Memories of New Year’s Day in Japan, This Year’s New Years in NYC

New York, N.Y. The Tatsumura family in Kyoto has many very old traditions, especially for New Year’s Day. One I remember well was rice cakes baked a few days before New Year’s Eve. This was always so much fun!

In Kyoto, it was a tradition to not only make square rice cakes, but round ones as well. These reflect our hope to have a well-rounded personality. Fresh rice cakes made daily were really delicious.

Rice cakes both large and small were baked for the shrine. Small rice cake noodles were made for eating and putting in our soup. We rolled smaller ones made from kinako flour, a roasted, yellow-colored soybean powder. Mochi rice cakes were really sweet and delicious.

At this time, children would wipe the long corridor with a cloth, using bags of rice to clean it, making the hallway as shiny as a mirror. New Year’s Eve was especially happy for me as this was the only night I was not told, “Go to bed!” I could stay up late and enjoy the preparations.

One New Year’s Eve, I had special yokosuka (‘passing the time’) soba while listening to the beautiful sounds of bells from all over the country on the radio. I changed clothes into my special New Year’s outfit and sat in front of my father and mother, formally offering an apology for actions in the past year, and a promise for the coming year.

We then went to our shrine and lit ropes to twirl around our head. We used these burning ropes to then light a fire to cook the New Year’s soup. Each one of us had a special tray of different bowls and plates, each with a gold crest. This was for the special New Year’s soup.

After the war, I came to Shogetsu Shrine etc. to Hatsumode after I came back home of Imadegawa Horikawa in Kyoto.

Japanese New Year is Quintessentially Japanese

We flew kites, played badminton and a card name called Hyakunin. The badminton battledore was crafted with feathers; it was decorated three-dimensionally with the princess’s pattern. All of these things were passed down over generations and only used for New Year’s.

In the tradition of Kyoto, we had special dishes. Omizui, a white miso soup on the first and second day, contains soft round rice cakes plumped with red ginseng and white radish. On the third day we enjoyed clear soup.

It was a Kyoto tradition to have a beautiful big osechi lacquer box with 30-40 special treats, each its own mouthful and each with its own meaning.

There were sweet golden eggs and chestnut kimon (representing wealth), a small potato (round personality), kelp roll (joy), small shaka (health & wisdom), fish head (happiness), kamaboko cut like a flower (a symbol of Japanese congratulations), boiled black bean (hard working), simmered carrots (being grounded), and lotus root (firmly rooting).

To my surprise, I also witnessed the baby ceremony to stop drinking only milk and moving to solid food (an expression to be done on the 100th day after birth) last year, but this was almost like a feast. It is the tradition of Japan that – each dish makes sense one by one.

The atmosphere of New Year was always so special. Cleaning up one’s soul and body – to purify ourselves – to become different than the last day. We make a pledge to become a better, more spiritual person in the new year. 

The word or saying “refreshing” is perfect, unlike “something unusual.” I felt my body and mind were cleansed as I was being swept away from myself. I was born again as a new self, deciding to be a good girl in the new year.

What a difference New Year’s is in Japan compared to what I experienced in America for New Year – sex, drugs, and rock & roll!

Thanks to an injury, I was in New York for New Year’s this year for the first time in 56 years. I left Manhattan at 6 o’clock in the morning with Takashi Nakagaki, chair of the New York Buddhist Association and former head of the New York Honjyu Temple, to Fuji-san restaurant on a hill west of Nyack. It was quietly closed.

He parked the car in an empty parking lot and we got out, seeing many wild deer. As the sun rose in the cloudless sky, we clasped our hands and and expressed gratitude to the rising sun, the universe, the country of Japan, our ancestors, my father and my mother. We then went to the Chuang Yen Monastery Temple and prayed for world peace of various religions before returning to New York. It was a very spiritual New Year.

Actually, I was injured in October last year and forced to rest for six months. Although it was serious, I will write in my next column other experiences

Originally published as Vol. 11 in Weekly Biz, February 3, 2018; translated by Jim Luce.

See: Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura Column in Japan’s Weekly Biz



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About Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura

View all posts by Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko was born into a distinguished old family in Kyoto, Japan, and graduated from Toho conservatory of Music in Tokyo. In 1961 she came to U.S. as a pianist sponsored by the Boston Symphony. She studied at Boston University, New York University, and received her Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine from New York State University and the International Academy of Education in Tokyo. From 1968 to 1992, she promoted cultural exchanges from East to West and vice versa, and became a world famous impresario, producing 2,000 events each year all over the world encompassing over 140 countries. In this connection, in 1972, she went to Dharamsala to find the lost Tibetan Folk Opera, and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom she remains a lifelong friend. In 1973 and 1991 she arranged and funded personally the tours of the Folk Opera of Tibet to the West. She has received many medals and honors from different countries. Her tireless life long work in Philanthropic field is vast and well known ranging from Save the Beacon Theater, Save the Boat People, Help the Homeless, natural disasters of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as relief to AIDS and HIV positive children in Africa. She has been a dedicated Board Member to both the J. Luce Foundation and Orphans International for years. Her work focuses on the Tibetan people; Tibetan children remain especially strong in her heart. She raised fund for the new academic building for Manjushree Orphanage in Tawang, India and supported many aspects of the school. See HuffPo pieces entitled Japanese Holistic Healer in NYC to Build School for Tibetan Orphans in India, A Japanese Dinner with Raul Castro’s Daughter, and NYC Gala in Support of Tibetan Orphans Set for January.

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