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Celebrating Japanese New Year in the UK

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Kagami-mochi (Japanese New Year decoration) at Japan Centre, London

Shogatsu, or New Year’s Day, is probably the most important day in the Shinto calendar. But celebrating it in the Japanese way in the UK can be rather challenging, partly because there are no Shinto shrines to visit and food and goods associated with Shogatsu are hard to come by, and partly because the British was of celebrating the New Year can be difficult to mix with the Japanese customs. In Japan, New Year’s Day is a time for getting up early and celebrating with the family by eating a large meal and visiting the local shrine. [Read more...]

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O-shogatsu 2015

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Our daruma dolls with one eye filled in for our New Year’s wishes/resolutions

明けましておめでとうございます!Akemashite Omedeto gozaimasu – Happy New Year, the Year of the Sheep!

New Year’s Day, or O-shogatsu as it’s known in Japan, is the most important festival in the Shinto calendar; a time for celebrating renewal (you can read more about what happens at Japanese New Year here). This is my first time to celebrate New Year’s Day as a practising Shintoist, and living in Britain I have of course had to adapt it to fit in with British traditions surrounding New Year.

On New Year’s Eve, I did the less “fun” aspect of Shinto – cleaning. Cleanliness is one of the most important values within Shinto, and traditionally the house should be cleaned before New Year’s Day to get rid of old impurities. I’m not really a stickler for tidiness so I’ve never found this aspect of Shinto very easy! But I gave the house a quick tidy and a hoover, and cleaned my outdoors Inari altar, including the statues and offering dishes.

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My homemade gohei

I also made a primative gohei – one of the many kinds of Japanese “wand” used into Shinto mainly for purification. A gohei is basically a stick with two shide attached to it. Usually they are made with especially carved and polished sticks, but I used my old wand (before I made the new one from a Japanese camphor chopstick) instead.

In Japan, one would traditionally go to a temple on New Year’s Eve to hear the bell ring 108 times to banish the 108 human desires, but this isn’t really an option in Kent. Instead, I did the usual New Year’s Eve celebration of visiting family and friends to drink and to see in the New Year. It was a lot of fun – we ate with my parents, went to a friend’s house gathering, and finally met up with other friends at the pub before returning to my parents’ house to stay the night. It was similar to the old tradition of “first-footing,” which still crops up around the north of Britain.

On the morning of New Year’s Day itself, we started off with a bit of a Japanese tradition – drinking some hot sake that I had brought! I was glad to be able to do something a little Shinto-related with my family on this important Shinto day.

When we all got home, I waved the gohei over the outside Inari altar while intoning a Shinto prayer of purification, and then made new offerings (including a celementine, chestnuts and leftover Christmas cookie) at the shrine, in addition to burning some Japanese cedarwood incense. I made my own silent prayers to Inari-sama thanking her for all her blessings on me and my family this year, as well as for inspiring me to follow the Shinto path in the first place. With my eyes closed, the evening wind blowing the scent of incense towards me, and roosting crows calling, it did feel a little like being at a small Japanese shrine. I finally said a special prayer to Inari-sama from my Shinto Norito book.

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My New Year offerings to Inari-sama

When I’d finished this, my husband and I filled in one eye of our daruma dolls to make our New Year’s Resolutions. His resolution is to eat more healthily; mine is to try and live a more eco-friendly lifestyle. I hope the kami will help us to keep our resolutions!

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The many parallels between Christmas and Japanese New Year

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Huge crowds of people outside a shrine on New Year’s Day in Japan

Although Christmas is celebrated in Japan, it’s not such an important date in the Japanese calendar, and is more of an event for young people (it’s especially associated with dating). The real equivalent of Christmas/Yule in Japan is New Year (O-shogatsu), which these days is celebrated on the same date as the Gregorian New Year, January 1st. Just as Christmas in Britain combines elements from Christianity and the old Pagan symbols of yule, O-shogatsu has both Shinto and Buddhist elements. It’s chiefly a time to say thank you to the kami (deities) for all they have provided in the year, and to pray for their continued blessings.

I’ve always thought there’s an awful lot of similarities between the two festivals so I thought I’d explore them here, as the parallels suggest that certain motifs are particular important in all religious winter festivals across all cultures and many of them are deeply rooted in Paganism.

