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Christmas traditions: In Japan, a time for young lovers

Members of the Vancouver Japanese Gardeners
Members of the Vancouver Japanese Gardeners' Association demonstrate mochitsuki pounding during new year festivities at Nikkei Place in Burnaby. Glutinouse rice is pounded by wooden mallets into a paste and then formed into shapes to be consumed as part of Japanese new year celebrations.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER FILE

Christmas in Japan is a time for young lovers to take their relationship up a notch. The real celebrating for everyone else occurs a week later, at the turn of the calendar.

In between there is much preparation for the feast that kicks off the three-day New Year’s holiday.

Osechi Ryori are comprised of foods that are symbolic for things like wealth, fertility, happiness and a long life.

They are cooked well ahead of the holiday so nobody has to do any work on New Year’s day, then carefully packed into a tiered lacquered box called a jubako.

Central to the whole process is the mochi, steamed rice that has been ritually pounded in a large bowl with heavy wooden mallets until it becomes sweet paste.

Mochi is traditionally only eaten at New Year’s and the pounding is often done with great fanfare at local community centres as spectators gather around. Modern technology though has devised appliances that will make mochi on the countertop in moments.

On New Year’s Eve, families will often visit a shrine to pray for good luck. Some people fill out special cards to express their hopes and desires for the coming year.

“The idea is you want to start the new year off well,” says Akiko Gomyo, the director of the Nikkei National Museum and Heritage Centre in Burnaby.

As families gather, usually at the grandparents’ home, for their New Year’s feast, they’ll fly kites, play card games like Hyakonin, spin wooden tops or compete at a kind of badminton match, batting a feathered shuttlecock with elaborately decorated paddles.

Decoration for the season is minimal, banners hung on the walls expressing best wishes for the new year, hangings of straw and pine branches on the front door to keep evil from entering the home.

“It’s much simpler than it is here,” says Gomyo.

But exposure to western traditions is beginning to have an influence, says Gomyo. Commercial districts are decorated with bright lights for the holidays.

Advertisements for the latest and greatest products invade TV programming and roadside billboards. Businesses that used to stay closed to observe the three-day holiday now remain open to earn a few extra bucks.

“Then the sky was cleaner than usual” as factories shut for the holiday and traffic diminished,” says Gomyo.

 

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