ram. The Chinese sign includes all similar animals, all called yáng and usually divided into two types: miányáng (sheep) and shānyáng (goats). Japanese also separates these animals into sheep ( hitsuji) and goats (山羊 yagi), but the year itself is written with the Chinese symbol and called the year of the sheep. Read more here

I found the next photo in this Japanese article about sheep shrines in Japan. It was taken at Hitsuji Jinja (羊神社) near Isobe Station in Gunma. Sheep shrines! Guess where I’ll be hiking to next?


I photographed the next ema (wooden tablet on which you write your wishes to the gods) at Yushima Tenman-gū. This shrine is exceptionally popular in the New Year’s period, because this is where students pray for success in their entrance exams (written in January and February) as well as academic success throughout the rest of the year. That’s because the god of scholars, Sugawara no Michizane, is enshrined here.


So why does the Chinese New Year in Japan coincide with the Western New Year?
Japan celebrates the (Chinese) year of the sheep, but from the 1st of January (i.e. Western New Year) instead of the 19th of February (i.e. Chinese New Year). The explanation might confuse you even more, but I'll try.

Trust Japan to mix cultures, customs and religions merrily without blinking. Japan initially used a lunar calendar based on the Chinese one, but in 1873 adopted the Gregorian calendar. Old customs remained, though, so now we have a Western calendar combined with old (often Chinese in origin) traditions.

OK. To summarize. There’s no Chinese New Year in Japan, except in a few Chinatowns, but the Chinese zodiac is used. The year starts on 1 January, but you can only be BORN in the year of the sheep if your birthday is after 19 February, except if you’ve turned 20 in the previous year, in which case you celebrate your birthday on the second Monday of January, which is the Coming of Age ceremony.

Right. That’s simple. Isn’t it?!

Posters

Most houses and buildings in this eastern part of Tokyo attach a poster to the front door for roughly two weeks. Each neighbourhood has its own design. The one of the left is a Mitsui Real Estate poster on the front door of one of their apartment buildings; the one on the right is in Higashi-Kuromonchō near Ueno. The posters all include sheep in their design, because it’s the year of the sheep.


Deadline dilemmas

What's the next big event in Tokyo? Cherry blossoms? Perhaps I should start writing a cherry blossoms post immediately; perhaps I will then be able to publish it by next Christmas.

I took this photo at Sensō-ji. That pine branch on the right is part of their New Year's decorations.
The smoke is from an incense burner. It's believed that the smoke will protect you against illness.

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