Japan has four distinct seasons, and there are many traditional events and holidays throughout the year that celebrate the seasons. Along with the seasonal changes, you also see changes in the food, and since long, Japanese have favoured eating dishes made using fresh seasonal ingredients.
One of the ways to enjoy a trip to Japan is to be aware of the major events and festivals, customs and traditions including food available in each month. In this feature, we talk about some of the customs and traditions that have been followed over the centuries in the month of January.
January is also called “Mutsuki” (睦月) as per the Japanese lunar calendar. The character “mu” means intimate, friendly or harmonious; quite an apt name as family members come together to usher in the New Year and enjoy festivities in harmony.
January 1: New Year’s Day (Ganjitsu, 元旦)
January 1st is the most important day for the Japanese. Most of you may be aware that Japan celebrates the New Year as per the Gregorian calendar.
On the first day of the year, most people visit a shrine, watch the sunrise, and send New Year blessings in the form of postcards to relatives and friends.
January 2: First sale, first dream, first writing (初買、初夢、書き初め)
In the past, department stores generally started to offer discounts during the New Year from January 2. The first shopping experience of the year is called Hatsugai (初買) and the first sale of the year is called Hatsuuri (初売り).
In recent years, the concept of fukubukuro (福袋) has become a norm. Basically, a lucky bag filled with goodies for a set price, you don’t know what is in the bag till you purchase it.
Hatsuyume (初夢) is the first dream one has in the new year. The Japanese believe that the content of the first dream will affect the fortune of the year, and the best combination is said to be Mount Fuji, eagle and eggplant! Usually, people would spend the night of the 31st without sleeping. Hence, the first dream is seen on the night of January 1.
Kakizome (書き初め, literally “first writing”) is the first calligraphy written at the beginning of a year, traditionally on January 2. You can write down your goals and ambitions for the new year with a brush. For elementary and middle school students, the school may regard “first writing” as part of winter homework.
January 7: Seven Herb Rice Porridge (Nanakusagayu, 七草粥)
Nanakusagayu is a porridge made using rice and seven spring herbs which has the effect of healing an overworked stomach. The following seven herbs bud early in spring are added to this porridge: cudweed, radish, water dropwort, shepherd’s purse, turnip, chickweed and nipplewort.
The custom of eating Nanakusagayu started from the Edo period. Eating this seven herb porridge on the seventh day of January was said to banish evil and prevent illness. These days, you can even find these seven vegetables sold as a “Nanakusagayu set” in one pack or “dried Nanakusagayu” so it’s really easy to make one.
Second Monday of January: Coming of Age Day (Seijin-no-hi, 成人の日)
Seijin-no-hi, translated as “Coming of Age Day,” is a traditional Japanese holiday celebrated on the second Monday of January and every person who turns 20 years old officially become adults. Girls wear gorgeous kimono and men usually wear a suit. This year, on Jan 13, a great day to take pictures of beautiful kimono-clad men and women!
These days you can buy almost any ingredient throughout the year. However, it is best to eat what’s in season as they are the most delicious. If you come to Japan in January, you can’t go wrong with the following:
・Seafood：pacific cod (tara, 鱈), blowfish (fugu, 河豚), yellowtail (buri, 鰤), prawns (ebi, 海老), crab (kani, 蟹), oysters (kaki, 牡蠣), basket clam (shijimi, 蜆), scallops (hotate, 帆立)
・Fruit and vegetables：Chrysanthemum, white radish, carrot, green onion, cabbage, spinach, orange, seven herbs of spring
Hope this feature has given you a good idea of what to expect in Japan during January. Keep an eye out for some of the things mentioned here and you’re sure to have a wonderful holiday in Japan.
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