Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu: Happy New Year from Kyoto

Winter holidays in America focus on celebrations in December, such as Christmas. The main winter holiday in Japan is the celebration of the New Year. Businesses and schools take a several-day break at this time. Our local elementary school, Fukakusa Shougakko, was closed from December 23 to January 9. Preparations for the New Year celebration include completion of the old year’s chores, paying of debts, etc. and a thorough cleaning of one’s home and office. The old year’s papers (business documents, school papers, calendars, religious charms) may be taken to the local shrine to be burned in a sacred fire (Photo 1).

Sacred Fire - Fujino Mori

Photo 1: Old papers being burned during the New Year celebration at Fuji no Mori Jinja, our neighborhood Shinto shrine.

Special foods and decorations are prepared for the New Year celebration, such as mochi – a form of extra sticky rice pounded into a doughy bun. Although mochi is commercially available throughout the year, at New Year’s people make their own mochi by traditional methods. We were invited to a mochitsuki (mochi pounding) party at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Oda on December 29. First, they steamed rice on a modified okudo-san, an old fashioned stove with wood fire (Photo 2). When the rice had been properly steamed, it was transferred to an usu – a large mortar, and mushed together with a kine – a large hammer (see Photos 3 and 4, and Video 1). The actual pounding requires is a two-man job; one person pounds while the other person folds and positions the rice between strikes (Photo 5 and Video 2). We took turns pounding the steamed rice into a well-mixed mass (Photos 6 and 7). Once pounded, the mochi was shaped into small, flattened balls (Photo 8). We enjoyed the finished product with the addition of unko (sweetened red bean paste), kinako (soy powder), and nori (seaweed, Photo 9).


Photo 2: This okudo-san is a modern, portable version of a traditional Japanese kitchen stove. The traditional stove was much larger; both burn wood. At the top of the stove is a metal container of water. A wood top with hole allows steam to pass into the seiro (bamboo steamers), which are filled with rice (see Photo 3).

Testing the Rice

Photo 3: Dr. Oda-san checks the rice before moving it to the usu (mortar). In this image you can see the hole that allows steam into the seiro.

Transfer of Rice to Usu

Photo 4: The hot, steamed rice is unwrapped in the usu (mortar). This usu consists of a hollowed-out tree stump. Other usu may be made from stone.

Pounding the Rice

Photo 5: Dr. and Mrs. Oda work as a team to pound the rice. Dr. Oda uses the kine (hammer) while Mrs. Oda repositions the rice between strikes.

Pounding Rice

Photo 6: At Dr. Oda’s mochitsuki (mochi pounding) party, everyone had a chance to pound mochi. Here, Marina takes a swing with Oda-san’s help.

Pounded Mochi

Photo 7: The pounded rice is placed on a sheet of wax paper with flour.

Making Mochi Balls

Photo 8: Pieces of the pounded rice are shaped by hand into small, flat balls.

Eating Mochi

Photo 9: Enjoying mochi with unko (sweetened azuki bean paste), kinako (soy powder) and nori (seaweed) flakes.

New Year’s celebrations take place on both Omisoka – New Year’s Eve, and Oshogatsu – the New Year proper (practically, the first few days of January). The eating of toshi koshi soba noodles (‘going beyond this year’ buckwheat noodles) on New Year’s Eve links the old and new years. These long noodles also symbolize a long life.

In Japan, Buddhist priests conduct the ceremonies associated with death and cremation. Similarly, Omisoka is celebrated at Buddhist Temples in a ritual known as Joya no Kane, ringing out the old year. We went to Chion-in, the main temple of Joudo (Pure Land) Buddhism, the largest sect of Japanese Buddhism (see Photo 10). A team of 17 priests rings their Ooagane (giant bell) 108 times, to rid us of the 108 desires that entrap us.  We arrived in time to hear the first strike of the bell (around 10:40), but the line was too long for us to actually see the ritual (Photo 11).

Chion-in Oogane

Photo 10: The giant bell, oogane, of Chion-in temple.

Chion-in Waiting

Photo 11: Outside Chion-in at 11:00 PM, New Year’s Eve. A large crowd gathered to hear the 108 rings of the giant bell. The sanmon (main gate) is in the background.

While Buddhist Temples deal with death and the end of the year, Shinto shrines celebrate new life and the New Year: Oshogatsu. The most important New Year’s celebration is the Hatsumode – the first shrine visit of the year. Residents of the Gion district may combine their first visit to Yasaka Jinja (shrine) with the lighting of their home fire at the start of the year, a custom called okera mairi. They light one end of a rope at the shrine’s fire, and twirl the rope to keep it lit as they make their way home (see Video 3).

We went to our neighborhood shrine, Fuji no Mori Jinja at 12:30 AM for our Hatsumode. We waited in line over 30 minutes to reach the honden (main shrine, Photo 12). Sake (rice wine) and special hashi (chopsticks) were offered to each visitor (Photo 13). That morning, we enjoyed a double-layered box of special New Year’s food, osechi ryori, along with ozoni – a white miso soup with mochi, and kobu cha (kelp tea, Photos 14 and 15). After breakfast, we returned to Fuji no Mori Jinja with Marina and Ami for their first shrine visit of the year (Photo 16). Freshly pounded mochi and kobu cha were handed out at that time (Photos 17–19).

Fuji no Mori Honden

Photo 12: The honden (main shrine) of Fuji no Mori Jinja at 1:00 AM, January 1st.

Sake Fuji no Mori

Photo 13: Enjoying New Year’s sake at Fuji no Mori Jinja.

New Year's Food

Photo 14: Osechi ryori, New Year’s food, eaten at breakfast and throughout the day.

