A Japanese New Year
January 3, 2023
Dear Family and Friends,
Of course, everywhere people celebrate the New Year. But in Japan there seems to be an added dimension to honor that special occasion. お正月 (Oshogatsu) is deeply spiritual and marked by subtle, but highly significant rituals.
I was fortunate to experience this New Year with a visiting friend. Last year Izumi and I were together at her home. So, she took charge of what we did. But this time it was up to me to meaningfully present Japanese customs and traditions.
One very important part of it is New Year’s ritual foodおせち料理 (O-sechi). This beautifully arranged feast is first an offering to the Gods. Afterwards, it is for the family to enjoy with shared time together. There is always plenty, with enough for leftovers. Traditionally, that was a way to thank the women of the house by giving them a few days’ break from their never-ending household tasks.
And what a feast it is! O-sechi containers come in tiers, each with specific choices of fish, meats, cooked vegetables, seaweed, and sweets. Of course, each layer is both breathtakingly beautiful and highly symbolic.
O-sechi boxes are first opened on New Year’s Day. But midnight on the 31st is also highly significant. People who can go to Shinto Shrines to pray. They also buy charms so as to learn the direction of their fortunes for the year.
My friend and I headed out a bit early to see what was happening. We passed a lovely small shrine that was well lit up. Whether worshippers came or not did not matter. Honoring the Kami (God/desses) is always crucial, especially at times when Heaven is a bit more accessible, such as now, the New Year.
We finally arrived at Aoba Jingu, which is an important shrine in Sendai. To my surprise, it was almost dark and besides us, no one was there. Even so, we stood before the altar with its huge round Shinto mirror, bowed, clapped, prayed, and bowed again.
We were not ready to leave. Fortunately, we found a bench, so sat and immersed ourselves in the profound stillness around us. Gradually a few people arrived. Then a few more. And a few more, until there was a steady stream of worshippers waiting patiently for their turn to approach the altar and make their New Year salutations.
Aoba Shrine is in a very old area that has an arc of Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples lining the street. At exactly 23:30, a nearby temple sounded its gong. The deep vibrations reverberated across the entire neighborhood. The echoing sound was haunting and touched deeply into the core of being.
Soon after, another gong sounded and yet another. Each was from a different temple. Each had its own particular vibration, its own unique energy and message. Together they harmonized to promise a unified whole.
Even so, the sounds were uneven and irregular. Some were close and loud, others distant and faint. The darkness, punctuated by a few lights, plus the reverberating sound of the gongs, gave a profoundly sacred texture to the night. Indeed, the entire atmosphere was filled with deep mystery and unspeakable awe.
For me, that experience was probably the most spiritually significant. But honoring the New Year was far from over. The following day and the day after, people continued to flock to shrines. It is important to do so in order to let go of the past and to start the New Year with purity and grace.
Hopefully, those ideals and the generosity of spirit they promise will reverberate throughout the entire world and become a reality that everyone everywhere has the courage and maturity to share.