On the eve of 2017, I gave up the usual champagne toast, wild party, make out with your partner at midnight type of American celebration.
I traded it in for sake, shrines, and haiku poetry.
The result was an educational and refreshing cultural experience I’ll never forget.
While booking a trip to Japan over New Years, I soon came to realize that they do things differently. Many restaurants and shops close down for the week. Families gather together to pray for good fortune in the New Year and rid themselves of sins from the past year. Instead of parties and countdowns, there are bell ringing and shrine visits. There are customs and rituals and inviting superstitions.
So post-New Years Eve sushi dinner, we gathered at Chion-In shrine amongst thousands of people with a Haiku poem in our head and sake bottle in hand to spiritually ring in the New Year.
Suddenly, getting drunk before midnight in sequin attire didn’t seem so appealing anymore.
The Japanese partake in several traditions that I quickly came to learn, appreciate, and adopt:
o-sechi ryori – Traditional foods to eat on New Years that all carry a different meaning. The bento box presentation is a work of art in itself and I (literally and spiritually) ate up the various meanings. Some of my favorite meanings that I especially took to heart (and stomach):
Datemaki (sweet rolled omelette mixed with fish paste) Symbolizes a wish for many auspicious days – or days where you dress in fine clothing and enjoy yourself. I’ll eat anything that acts as further justification of my fine shopping addiction because hey – you gotta enjoy, dress well, and treat yo self in 2017.
Konbu (seaweed) Symbolizes joy. I love this one! Joy and happiness is truly all encompassing in every aspect of life.
Kuro-mame (black soybeans) Symbolizes a wish for health in the new year.
Nishiki tamago (egg roulade) Symbolizes wealth and good fortune. The egg is actually separated before cooking, so the yellow symbolizes gold and the white symbolizes silver. While I don’t believe money buys happiness, it does assist with what I love to do most (travel!!!) So for me, this corresponds to more travel in the new year. Plus, I love gold.
Joya-no-kane – A sacred bell ringing ceremony at a local shrine on New Years Eve. Millions of people line up to ring the bell to wish for good fortune in the New Year and get rid of bad karma from the old. The bell is rung 108 times to symbolize 108 human sins. So if you’ve been really naughty and partaken in more than 108 sins, you’re out of luck. But seriously, I love this concept that gives everyone a fresh start in the New Year.
Soba Noodles – Soba noodles are traditionally eaten on New Years Eve to bring good luck and long life (signified by the long shape of the soba noodle). Lines are particularly long at soba noodle restaurants at this time of year because hey, who wants to cut life short because they didn’t wait in line to slurp some soba on New Years? Shout out to the sweet Japanese man we met at Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo who informed us of this tradition.
Haiku Poetry – Write or read a Haiku. Admittedly, I had to Google search “haiku” because I could not remember how to write one. Apologies to my third grade teacher. In case you’re experiencing a similar memory block, a haiku consists of 5 syllables on the first line, 7 on the second, and 5 on the third. One of my favorite moments from this trip with my husband and two friends was writing hilarious Haikus about each other and reading them in front of the shrine at midnight.
Hatsumode – enough about New Years Eve, Hatsumode is the first visit to a shrine or temple during the first few days of January. Waiting patiently in line amongst millions at the gorgeous and spiritual Fushimi-Inari was well worth it. I would not have traded that in for the usual New Years Day festivities of nursing hangovers and eating cheese fries on the couch.
Burning incense – Traditionally done either at home or at the shrines. The smoke is considered purifying, symbolizing entering the New Year in a pure state. I got so excited about the meaning and smell of incense that I’ve been burning it in my home since returning from Kyoto. I’m hooked.
Omamori – I’m definitely a bit superstitious so I absolutely love this tradition. Omamari are tiny silk bags sold at temples and shrines. They have various meanings inscribed on the bags. You then choose little charms to go inside the bag. Each charm has a different meaning, a wish for the New Year – like children or health or happiness or safety. Once sealed, it’s considered unlucky to open. The bag I bought means “Dreams Come True” and what’s inside? My wishes for 2017! I guess you’ll never know…