In Japan, the month of December is a busy month particularly so for office workers with end of year parties held to celebrate the closing of another, hopefully successful year for the business they represent. The New Year itself is a very important day in the culture of the Japanese people with the tradition based on god and inviting ancestors to return to your home.

While christmas may bring you gifts and even some christmas cake, the tradition of new year in japan centres on the hand-made decorations known as kadomatsu, hamaya, kagami and hagoita.

Introduction to Syougatu Kazari

In Japan the celebrations surrounding the New Year are a much awaited occasion and one of the highlights of the year. One important aspect of the New Year celebrations in Japan are the decorations or syougatu kazari. These decorations are traditional within Japanese society and usually are home-made.

The New Year itself is a three day festival in Japan which is celebrated with a period of festivity and great joy.

Cleaning the House

Like many Asian cultures, cleaning the house at the New Year is a top priority for the people of Japan. The entire house is washed from top to bottom. This tradition of cleaning extends to stores and other living spaces within Japan. The Japanese people believe the each New Year should be welcomed with a hygienic and clean living space.

Another Japanese tradition upheld at the New Year is to change the window dressings and to place a fresh bedspread on each bed. At the New Year the house should be dust free and also clear of any waste. All the garbage bins are to be emptied prior to the New Year celebrations beginning. Only, once all these preparations have been completed can the decorating of a living space for the Japanese New Year begin.

Decorative Items used for the Japanese New Year

Kadomatsu

Kadomatsu is one of the traditional New Year decorations used during the Japanese New Year. When translated it means ‘gate pine’ and these decorations are placed in the front of homes in time for the New Year. They are traditionally displayed from Christmas until the 7th of January and are used to welcome ancestral spirits. These spirits are known as kadpomatsu’s and kami and the shintai are considered to be their temporary homes for the period of celebration.

There are different designs of kadomatsu available and they can be constructed from different materials. The materials used are generally bamboo, pine or sprigs from the ume tree. These trees are traditionally used to make the individual and personal decorations because in Japan these trees are thought to represent the symbols of longevity, loyalty and prosperity.

These decorations are easy to make and feature three large shoots of bamboo as the centerpiece. Decorating the kadomatsu is very similar to the Japanese art of flower arranging known as ‘ikebana.’ The shoots of bamboo should be of different lengths to feature the significance of heaven, humanity and the earth. The Japanese believe that heaven is the most supreme of these qualities and the longest of the three shoots of bamboo, earth is the one of least importance and represented by the shortest of the three shoots.

The three bamboo shoots should be tied together by using straw mats and woven with a piece of new straw rope. Additional decoration comes from flowers, stars, lights and items of colour. In front of many Japanese homes you will find examples of kadomatsu during this festival. They are often made in pairs and are placed on either side of the door or entrance. Each pair represents one for female and one for male.

Mochibana

The Japanese New Year decorations known as Mochibana are very popular and home-made. The decorations are made by using willow branches and decorated with wraps of pink and white, known as mochi. Spring is welcomed into Japan with Shogatsu when plum, peach and cherry blossoms are in season. The wraps of pink and white represent the colours of these blooms. Most people in Japan prefer to use the home-made mochi decorations over the actual flowers. To find these flowers in their natural area of Japan you will have to visit the snow covered mountains during the winter months. Decorations using actual flowers are known as ‘yukiguni.’ Either of this style of New Year decoration can be seen displayed on windows or doors throughout Japan during the New Year period.

Homes in Japan will also be decorated with traditional bells, colourful decorations of red and coins. Lots of traditional decorations are slowly being replaced by modern designs such as lights and artificial arrangements of flowers.

Shimenawa

Shimenawa, also known as an ‘enclosing rope’ are lengths of hemp rope or rice straw that are primarily used for the purpose of ritual purification within the Shinto religion. The diameter of each rope can vary from just a few centimeters up to several metres. A space that is bound by a shimenawa is regarded as being sacred or pure, such as one found at a shrine to the Shinto faith.

A shimenawa is often set up at a ground-breaking ceremony before construction on a new building can begin. They are believed to act in keeping evil spirits away from entering a building and can often be found at sacred landmarks, torii gates as well as guarding Shinto shrines. They can also be found decorated around objects known as yorishiro. These are objects known as being capable of attracting spirits or to be inhabited by said spirits. Some trees are believed to be included in this category and known as kodama. Anyone cutting down these trees is believed to then suffer from some misfortune. While trees are known as kodama, stones in this category are classified as iwakura.

Shimenawa are also present in the world of sumo wrestling. The grand champion or yokozuna will make their entrance using one, it is also used to denote the rank of the sumo. The yokuzuna, or grand champion is regarded as being a living yorishiro and so inhabited by a connected spirit.

 

 

When to Decorate your House

Generally you will decorate the house gate or front door of your house or other living space on the 28th of December to please the gods associated with the festival of kadomatsu using a left and right symmetry when decorating. If you do not decorate your home until the 30th of December it is thought to be very rude towards the gods. Your decorations should ideally be left in place until the 7th or 15th days of January.

Disposing of your decorations

On the 15th day of January, known as ‘dondiyaki’ the tradition of removing the new year decorations requires the collective burning once the decorations have been collected together in anticipation of this traditional method of disposal of the new year decorations.