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Sunday, Dec. 30, 2001

O-Shogatsu: a custom-made holiday

Staff writer

Yoshio Mamiya doesn't need reminding that o-shogatsu is almost here. For several weeks, the 78-year-old craftsman has been working 12-hour days, seven days a week at his studio in the Sanno district of Tokyo's Ota Ward, where he busily stitches away to meet his customers' demand to renew their domestic tatami mats before the new year.

"December is the busiest month," Mamiya says, "though we used to be three times busier before."

The traditional yearend ritual of replacing a home's old tatami with sweet-smelling, fresh new mats is just one of many at this time of year in Japan -- though like many other age-old practices, its popularity is steadily declining in the face of rapidly changing lifestyles. But still, Mamiya says, the annual buildup to o-shogatsu is a season of hectic work.

"O-shogatsu is a time when you clean your house, prepare the o-sechi ryori [an assortment of special foods served at New Year's] and have ceremonious feelings," he says. "Having your tatami refreshed is a significant part of those customs, don't you think?"


Even with convenience stores open round the clock, making it unnecessary to prepare and store food for the holidays in advance; even if ways of spending the yearend have become more diversified, with entertainment options such as amusement parks and countdown parties in clubs; and even though towns and cities are swamped with glaring Christmas festivities just a week before -- even so, o-shogatsu is still special. And through this season's numerous customs, many and varied insights into the traditional heart and soul of Japan can be gleaned.

Each year the television news shows crowds thronging the yearend food markets in areas like Tokyo's Ameyoko and the city's Tsukiji fish market, and you may even visit there yourself to gather ingredients for your o-shogatsu meals. One of these seasonal food traditions is o-sechi ryori, which began as the food served at Imperial court banquets during the Heian Period (794-1185). It comprises more than 10 different preservable dishes usually served in multitiered lacquered boxes. Later, this became incorporated into the o-shogatsu customs because it eliminated the need for cooking during the first three days of the new year.

On the home front, though, o-shogatsu is not just about food, since it's traditionally necessary to greet the new year with everything spic and span, meaning the house has to be cleaned thoroughly from top to bottom before new year. As well, at each side of the entrance, sprays of green pine branches (kadomatsu) are erected, adorned with oblong pieces of paper for symbolic purification. That custom relates to the origin of New Year preparations undertaken to greet the toshigami, the deity of the incoming year. Traditionally, a sacred rope made of straw (shimenawa) with dangling white paper strips (shide) was hung over the front door to mark the temporary abode of the toshigami.

With the house clean and decked out, and the new year's first three days' food prepared, New Year's Eve is a time for all the family to get together over steaming bowls of toshikoshi soba (literally, year-crossing noodles), a culinary custom it's hoped will extend the family's fortunes like the extra-long noodles themselves.

Then, just before midnight, temple bells begin to ring out 108 times, with their echoing sounds believed to rid those who hear them of their 108 worldly desires.

Finally, on New Year's Day itself, in most Japanese homes o-sechi ryori, zoni (soup with rice cakes) and o-toso (spiced sake) are served after family members exchange their formal greetings and before they go off on hatsumode, the first visit of the year to shrines and temples.

Many of these o-shogatsu customs are believed to originate in the Edo Period (1603-1867) and, according to Masako Watanabe of Fukagawa Edo Museum in Tokyo's Koto Ward, they are clear expressions of the Japanese concept of time.

"The o-shogatsu customs show how Japanese people draw a very clear line between the old year and the new year. Traditionally, they regarded New Year's Day as something totally different from the day before."

Indeed, many traditional o-shogatsu customs underline "firstness," and few are more enthusiastically practiced today than hatsumode. This sees throngs of people crowding Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples across the country during the first three days of the year, with the largest turnout projected for Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo, where police are expecting some 3.2 million people in 2002.

Besides this, however, among other important "firsts" are hatsugama (the tea ceremony at the start of the year), kakizome (practicing calligraphy at the beginning of the year) and hatsuhinode (watching the first sunrise).

But obviously, there's the old . . . and then there's the new.

In practice, in modern-day Japan, the yearend and new-year periods are regarded by a growing number of people as one continuous holiday, during which they often plan to take a trip away. This year, even despite a drastic fall in the number of people going overseas since Sept. 11, according to the JTB Corp., around 30.1 million will take trips between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3 -- the second-highest number since 1969, when the major travel agency started its annual surveys.