Kagamimochi Red/white/gold colour scheme
(Left: Kagami-mochi (an ornamental display of mochi rice cakes for New Year) By Shin-改 (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)  At O-shogatsu, the colours red and white are the most prevalent, followed by gold and green – very much like Yule. The white/red colour scheme is probably partly to do with these colours being those of Japan (think of the flag), but it may also carry the same symbolism of these colours in Yule – white symbolising snow, while red, gold and green are colours of vitality and displaying them is a kind of sympathetic magic to encourage the same vitality to return to the bare trees and fields.

kadomatsuDisplaying greenery
(Left: Kadomatsu displays. By Nesnad (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons) The Christmas Tree is one of the most recognisable symbols of Christmas and Yule, and again its display is probably rooted in a form of sympathetic magic to promote long life (the traditional pine is evergreen), while decorating it encourages the bare tree to be fruitful again. For O-shogatsu, the Japanese display pine as well, combined with bamboo and peach blossom, outside their homes, in a decoration known as a kadomatsu. The pine represents long life, the bamboo growth, and the blossom good health.

mochiMaking Sweets
(Left: Homemade mochi) It’s popular in many households to make and eat sweets on the run-up towards Christmas/Yule, including cookies, gingerbread men, candy canes, mince pies and of course Christmas Pudding. Making sweets for New Year is popular in Japan too, the most prominent being mochi rice cakes. One difference is that the mochi is usually put out as an offering to the spirits before it is eaten, while this is rarely done in non-Pagan households in the UK – except, interestingly, by children leaving out mince pies for Father Christmas!

amazakeSweet alcohol
(Left: Sweet amazake rice wine. By emily_harbour_in_july (Flickr)via Wkimedia Commons) 
We associate both Christmas and Yule with drinking alcohol in the UK, and  the drinks associated with Christmas tend to be sweet – sherry, mulled wine, brandy, wassail etc. New Year is a time for drinking alcohol in Japan as well, but usually in the form of the mild, sweet form of rice wine called amazake. As discussed previously, alcohol is considered sacred in many traditions, and anything flavoured with sugar or spices was also often considered a suitable offering for deities in days of old due to the comparative scarcity of these ingredients. In both festivals, I think the drinking of sweet alcohol is a way of saluting the gods.

nengajoSending cards
(Left: Nengajo postcards. By Halowand (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons) Much like the Christmas tradition of sending greetings cards, the Japanese will send postcards called nengajo to all their friends and family. Very often the Japanese will paint a design on the nengajo themselves, often incorporating the animal of the Chinese zodiac ruling that year. The tradition of sending nengajo is taken very seriously – it’s very bad form to send them late, and if you don’t send them at all people may think that you or someone in you family has died.

otoshidamaGiving gifts
(Left: Envelopes for o-toshi dama. By ©Jnn (Jnn’s file) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons) The giving of objects for special occasions is an important tradition in Western cultures, and Christmas is the biggest festival of all for gift giving. The Japanese give objects as gifts as well at New Year, but this is relatively downplayed – what’s far more significant, at least for children, is the giving of o-toshi dama, or money presented in a special little envelope. Money has always been the primary form of gift in Japan so this isn’t much of a surprise (in comparison, giving money as a gift in Britain can be taboo in certain cases and has to be done with care). But two other things surprised me about o-toshi dama when I first learned about it. One is the amount given – usually it’s quite considerable, and children may receive the equivalent of hundreds of pounds over New Year. The other is that I’m half-Welsh, and in Wales there is a very similar tradition of giving money on New Year’s Day, called calennig (it’s usually nowhere near as much as Japanese o-toshi dama though…)

enkaiOffice parties
(Left: Typical office party in Japan. By Josh Berglund from Richardson, United States (Kampai!) via Wikimedia Commons) The “staff Christmas party” is now an important part of Christmas in Britain. But Japan takes office parties far more seriously – they are far more numerous, expensive and wild. I can assure you from first-hand experience that Japanese work socials can go insane. One of the most important work socials of the year is the bonenkai, which is held before New Year. There’s no “secret Santa” but you can expect there to be games, good food and lots and lots of drinking.

