When is New Year’s in Japan Really Over?

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On January 11, 2018
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My wife took down the shime kazari the other day.

Shime kazari are the New Year’s decorations you find hanging on front doors and gates at Oshogatsu (the first three to 15 days of the New Year). Traditionally made with twisted rice straw, they are festooned with a daidai (bitter orange), fern fronds and gohei or shide (zigzag strips of white paper), the ornaments serve to welcome Toshigami-sama, the deity who brings a bountiful harvest and blessings for the new year.

#holycute #shimekazari #timetosaygoodbye #otakiage #dondoyaki #shintoshrine #burnbabyburn #oshogatsu #itsover

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Modern designs, like ours, take great liberties with the original, adding generous loops of red-and-white mizuhiki (decorative cords of twisted paper), pine branches, colorful washi (Japanese paper), auspicious doodads and occasionally fresh flowers.

I asked my wife what she was doing.

“Shogatsu is over… ”

“Says who?”

“My parents already took down their shime kazari.”

“So? I paid ¥4,000 for that. Put it back, please!”

“But… ”

There’s quite a bit of debate about when you should take your New Year’s decorations down. Regional variations have something to do with it — why, even the design of the shime kazari themselves can vary greatly from region to region — but so do different interpretations of when shogatsu is officially concluded.

A similar discussion exists in the West concerning when Christmas trees should be tossed out. Is it the Feast of the Epiphany, which falls on Jan. 6 (hence the 12 Days of Christmas)? Or should the tree and other holiday decorations remain until Candlemas, which falls on Feb. 2, i.e. 40 days after the nativity of Jesus? Thanks to Christmas tree recycling drives hosted by the Boy Scouts in early January, in America at least, trees are now being ground up into mulch before they can become a fire hazard.

Regional variations have something to do with it […] but so do different interpretations of when shogatsu is officially concluded.

As for the last day of shogatsu, many assert that it is Jan. 7. This day is widely considered to be the final day of matsunouchi, the week-long period starting with New Year’s Day during which the kadomatsu (New Year’s “gate” pine) and other decorations are displayed. New Year’s greeting cards, called nengajo, should be received within the first week of the year. The seventh is also the day Japanese eat nanakusa gayu, a dishearteningly bland rice porridge dish made with seven different herbs. It was for these reasons, I suspect, that my wife’s mother and many others had already taken their own decorations down.

But, I still wasn’t sold on the idea.

During a quick walk around my neighborhood, I noticed several shops were still displaying their shime kazari. Perhaps because it was Seijinnohi, or Coming of Age Day, a national holiday that serves as a psychological bookend to New Year’s.

Whatever the shops’ motivations, some believe that it’s quite alright to keep the decorations up until Jan. 15, a date known as Koshogatsu (Little New Year), as was the custom up until the Edo period. The first week of the new year was called Oshogatsu (lit. “Big New Year,” in this instance) while the rest of the month was considered regular “shogatsu.”

Rice porridge with seven herbs and salt.

Koshogatsu is known by other names, too, such as Niban Shogatsu (Second New Year’s), Onna Shogatsu (Woman’s New Year) and so on. Before Japan adopted the Gregorian solar calendar, the 15th was the day on which the full moon appeared. As far back as the Heian period (794-1185), it was customary to eat rice porridge made with sweet, red azuki beans. A similar dish called oshiruko (sweet red-bean soup), made with azuki beans and half-melted globs of mochi (sticky rice cake) is traditionally eaten around the 11th, the day kagami (mirror-shaped) mochi decorations are broken. Today, at shrines throughout Japan, you can find himatsuri (fire festivals), known as sagicho or dondoyaki (burning of New Year’s gate and other decorations), held on the 15th when kadomatsu, shime kazari and the previous year’s talismans are burnt in a bonfire.

Despite that, others argue that it’s acceptable for New Year’s decorations to remain until Hatsuka (20th day of the month) Shogatsu, which falls, not surprisingly, on the 20th of January. In the Kansai area, the head and bones of the buri (Japanese amberjack) are cooked with sake kasu (lees), vegetables and soy beans. Because of this, the day is also called Hone (bone) Shogatsu.

My wife, following her mother’s example, had been deferring to tradition. I countered with the argument that if we were really going to stick to good ol’ “tradition,” we would have to keep the shime kazari up until March 2, which — in accordance with the Chinese lunar calendar — is actually Jan. 15.

“Let’s keep it up until Hatsuka Shogatsu then,” my wife suggested.

“The 15th will be fine,” I said. “We don’t want to get carried away.”

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Hakata-based American writer, translator and student of Japanese dialects and literature.

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