It’s that time of the year again – when we are stuffed from Christmas feasting and anticipating another round of food and drink to ring in the New Year. Some of us are planning to watch fireworks, some have boozy gatherings with friends scheduled, while the rest are still deciding if they should use their Rediscover SG vouchers over the long break.
Unlike its East Asian neighbors, Japan celebrates the traditional New Year on the 1st of January each year instead of on the first day of the first lunar month, a tradition dating back to 1873 when the Chinese lunisolar calendar was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar.
As in many other countries, the end of each year in Japan is a time to clear clutter, both mental and physical, as well as take a well-deserved break in preparation for the start of a new year. The custom of bounenkai to send away the old year with a generous helping of alcohol is one way to do this, while many households also perform spring cleaning for similar reasons.
Family, food and a long-running TV program
New Year’s Day in Japan is hardly the raucous affair that it is in many other countries. Instead of fetes and fireworks, it is a quiet occasion to spend time with family and friends. Many Japanese people living away from family also take this chance to return to their hometowns.
Celebrations begin on omisoka (New Year’s Eve). Dinner might consist of osechi, delicate traditional dishes full of flavor and meaning that come packed in lacquered juubako.
Nothing is warmer in winter than, well, actual high temperatures, so some families opt for a piping hot nabe instead, and savor the soupy goodness while gathered around a toasty kotatsu.
Toshikoshi soba is another popular dish packed with significance. Eaten late in the evening or just around midnight, the buckwheat noodles symbolize cutting off the old year in preparation for the new.
The star of the night is undisputedly Kouhaku Utagassen, or the NHK Red and White Song Battle, is an indispensable part of Japanese New Year traditions. The 4-hour-long program was first broadcasted on radio in 1951, and since then has become an enduring part of the New Year’s Eve tradition.
Only the most popular singers each year are invited to participate in this song battle, which divides participants into Red (women) and White (men) teams. The winner is then decided by a combination of judge and audience votes.
The broadcast ends around 11:45pm, when the joya no kane is sounded at Buddhist temples nationwide. The temple bell is rung a solemn 108 times to symbolize the ridding of the 108 earthly temptations in Buddhist belief. At this point in time, hatsumoude, or first shrine visit of the year, begins, more ritual than religion these days.
New Year’s Day itself starts with hatsuhinode, or the custom of welcoming the first sunset of the year. Some may choose to make their hatsumode on this day as well.
Mochi (glutinous rice cakes) are a food that has strong associations with the New Year. Ozoni is a mochi soup that comes in two regional varieties: the clear dashi-based broth common in Kanto, and the miso-based soup popular in Kansai. Mochitsuki, or mochi pounding, is an event commonly held around the end of the year to prepare mochi for the new year. An equal mix of showmanship, boisterous cheering and tasty fresh mochi, mochitsuki events are evergreen crowd pleasers.
A touch of home, away from home
For Japanese people based in Singapore, celebrating the New Year abroad means repeating traditions and creating new ones at the same time. Akadot TV got a few Japanese people here in Singapore to share their New Year’s plans with us to see how this is done.
Comforting, familiar traditions seem to be a running theme here. Almost all the Japanese folk we interviewed had plans to watch Kouhaku this year. Full-time housewife Yuka speaks for her countrymen when she mentioned that
New Year isn’t New Year without Kouhaku.
Yuka, Japanese housewife based in Singapore
To this, add toshikoshi soba and ozoni for the complete experience. Most of our respondents reported enjoying both of these foods every single year, with most of them having plans to do the same again this year.
Sunrise over a different horizon
Nevertheless, living outside of Japan means that some things are just not the same. December in Singapore is cool at best, and nowhere near as cold as Japan gets in winter. Kotatsu are unheard-of here, and it is a different kind of warmth that fills the festive season. In the same vein, some of our Japanese respondents have chosen to add a Singaporean touch to their Japanese new year traditions.
Sachiko, who works in the shipping industry, plans to combine a night of Kouhaku, osechi and ozoni with hatsuhinode at Marina Barrage. Yuka and her family have a Singaporean sunrise on their agenda as well, after counting down to fireworks. Koshiro, a second-time expat, plans to spend New Year’s Eve at his Singaporean friend’s place.
Some of our respondents plan to use the break to rest and recharge in preparation for a whole new year of work.
An Akadot New Year?
In the Akadot spirit of bridging Japan and Singapore, why not celebrate the New Year with some tasty Japanese food right here in Singapore? If cooking is not your thing, here are a few places where you can get ozoni , toshikoshi soba and other New Year delicacies to welcome 2022 with a Japanese touch (while stocks last; osechi sets are sold out):