New Year's Breakfast

Photo 15: New Year’s breakfast: osechi ryori, ozoni (white miso soup with mochi) and kobu cha (kelp tea).

Fuji no Mori Day

Photo 16: New Year’s Day at Fuji no Mori Jinja. Visitors waited 30 minutes in line to reach the honden (main shrine).

Mochitsuki Fuji no Mori

Photo 17: Fresh mochi was cooked and pounded on New Year’s Day at Fuji no Mori Jinja. Both a wooden usu and stone usu were used.


Photo 18: Marina and Ami receiving New Year’s mochi, Fuji no Mori Jinja.

Kobu Cha Fuji no Mori

Photo 19: Reiko being served kobu cha (kelp tea), Fuji no Mori Jinja.

Over the next several days family and friends visited to celebrate the New Year. We met Mr. and Mrs. Okita on their visit to Fushimi Inari Jinja. Mr. Okita is a landscape architect and past-president of the Himeji Gardeners Association. Himeji is a sister city of Phoenix, and Mr. Okita designed and built much of Ro Ho En – the Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix (e.g. the waterfalls and related water features). Fushimi Inari Jinja was packed with visitors making their Hatsumode (Photo 20). The many offerings of sake and fruit also attracted o-saru (Japanese macaques, Macaca fuscata). One woman was bit in the shoulder while Mr. Okita was making his offering. Fortunately, Okita-san was able to light two candles and pour a glass of sake without injury (Photos 21 and 22).

Fushimi Inari

Photo 20: Fushimi Inari Jinja filled with Hatsumode (New Year’s) visitors, January 3rd.


Photo 21: Mr. and Mrs. Okita with Reiko, Marina and Ami, Fushimi Inari Jinja.


Photo 22: Japanese macaque (monkey) on shrine, Fushimi Inari Jinja. Note the two glasses filled with sake on the left side of the picture.

Nanakusa (7 herbs) is a dish of rice porridge served on the seventh day of the year (January 7). The seven herbs are thought to promote health and ward off evil (Photo 23; see below for a list of the seven herbs). January 9 was Adult Day, a celebration for new adults: 20 years old. Both men and women dressed up and went out with family and friends (Photos 24 and 25).

Seven Herbs

Photo 23: The seven herbs used in nanakusa. They were cooked with rice to make porridge and eaten on the seventh day of the New Year.

Young Woman

Photo 24: Young woman posing in a traditional kimono with modern lacy undergarments, celebrating Adult Day.

Young Men

Photo 25: Three young men dressed in their Adult Day suits playing at a downtown park.

January 9th was the last day of holidays for most people in Japan. However, the 9th is also part of Toka Ebisu – the Ebisu festival on the 10th day. This festival runs for five days at the Ebisu Jinja in the Gion District of Kyoto. Ebisu was traditionally venerated as the god of fishers and divers, but today he is more associated with success in business. Business owners visit Ebisu Jinja at this time to pray for success in the New Year, and buy their New Year’s charms (see Photos 26-29 and Video 4). Diverse charms are available, and usually attached to a blessed branch of bamboo (Photos 30 and 31). Last year’s charms are returned to the shrine for proper disposal (burning, Photo 32). Residents and visitors generally enjoy the festivities. In addition to charms, vendors sell food and drink (Photos 33 and 34).

Ebisu Jinja

Photo 26: Toka Ebisu festival at Ebisu Jinja, Gion District, Kyoto.

Tuna Ebisu Jinja

Photo 27: The main shrine at Ebisu Jinja is filled with bottles of sake, a large tuna, and other offerings, Toka Ebisu festival.

Buying a Branch

Photo 28: The most common charm bought during Toka Ebisu is a blessed branch of bamboo with smaller charms attached; price 3000 yen (about $40).

Receiving Branch

Photo 29: The woman dressed as a maiko (young geiko) hands out blessed branches of bamboo.

Additional Charms

Photo 30: A variety of additional charms can be added to the blessed branch to suit each supplicant.

Adding Charms

Photo 31: This blessed branch has an added Ebisu face, tai (red snapper) and written charms.

Last Year's Charm

Photo 32: This man is returning last year’s charm to Ebisu Jinja, where it will be burned.

Old and New Charms

Photo 33: One woman (left of center) returns last year’s charm to the shrine. The man on the far right holds his new charm. In the background are Rika (standing, GCC alumna), Reiko (back to camera) and two amigos from Mexico (Jaime, Rika’s husband, is talking and holding his Yebisu beverage). Rika grew up in this house across the street from Ebisu Jinja.

Ebisu and Me

Photo 34: Happy New Year! Taking a sabbatical break during Toka Ebisu with barbequed herring and a Yebisu beverage. Back to work with my next post: Ama Summit.

Best Wishes for 2012!

The Seven Herbs used in Nanakusa

  • water dropwort (seri)
  • shepherds purse (nazuna)
  • cudweed (gogyo)
  • chickweed (hakobera)
  • nipplewort (hotokenoza)
  • turnip (suzuna)
  • radish (suzushiro)
This entry was posted in Japan Sabbatical by Robert Reavis. Bookmark the permalink.

About Robert Reavis

I study fish behavior and marine ecology through direct observation while diving. I also teach General Biology, Marine Biology, SCUBA and Scientific Diving at Glendale Community College. This year (2011-2012) I will be in Japan to study Traditional Fisheries and Modern Environmentalism.

2 thoughts on “Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu: Happy New Year from Kyoto

  1. Pingback: Sayonara Kyoto: From Winter into Spring | Glendale Community College Blog

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