Picture 022Bells
(Left: Monk ringing a temple bell) Bells are an enduring Christmas symbol, both in the form of church bells ringing on Christmas morning, and as the “sleigh bells” on Santa Claus’ sled. The functions of church bells are both numerous and fairly vague (the main purpose being to call people to mass but also having the function of signifying a celebration as well as the more Pagan concept of warding off evil), but in Buddhist temples in Japan, the great bells are rung with a very specific purpose in mind on New Year’s Eve. Starting at midnight, the priests will ring the great temple bell 108 times in order to rid people’s hearts of the 108 desires according to Buddhism.

osechi Luxury family meal
(Left: O-sechi ryori) The Christmas dinner is typically the largest and most expensive home meal that British households will eat during the year. This is also true of the meal eaten by the Japanese on New Year’s Day, which is known as o-sechi ryori. O-sechi ryori will contain rare delicacies such as red sea bream, black beans covered in gold leaf and lobster. Each of the ingredients has a special meaning, which usually derives from its appearance or a play on words. For example, prawns are eaten because their curved bodies and antennae are suggestive of an old man with a beard, so they symbolise long life, while the word for sea bream in Japanese, tai, sounds like the ending of the word for “rejoice,” medetai. One important difference is that increasing numbers of Japanese get their osechi-ryori delivered rather than preparing it themselves, while it would be fairly unthinkable to get take-away Christmas dinner in your average British household. But in both cases, the banquets eaten at the British Christmas and Japanese New Year serve both to help the family bond, to wish for good health and long life, and (probably) to honour the gods of old.

EmperorSpeeches from royalty
(Left: The Emperor of Japan) Just as the Queen makes a televised speech on Christmas Day in Britain, the Emperor addresses the Japanese nation on New Year’s Day. Although the speech is generally about current affairs and society, the public appearance of the monarchy on the most important religious festival in both countries reminds me of the close link between religion and royalty. The Queen holds the title of “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England,” while the Imperial Family was historically considered to be descended from Amaterasu Omikami, the Shinto sun goddess. The Golden Bough goes into a lot of detail into the relationship between royalty and Pagan religions –  I definitely recommend reading it if you’re interested in the subject!

karutaParlour games
(Left: The popular Japanese game karuta. By Ceridwen, via Wikimedia Commons)  In Britain, it’s common for the family to play games after Christmas dinner, the most popular being Charades. Japanese families play simple games on New Year’s Day too, including karuta (a rapid matching card game) and fuku-warai (similar to “pin the tail on the donkey” in which a blindfolded person has to make a face with cut-out facial features). Both British and Japanese parlour games of this sort, which have simple rules so even young children can join in, help families to bond and to pass the time indoors during the cold weather of the season.

darumaWish-granting figure
(Left: A traditional daruma doll.By Brücke-Osteuropa (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons) In Western countries, one of the most prominent Christmas figures is Santa Claus, traditionally identified as Father Christmas in Britain. He is portrayed as a plump, bearded old man clad in red white and gold, and he grants children their wishes by giving them the presents they ask for if they’ve been good. As discussed here, Santa Claus is an amalgamation of many different figures, most of which are Pagan in origin, but is often most frequently associated with the Christian St Nicholas.

Japan has a strikingly similar figure associated with New Year who is also based on a saint – a Buddhist one. Daruma is the Japanese name for the Zen Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, and he is most familiar in Japan in the form of the daruma “wishing doll.”

Like Santa Claus, the daruma doll is plump, bearded, employs a red, white and gold colour scheme, and the Japanese ask him to grant wishes or to help with achieving goals by colouring in one eye. When the wish is granted, they colour in the other eye. The daruma is then taken to a temple on New Year’s Day to be ritually cremated, and a new daruma is purchased.

It’s very interesting that there should be so many similar physical characteristics between Santa Claus and Daruma. I think this relates to the things that people generally wish for in winter – life and brightness (the red, white and gold), long life (old bearded man), and health and abundance (the plump figure). In both the West and Japan, these “spirits of winter” symbolise hope and determination.

CIMG0058Visiting the local place of worship
(Left: Daruma dolls being cremated at a temple on New Year’s Day) Even the least devout people in both Britain and Japan may find themselves going to their local church or shrine/temple on the biggest festival of the year. Much of this is done simply for the fun of the occasion – churches hold carol services which are fun to go to even for non-Christians, while Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples often sell food and mementos as well as providing o-mikuji – a sort of fortune-telling raffle.  Public services for Christmas in Britain and New Year in Japan also serve to strengthen the community spirit.

