A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Getting Ready for O-Shogatsu ( お正月)- The Japanese New Year Festival



By Avi Landau

It is customary for Japanese families with daughters to pack up and put away the Hina Doll sets they had been displaying for the March 3rd Doll festival on the VERY NEXT DAY after the festival (March 4th). You might notice how in a strangely similar fashion most of the Santa-Sans and other X-Mas decorations which could be seen around Tsukuba leading up to Christmas Day will have been whisked out of sight by the end of December 26th, as most Tsukubans ( and Japanese in general) start getting down to the very serious business of preparing for O-Shogatsu, the Japanese New Year’s festival.

A traditional SUZUHARAI under-the-eaves cleaning at the Matsushiro Shopping Center Koban (police-box)- December 15th 2014

A traditional SUZUHARAI under-the-eaves cleaning at the Matsushiro Shopping Center Koban (police-box) Dec. 13

A traditional end-of-the-year cleaning called SUZUHARAI

SUZU HARAI ceremony at Narita`s Shinshoji Temple is held on December 13th (photo from the Yomiuri Newspaper)

SUZU HARAI ceremony at Narita`s Shinshoji Temple is held on December 13th (photo from the Yomiuri Newspaper)

Traditionally, preparations for this most important of Japanese celebrations began on the 13th day of the 12th month (remember that before the calendar was Westernized in 1873 the Japanese would celebrate O-Shogatsu sometime in late January and early February). In fact that date was when the big End-Of-The-Year Cleaning would begin at Edo Castle. Some people still do a traditional family cleaning on December 13, and this is called susu-harai. First the Buddhist and Shinto altars are cleaned, and then the alcove in the tatami room. Many temples, shrines, companies, offices and shops also hold a big cleaning event on the 13th.

End of the year cleaning

End of the year cleaning

These days, however, it is much more common to begin final preparations, in earnest, just after Christmas (though New Years Gifts, O-Seibo, お歳暮 are usually selected and sent to parents, teachers, and others we are indebted to by early December). Many families have big cleaning events on these days, and when this is finished, houses are ready to be decorated with KADOMATSU (bamboo and pine decorations for the entranceway), shimenawa (sacred rope), and other auspicious decorations such as Kumanote (decorative rakes which symbolize raking it in) and wreath-like door decorations. These can be seen on sale at any home center, department store, supermarket or COMBINI. You can also see all the many different types of decorative zodiac animals for the coming year. Next year’s animal will be the boar, and many Japanese will purchase some sort of figurine or picture depicting wild boars to display for the duration of 2019.

A wide selection of horse figurines on sale in anticipation of the NEW YEAR- which will be The Year of the Horse

A wide selection of horse figurines on sale in anticipation of a past Year of the Horse – 2020 will be the Year of the Mouse.


New Year`s decorations on sale at a department store


Shimenawa (sacred ropes) for placing on Shinto altars at home- on sale at an outdoor market

An essential part of any O-Shogatsu is O-mochi (お餅, pounded rice-cakes), and many families in Tsukuba (and the rest of Japan) will be making their own, by machine, or the traditional (and much more fun) way with a giant wooden hammer and mortar. The mochi will be formed into round cakes of decreasing sizes, piled one on the other, to be offered to the God of the New Year, and also enjoyed by the whole family.


Aramaki (salted salmon) are a traditional New Year`s gift to in-laws

Of course there are the many other special foods which must be prepared. Many families in Eastern Japan buy a whole salted salmon (aramaki). However, the essential dishes for authentic O-Shogatsu are O-Sechi (which consists of many different traditional foods which don’t spoil quickly). O-zoni (soup with mochi, etc), and toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles).


Preparing these can make these last days, by far, the busiest time of the year for housewives, though now it is possible to order all these from department stores or even convenience stores. In fact this year, with the bad economy, many families are foregoing New Year’s travel and are instead splurging on O-Sechi prepared by famous chefs.

As you can see, O-Shogatsu is complex for the newcomer to Japan to grasp, and this has probably been a lot to digest in one posting (especially after all the year-end parties we’ve been having!). So for the next couple of weeks leading up to O-Misoka (New Year’s Eve), I will go into each of these fascinating above-mentioned O-Shogatsu customs in more detail. And then I will go on talk about how to spend the actual holiday itself. Don’t forget to keep checking Tsukublog!


And, by the way, in Yatabe on Dec.28th, there will be a market which will run from 5-8 pm . All the necessary O-Shogatsu decorations will be available for purchase and being photographed. It’s called the DORO-ICHI. You can find it at the Yatabe Elementary School.

Hagoita in my collection (you will also see these on sale at many stores and stalls up to the end of the year)

Hagoita are highly decorated versions of a paddle ( racket) used in a traditional children`s game (that resembles badminton- without a net) called Hane Tsuki. This game was thought to bring good health as batting the fly-like shuttle-cock represented swatting away disease carrying mosquitos.

Edo period girls playing HANE TSUKI


In the same way, the decorative HAGOITA are meant to represent driving away bad energies and bad luck, etc. These paddles come in various sizes ( size reflects economic status!!) and in the Edo Period they began to decorate them with images of the great Kabuki stars of the day. And though these old stars still predominate on the hagoita designs, every year we can find images of the past years biggest stars.

These ENGI-MONO are bought by or for families with daughters, and put on display at home.

At the Yatabe market- the Doro Ichi on the 28th, you will also find a lot of Daruma Dolls ( as you will at practically all temples and shrines over the holiday).

One Comment

  • alice says:

    Thanks Avi for posting this. Will KIV it for end of this year. BTW, I can’t believe that visitors have to pay to watch the temple cleanups. My jaws dropped when I read the events reported below:

    Sunday Dec 15,2012
    KANSAI: Who & What (From the Japan Times)
    Yearend temple cleanups open to the public
    Yearend cleaning of Buddhist temples and statues will take place in various locations in Kyoto and Nara toward the end of this month.

    In Kyoto, Nishi Honganji Temple will be spruced up starting at 7 a.m., while Higashi Honganji Temple will be cleaned starting at 9 a.m., both on Dec. 20. The cleanup at Chion-in Temple will be on Dec. 25, starting at 1 p.m.

    The cleaning in Yakushiji Temple in Nara will be on Dec. 29, starting at 1 p.m. Admission is free for the three temples in Kyoto. Yakushiji charges ¥500 for adults, ¥400 for junior high and high school students, and ¥200 for elementary school students.

    Higashi Honganji is a seven-minute walk from Kyoto Station. Nishi Honganji can be accessed by taking city bus No. 9 from Kyoto Station. Chion-in is a 10-minute walk from Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Line. Yakushiji is close to Nishinokyo Station on the Kintetsu Kashihara Line.

    For more information, go to kanko.city.kyoto.lg.jp/eventlist.php?event_tab=tradition&year=2012&month=12 about the Kyoto temples, and http://www.nara-yakushiji.com/contents/nenmatunensi/index.html for Yakushiji (both in Japanese).