New Years for Japan

New Years is the most important holiday in Japan. My friends and co-workers never really understood my love and affection for Christmas. All of my co-workers had to work on Christmas, which surprised me. My co-workers didn’t seem to care. Instead, they asked me about my New Years plans, of which I had none. It was their turn to be surprised, since they had big plans to go to shrines and eat lots of food with their families. Their break was for New Years. They were all about the mochi and the soba noodles coming their way on New Years Day. A few of my teachers planned to go to Tsukuba-san for the hatsuhinode (初日の出), the first sunrise of the year. This is not to be confused with hatsumōde which is the first trip to a shrine or temple. Many people visit a shrine after midnight on December 31st or sometime during the day on January 1st. I did this last year with a good friend of mine. We went to the Kashima Shrine for food, purification for the new year, and to buy spiritual charms.

Kashima Shrine New Years Day 2012

Kashima Shrine New Years Day 2012

My students couldn’t have cared less about the one puny gift they get on Christmas since they were getting money on New Years.  Otoshidama (お年玉) is handed out in small decorated envelopes called ‘pochibukuro.’  My students told me they all wanted to get money for cool things their parents wouldn’t get them. My students hoped to get a lot of money, and I’ve heard it’s not uncommon to get about ¥15,000 as a gift. My students had plans for their money.

Everyone was excited about the whole New Years postcards, too. In America, Christmas and New Years cards are traditional, but the tradition of New Years cards in Japan is intense. The end of December and the beginning of January are the busiest times for the Japanese post offices because everybody sends New Year’s Day postcards (年賀状 nengajō) to their friends and family. The whole point is to send these postcards so that they arrive on January 1st or it’s not as awesome. It’s kind of like getting a present after Christmas. It’s cool, but just kind of not as much.

Around November,  nengajō hit the shelves of stationary stores, bookstores, convenience stores, and so on. Most of these have the Chinese zodiac sign of the New Year as their design, or conventional greetings, or both. Sine this is the year of the snake, which so happens to be my year, there were a lot of really cute snake designs and snake stickers for nengajō. Famous characters like Snoopy and Disney characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse are really popular.

Ain't it cute?

A Year of the Snake postcard for New Years

The common nengajō greetings include:

  • kotoshi mo yoroshiku o-negai-shimasu (今年もよろしくお願いします) (I hope for your favour again in the coming year)
  • (shinnen) akemashite o-medetō-gozaimasu ((新年)あけましておめでとうございます) (Happiness to you on the dawn [of a New Year])
  • kinga shinnen (謹賀新年) (Happy New Year)

My neighbors and co-workers would tell me “Yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai. よいお年をお迎えください。”  while my friends said “Yoi otoshi o! よいお年を!” which means “I wish you will have a good new year!” in Japanese when they saw me close to Christmas time. It was a little strange since I’m not used to hearing “Happy New Year!” before Christmas. Many people said, “Merry Christmas!” to me as well, but not as much as “Yoi otoshi o! よいお年を!”

This year, I went back home for Christmas and New Years. Last year I went home for Christmas but came back early for New Years. I had myself a grand old time eating lots of food and seeing all my family and friends back home. I hit the theaters to see all the cheap movies I possibly could. I saw The Hobbit (twice), Django Unchained, Rise of the Guardians (also twice), and a couple of others. I ate an extremely unhealthy amount of junk food and ate Luck Charms every single morning. Seriously, Lucky Charms doesn’t exist in Japan. The only cereal I can find is the healthy stuff, corn flakes, and frosted flakes. I also ran around enjoying the ability to communicate with everyone and being able to read. You know, the little things. I also went shopping for clothes, because nothing in Japan fits quite right. Leaving hurt a bit, but knowing goodbye doesn’t mean forever is comforting. I’ll still miss every one something awful.

Coming back from Christmas and New Years in America, I felt like a zombie. Jet lag sucks. I can usually avoid it by sleeping on the plane, but I had a child kicking my seat nearly the entire way back so that didn’t happen. When I arrived in my new suit to school, I could tell my Japanese co-workers weren’t exactly fully awake either. Apparently, nobody likes to come back from a break.

We did our opening ceremony for the New Year, which took a freezing hour to complete. Japan doesn’t believe in putting heating or air conditioning in gymnasiums so everybody stood shivering while people gave speeches. First, the Vice Principal goes up to the podium. Second, a representative from each year level (1st, 2nd, and 3rd years are the equivalent of 7th, 8th, and 9th graders). Third, the Principal comes up to give a speech, and usually Principals take the longest because they’re the most important person. Luckily, our Principal got right to the point and finished quickly, telling everyone to keep healthy since everybody and their mother has the cold or flu right now. Lastly, everyone sings the school’s anthem. I usually just hum along and sing only the parts I know.

I told some of the teachers “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. あけましておめでとうございます!。” with a small bow. I messed up on more than one occasion, but my teachers helped me out. Japanese people say this phrase as like “Happy New Year” to a person the first time they see him or her in the new year. “Akemashite omedetou. あけましておめでとう。” is the more informal form that’s used between friends. Since I’m not Japanese, I didn’t get this greeting very often, but my teachers seemed to appreciate it. There was also my usual exchanges of “Hisashiburi! 久しぶり!” with people  which means “Long time no see!” in Japanese. Every time I switch schools I get this greeting. It’s nice to be missed and it’s good to be back.

I hope this New Year will have some excellent adventures. Since I’m staying in Japan another year, I hope that I can get a chance to explore some more. It’s not really a resolution, but I’m making some plans. I hope this year is awesome for everyone else as well.

Happy New Year! あけましておめでとうございます!