At both the Christmas church service and the Shinto New Year festivities, blessings are an important part of the occasions, as is gratitude. In both cases, people express their thanks for life, love and light. And this is also true of the Pagan festival of Yule, when Pagans give thanks to nature for everything she has provided.

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My Yule/Oshogatsu altar

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Yesterday I decorated my indoor altar for two upcoming important festivals for me – Yule and Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year). I put a large wreath behind the pentagram at the centre of my altar, and added some other Yule/winter symbols with Pagan connections – holly, ivy, pine cones, apples, mushrooms and a little Christmas tree (unfortunately they’re mostly fake – I would prefer real ones but I’ve had the fake ones for years and it can be tricky to obtain the real thing). I also have a fake pohutukawa; a type of red flower that blooms at Christmas time in New Zealand, so the altar incorporates a little of my husband’s Kiwi heritage as well. For Oshogatsu, I’ve put out a gold fan, an old Christmas card of a torii in the snow, and several Daruma dolls. Daruma is really a Buddhist figure, but he’s strongly associated with New Year in Japan and what with Buddhism and Shinto being so conflated in Japan the distinction hardly matters. Plus, with his plump body, red colour and reputation for granting wishes, I can’t help but see some similarities between the daruma doll and Father Christmas.

yulealtar3I put up a Christmas tree as well (again fake), but this is more “personal” than Pagan – it has a Gothic/Kiwi theme, with black and silver baubles, glittery skulls, black and red roses, silver ferns and even a Father Christmas in an All Blacks kit!

I feel bad that I haven’t really decorated my outside Inari shrine, but it really isn’t easy with the cold, wet weather we’ve been having. Perhaps if I find the occasion to collect some natural pine, holly or ivy I might use that. But I did place some fresh offerings at the shrine, including a seasonal apple, satsuma and persimmon.

I would also like to add a gohei (Shinto wand of purification associated with Oshogatsu) and perhaps some figures associated with Yule in Paganism, such as Saturn or the Holly King. I’ll see how much time I get!

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Japanese Treats from JP Books

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This weekend I’ve been working at Language Show Live, a big language expo in London. My organisation is there to represent Japanese language, and we’re sharing our stand with JP Books – a London-based retailer of Japanese books and other items.

At the Language Show, myself and a colleague had to do a presentation about kami-shibai – a traditional method of Japanese story-telling with pictures. The morning before the presentation, I made some offerings and prayers to Inari-sama to ask her for her support. The presentation went well, so I think Inari-sama may have been listening!

I also took the opportunity to treat myself to some things from JP Books’ stand – namely, some Japanese incense and two miniature daruma dolls.

Japanese incense is a little different to the Indian variety that’s more familiar in the UK. For one thing, the sticks are pure incense – there’s no “core” in the middle that sticks out that you can insert easily into standard incense holders. This not only makes Japanese incense rather brittle, but also makes it a little harder to find a good place to burn it because it won’t fit most standard burners available in the UK. Fortunately, these ones I bought (from the brand Morning Star which is actually based in Hong Kong) come with their own tiny holder, so that’s not an issue. Japanese incense also tends to be shorter and have a shorter burning time than Indian incense.

However, what I do like about Japanese incense is that the fragrance is always very “clean” – there’s no underlying pesticides or anything else as far as I can tell, which always seems to be a problem with Indian incense. You can pretty much guarantee that Japanese incense is going to smell good and not be too overwhelmingly heady. I’ve bought Amber, Cedarwood, Lavendar and Fig scents, and so far I’ve really liked them.

Daruma dolls are a sort of cross between a toy and a good luck item in Japan. Based (bizarrely enough) on Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, the daruma dolls are weighted so they always stand up again when knocked over, like a weeble toy. They’ve therefore come to represent resilience and determination. They are also used to make wishes. A newly purchased daruma will have two blank eyes; to make a wish, the owner draws a pupil in one eye. When the wish is granted (or a goal achieved), the owner draws a pupil in the other eye to thank the daruma. Traditionally, one buys a daruma on New Year’s Day, and then brings it back to the temple where it was bought the following New Year so it can be ritually cremated.

I actually several daruma dolls now (I don’t want to cremate them as they’re not easy to get outside Japan!), and I actually use my oldest one as a prop during presentations about Japanese. My husband and I plan to use the two new daruma dolls to make our own wishes at New Year, and no doubt I will be displaying my full daruma collection on my altar around Yule.

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