By Avi Landau
This year, Kyu-Shogatsu (旧正月), the start of the new year according to the old Japanese calendar (in other words, the Chinese New Year) fell on January 26th. Fifteen days later, on the evening of February 9th through the morning of the 10th, the first full-moon of the new LUNAR year appeared, looming unusually large and mysterious, marking what has traditionally been called KO-SHOGATSU (小正月), which is now more commonly celebrated (if celebrated at all) according to the new calender, on the 15th day of the NEW first month, which is January.
Whichever calendar is followed, the first day of the year was called Oh-Shogatsu (大正月), while fifteen days later the night of the first full moon was called Ko-Shogatsu (小正月). Many incorrectly believe this to simply mean Big (大) and Small (小）New Year’s, when in fact OH (大) meant OHYAKE (公) public or official, as in Official New Year’s, and KO (小) meant minkan (民間) – the FOLK, as in the people’s New Year’s.
Over the years there have been many customs specific to KO-SHOGATSU, which was, like OH-SHOGATSU, celebrated for a three day period. Few of these custom survive, and those that do are just barely hanging on. It used to be common to eat rice gruel with azuki beans on Ko-Shogatsu (this custom is even mentioned in Sei Shonagon’s Heian Period classic The Pillow Book — Makura Soshi). I have never met anyone who still does this, but I have read that the custom still exists. These days, however, we can still see trees with pink and white mochi rice cakes stuck on the tips of their branches, especially at Asakusa’s Senso-Ji Temple (though these are artificial). These decorative trees are known by different names depending on the region you are in and in Ibaraki they are often called NARASE-MOCHI, or rice cakes for abundant crops (NARU means to bear fruit), while in Asakusa the same trees decorated with plastic balls are called MAYU-DAMA (繭玉, cocoon balls), which are set up in hopes of an abundant silk harvest, which harkens back to the days when silk was Japan’s most important foreign currency earner.
For two days, after the appearance of the first full moon of the new year (according to the old calendar), Mt. Tsukuba Shrine holds one of its most important annual events, the TOSHIKOSHI-SAI (年越際) or THE RE-SETTING OF OUR LIVES FESTIVAL. This year, the festival is being held on February 10th (today) and 11th. I was there this afternoon for the opening of all the excitement, which involves the unlikely scenario of sumo wrestlers, men and women born under this year’s zodiac sign (the ox), as well as mothers holding their infants (born this year!) tossing mochi rice cakes (many containing coupons for other prizes), soy beans, and other assorted snacks into the frenzied crowd which scrambles for these items which are believed to bring good luck and remove the danger believed to be involved with unlucky ages.
It was a perfect day for a drive to the shrine, which is midway up Mt. Tsukuba. Temperatures were surprisingly warm and the air crisp and clear, providing for what is a UNIQUE view in Japan – a flat plain extending all the way out to the horizon. It was also a perfect day to enjoy the first bloomings of Mt Tsukuba’s most famous creature — the plum tree (or, should I say, second most famous, after the GAMA, or toad). When I reached the main hall of the shrine itself, I found several NARASE MOCHI TREES on display in honor of Ko-Shogatsu.
The throwing sessions are scheduled for 2pm, 3pm , 4pm, 5pm, and 6pm, and expectant crowds (including many people of unlucky age, YAKU DOSHI), pushed up close to the shrine’s main hall promptly at 2pm. They waited this way for half an hour, however, while a purification ritual (O-Harai) was held inside for those who would be doing the tossing. This delay happened again later, as those who gathered at 3pm, had to wait for 30 minutes.
When the ceremony got underway, all those who had come to the shrine quickly forgot all about their inconvenient wait. The sumo wrestlers and others proceeded to shower those gathered with assorted snacks and prizes. Most dangerously were the rock hard and relatively heavy mochi rice cakes, which also contained coupons for special prizes. You don’t want to get smacked in the face by one of those! I was able to snare one out of the air, only to find that my special coupon entitled me to receive a pack of tissues!
What is all this about? Well, the priests at Tsukuba-San Jinja have combined several traditions to come up with their TOSHIKOSHI-SAI. First there is the date of the celebration, which coincides with Ko-Shogatsu according to the old lunar calendar. For this they decorate the shrine’s precincts with narase mochi. They also use elements of the setsubun bean throwing festival, in that they throw soy beans (among many other different items) in order to drive away bad luck. Also on setsubun, famous shrines often invite sumo wrestlers and other celebs to do the throwing. The name used for the tossing ceremony is actually the name of the ancient Chinese ritual out of which Setsubun’s bean throwing later evolved, Tsuina (in which plum branch bows and reed arrows were used to drive away bad fortune). In fact, many locals refer to the TOSHIKOSHI-SAI as a setsubun event or mame maki.
The priests of Mt. Tsukuba Shrine have put a special emphasis on the rituals efficacy for those in their unlucky years (most importantly 42 for men and 33 for women, though there are many other unlucky ages for each sex). This is also connected with New Year’s and setsubun in that, traditionally, all Japanese became one year older together in this season, before the calendar changed bringing New Year’s to January First and before individual birthdays were celebrated.
If you plan on going tomorrow, keep two things in mind. The tossing will probably not begin as scheduled, so be patient, AND beware of those flying MOCHI RICE CAKES!