Celebrating Ganjitsu (New Year Day) in Japan

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First of January or New Year’s Day is known as Ganjitsu in Japanese (“Gan” means beginning, and “Jitsu” means day). It is the most important holiday for Japanese people. It is a joyous holiday that marks a new and fresh beginning for the year after the New Year’s Eve countdown. If you are in Japan during this important holiday, you may want to celebrate like the Japanese. Below are some of the things that you can do.

1. Exchange Hearty Greetings

Celebrate Ganjitsu by extending customary hearty greetings when you meet people. Let’s learn the common greetings:

  • Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu (“Happy New Year” – formal style)
  • Akemashite omedetou (“Happy New Year” – casual style)

2. Eat Osechi Ryori with Iwaibashi

Osechi Ryori is a Japanse cuisine that presents significant traditional Japanese food attractively in a three or four tier bento box, known as jubako. The osechi ryori is shared among family and friends on New Year’s Day. Each item in the jubako has a significant meaning and some common food items include:

  • Daidai (Japanese bitter orange): wish for children or continuing generations in the household.
  • Datemaki (sweet rolled omelette with fish paste): wish for auspicious days in the year.
  • Konbi (a type of seaweed): symbolises joy and happiness.
  • Kuromame (black soybeans): wish for good health.
  • Kuri Kinton (sweet boiled chestnuts in mashed sweet potato): symbolises gaining assets.
  • Kazu no ko (herring roe): wish for good fortune to descendants.
  • Tazukuri (fried sardines in soy sauce): symbolises abundant harvest.
  • Ebi (prawns): wish for long life.
  • Nishiki tamago (silk brocade egg): symbolises good fortune or wealth.
  • Renkon (lotus roots): wish for a smooth year without obstacles.

Osechi ryori is eaten using a special type of chopsticks called iwaibashi. Both ends are pointed. One pointed side is used by the person holding the chopsticks and the other side is used by a deity. It is believed that you will be blessed with a fruitful year when you share the osechi ryori with the deity using iwaibashi.

Traditionally, the osechi ryori is typically prepared in advanced and preserved so that woman in the household could rest during the New Year holiday. However, it is now more common for Japanese families to place their order as early as autumn at departmental stores, supermarkets, restaurants or even convenient stores, depending on their budget. A set of osechi ryori could range from ¥10,000 in a convenient store to ¥32,000 in a departmental store. Do keep a lookout for beautiful osechi ryori in stores during their sales period that starts in autumn.

3. Give Money to Children (Otoshidama)

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Similar to the Chinese culture, Japanese people practice the custom to give money to children known as otoshidama during New Year. The money is placed in small decorated envelopes known as pochibukuro, which is usually printed with auspicious images.

The amount of otoshidama to give is typically based on the age and relationship with the child. The average amount for a child in elementary school is ¥1,000 to ¥3,000, a junior high student is ¥3,000 to ¥5,000, and a senior high student is ¥5,000 to ¥10,000. Do prepare some otoshidama if you are visiting friends or relatives with children during New Year holidays.

4. Receive New Year Greeting Cards or Postcards (Nengajo)

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The evolving technology has significantly reduced the amount of postage mails but receiving New Year greeting cards and postcards (also known as nengajo) by post still remained as a custom on New Year’s Day. Common designs of nengajo include zodiac signs, greetings, famous animation, and even cartoon characters.

If you want your recipients to receive nengajo on New Year’s Day, senders have to post them within a specified period in December as stipulated by the post office. If you are posting from overseas, you may want to plan for your greeting card or postcard to arrive on the first of January. Do take note that as a form of respect, it is cautious that one does not send nengojo to those whose family member passed away in the previous year.

5. Visit a Shrine or Temple (Hatsumode)

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Another custom of the Japanese is to visit a shrine or temple dressed in kimono to obtain blessings and good fortune. The first visit to a shrine or temple during New Year is known as hatsumode and this activity is usually accompanied by family and friends after consuming the osechi ryori at home. As such, be prepared for the bustling and massive crowd if you intend to visit famous temples and shrines on this day. Every year during New Year holidays, the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo receives a few million visitors.

If you are visiting a shrine, this is how you can worship:

  • Give a little bow in front of the Torii (gate).
  • Walk on the side pedestrian paths of the Sando (path leading to the shrine). Do not walk in the central path as that is meant for the god.
  • Wash your hands before worship at Chozuya (the purification water fountain or pavilion).
  • Give a little bow and ring the Suzu (bell).
  • Throw money into the Osaisen (offering box). People usually offer five yen coins, which is “go-en” in Japanese and it symbolises good luck.
  • Do the Nirei-nihakushu-ichirei (bow low twice). Put your palms together and clap your hands twice. After that, give a low bow.

If you are visiting a temple, this is how you can worship:

  • Bow in front of the Sanmon (the main entrance of the temple).
  • Walk along the roadside and wash your hands at the Chozuya (the purification water fountain or pavilion).
  • Lights incense sticks and offer it at the Osenko (incense burner).
  • Throw money into the Osaisen (offering box). People usually offer five yen coins, which is “go-en” in Japanese and it symbolises good luck.
  • Put your palms together, pray and then bow. Do not clap your hands.

6. Queue for a Happy Bag (Fukubukuro) at the First Sale of the New Year (Hatsu-uri)

Most companies in Japan will close for about a week from the end of December to the first week of January for their employees to rest and enjoy New Year holidays. However, be rest assured that departmental stores, shopping malls, convenience stores and restaurants will still be open.
This is the best shopping time in Japan because all departmental stores, shopping malls and literally every shopping street will be having the first mega nationwide sale of the year, known as Hatsu-uri. A distinctive feature of the Hatsu-uri is the sale of “Happy Bags”, known as Fukubukuro. These are sealed bags filled with items from the same shop or the same brand, and each bag must be priced much lower than the actual total value of the items, making it a really great bargain.

Some shops might disclose the category of items inside but it will still be a great bargain. Popular brands of fukubukuro sought after in Japan include Apple, Muji, Starbucks, Cecil McBee and various shopping malls. Besides fukubukuro, most departmental stores, shopping malls and shopping streets will have up to 70% sale. It is highly recommended to bring more cash and be prepared to shop till you drop.

I hope these tips will help you to understand the Japanese culture of Ganjitsu celebration and you will enjoy your New Year winter holiday in Japan.

She found her first love for Japan at the tender age of 7 when she was exposed to Hello Kitty. She spent her teens immersing in J-pop culture and has accumulated more than 17 F&E trips to Japan till date. She especially love shopping and visiting kawaii themed cafes in Tokyo, and look forward to share her travel experiences and tips with all Japan travel lovers alike.

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