Taeko Kawakami, deputy chief of the Tokyo-based Living Lifestyle Institute, says that for Japanese, yearend and o-shogatsu are becoming "one of the enjoyable events to light up mundane lives," rather than a time for the traditional ceremonies that were once so widely observed.

"People enjoy the party aspect of the tradition, such as having festive dinners and visiting shrines, but now they avoid customs that take much time and effort, such as preparing complicated dishes," she says. Only a decade or two ago, buying ready-made o-sechi ryori, for instance, was not popular, as it was considered the height of laziness. But all that seems to have changed now, according to the institute's survey, which showed that 95 percent of households polled ate o-sechi last New Year's -- but 30 percent opted for the ready-made fare.

Department stores' comments back up Kawakami. This year, for example, Takashimaya department store in Tokyo's Nihonbashi has taken 60 percent more orders for o-sechi ryori, priced at around 30,000 yen on average, than last year. Even its 140,000 yen packages, made at a renowned restaurant, sold out as well.

The ancient tradition of "firsts" has its contemporary cousin, too, with hatsu-uri (first sales) fast becoming a standard seasonal event. Once, shops and stores all used to be closed for the first three days of the new year, but recently more department stores have begun reopening on Jan. 2 because "customers throng to the hatsu-uri as a family event when they find it boring to just stay home," said Kawakami.

"It is a new kind of o-shogatsu leisure activity."

Ayako Matsuoka, 30, for example, gets up long before sunrise on Jan. 2 to line at the doors of a department store in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district at around 5:30 a.m. Her objective is to get a good fukubukuro (lucky bag, costing 5 yen,000-10,000 yen) containing a variety of brand-name children's clothes. About 30,000 people lined up with her last New Year's.

Luckily, Matsuoka has made a number of friends whom she meets every year at the store in the early hours of Jan. 2, and they kill their time till the doors open by chatting and exchanging information about this year's fukubukuro.

"Why do I do this every year? Well, it's because I can buy good items at a reasonable price. It's quite a saving," she says.

For customers like Matsuoka, Tobu department store in Ikebukuro, for instance, held a special fukubukuro meeting in early December to outline this year's strategy. They will sell about 60,000 bags in 300 different varieties, priced from just 1,000 yen to an incredible 20 million yen.

While increasing numbers of adults succumb to the lure of fukubukuro, for children the New Year season's highlight is undoubtedly o-toshidama, literally, "gem of the year." Traditionally, o-toshidama were gifts of food and other sundries exchanged between families, but recently the custom has been to give them to children in the form of cash presents from parents, grandparents and other relatives.

Major banks conduct surveys on the amount of o-toshidama an average child receives, and how it is spent. According to the Daiichi Kangyo Bank, which surveyed 500 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in Tokyo earlier this year, the amount of o-toshidama -- which had steadily been going down for the three previous years -- edged up last New Year's. Then, children received a total of 26,400 yen on average, while on the parents' side (the bank surveyed 500 mothers, too), it turned out that the average sum they gave children was 22,900 yen. However, a generous 0.2 percent said they dispensed more than 100,000 yen on the custom -- though 3.6 percent gave nothing at all.

In the rollcall of traditions both ancient and modern that now make up Japan's new year landscape, though, not all are tasty, fun or steeped in ritual.

Every year, for example, police are on alert to control bosozoku (motorcycle gangs) who make hatsuhinode boso (first sunrise tours) to Mount Fuji through New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Last New Year's, the Metropolitan Police Department alone arrested about 100 members of more than 10 bosozoku groups, and took another 160 into custody for reckless driving and causing disturbances on expressways.

Emergency services, too, are on red alert throughout the party season, when people tend to drink far too much and then end up being ambulance cases. They also have to be ready to deal with the New Year spate of " mochi accidents," when people choke on the glutinous rice cakes. The worst cases can on occasion be fatal -- unless quick-witted friends or family members can remove the obstruction in time, occasionally with the help of a vacuum-cleaner hose. In Tokyo, ambulances responded to 23 mochi accidents last year, and seven people died, according to the Tokyo Fire Department.

So be sure to chew your mochi well . . . and have a happy holiday, and a Happy New Year!

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