Remembering with Pride the Old Japanese New Year, Shōgatsu

New York, N.Y. The tradition of New Year is the pride of the Japanese I wrote about the New Year’s Day (Shōgatsu) last January (see the 11th), but many people have asked me to write more on this topic. Many young Japanese have never experienced the real, traditional Japanese New Year, so I would like to tell more traditional stories. I’ll give you a little additional talk: I was born in an old household in Kyoto.

My grandfather was the person who made great achievements in the Nishijin Ori and became a national treasure. My father was the first Tatsumura Heizo.

New Year’s Cleaning starts on December 25, with omochitsuki around the 28th.

In our family, there were many traditions in the New Year, and various preparations began when the year end was approaching, around December 25 or so. This tradition returned soon after the war ended. I wonder why, after the war how we could get rice?

One memory I have, before the age of six, is of New Year’s Cleaning that starts on December 25, with omochitsuki is around 28th. We make Omochi enough for three days and more, and extra will be often eaten that day.

We would make round ball the freshly-made rice cake for everyone, and ate with anko (sweet red bean paste) and yellow powder made of roasted Daizu beans and sugar. It was so delicious and happy.

Osechi (traditional food) dishes are made enough for the next three days. While these three days, no one do work during these New Years day, they continue to eat only the Ozoni (Mochi in the soup) and these new year dishes. Kyoto preperation was the most traditional. What one prepares depends on the region. Each of the New Year dishes has meaning and wishes.


It goes in various ways in Kyoto, but it is “Namasu” — minced white turnips and minced red carrot marinated in vinegar and sugar — with its red and white representing auspiciousness, small fish with Goma seeds meaning health and wise growth, and root vegetables such as carrots, burdock and lotus root are to live with roots firmly grounded, symbol of black beans means that one works hard, and the black color is the tan one gets in the fields (if you work hard in the fields, you will tan and your skin will be dark).

Chestnuts and eggs are golden in color and represent wealth. Round, small potatoes (小 芋) exhibit a round character, and the roe of the fish eggs means many children prosper, the kelp yorokobu equals happiness. Fish Tai (鯛) sounds like medetai Which means ‘happy occasions.”

Bamboo shoots are to grow with a straight temperament like bamboo. Koyatofu is to avoid the spirit wickedness. In addition, konnyaku — kelp roll with herring, silk sheath, etc. — were contained self-happiness Literally everything had meaning.

Did you know that how to make black beans takes three days? Soak in water for the first day. On the second day, we put rusty nails and baking soda. If one sees problem beans with wrinkles We take them out, so as broken ones from the pan., and clean and black and shiny ones are good for good luck. Not only black beans but also all New Year dishes meant to represent happiness and good character and health. The way we spent New Year’s Eve was very special.

Kyoto_Shimogamo-jinja_Romon_7Main Gate of the Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan.

First, we would eat New Year’s soba while listening to the 108 gongs of the Old Year midnight passing, and then go to Shimogamo Shrine every year. We will go home with a fired rope. Traditionally, this fire is used for the first fire to boil the water for the New Years soup Ozouni.

Only on that day, New Years Eve, I was told we don’t have to go to bed early – my sisters and brothers would be so excited. On New Years Day, we would change into our special best ceremonial attire, kimono. We were told to speak at the beginning of the New Year in very strict, almost ancient Japanese words. It was a practice to greet our ancestors and parents, to formally apologize for wrongs of the the past year with a promise of good behavior in the following year.

The dishes used for New Year’s Day are also special, and each one had a set of red lacquerware with a golden seal or crest. So we had a round Omochi rice in white Miso broth, containing only kombu soup with daikon radish and a round potato. This was a characteristic feature of Kyoto on the first and second days on the New Year.

On the third day, it was clear soup with grilled mackerel broth. With spinach and carrots, it was beautiful in color with a refreshing taste. The custom of the day for each of us was to clean and wipe the dishes, put them back on the shelf, and prepare for tomorrow.

The signs of New Year’s Day was so special even for me who was still a small child. Unlike usual, my heart was full of freshness and happiness, and I was determined to be a new and good child for the year.

You may not know how to play New Year’s Day games, such as Japanese kite flying, Hanetsuki (traditional Japanese style badminton), and card play (Hyakuninn isshu). When I was a child, I really played every game as these were special games only for New Years.

There were various works of art in New Year’s Day, and there were also wonderful chopsticks and other antiquities at home. It wasn’t meant to be played, it was part of the decoration that came out only on New Year’s Day. It was very gorgeous, with a lovely princess or something like a doll with cotton put on it, pasted on a feathered board.

New Year’s Day is an important day that reminds me with pride that I am a Japanese. During my fifty years of American life, I have spent as many New Year holidays in Japan as possible in order to worship the Japanese New Year’s tradition.

This year, too, we are planning to participate in the water bath Shinto Matsuri (Jin Matsuba Shinji) (Matsubayashi Shinji) on January 5 at the Tenkawa Shrine celebration, and to see the New Year’s Noh “Sanbasou.”

Originally published as Vol. 54 in Weekly Biz, December 22, 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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