SHIWASU is a Japanese work for December which literally means “teachers run around”. This word reflects the busiest month of the year. During December, BOUNENKAI (forget-the-year-party) are held among co-workers or friends in Japan. It’s a Japanese custom to send OSEIBO (end-of-year gifts) around this time of the year. Also, it’s customary to write and mail NENGAJOU (New Year’s postcards) in December so that they are delivered on New Year’s Day.
An important Japanese end-of-year custom is OOSOUJI which means extensive cleaning. In contrast to spring cleaning that is common in the US, oosouji is traditionally practiced when the weather is rather cold. It’s important for the Japanese to welcome a new year with a clean state, and all cleanings are done at home, work, and school before New Year’s holiday.
When the cleaning is done, New Year’s decorations are usually placed by December 30 around and inside houses. A pair of KADOMATSU (pine and bamboo decorations) is placed at the front door or at the gate. SHIMEKAZARI or SHIMENAWA made with a twisted straw rope, paper decorations, and a tangerine are hung in various locations to bring good luck. It’s said that bamboo, pine tangerines are symbols of longevity, vitality, good fortune, and so on. Another New Year’s decoration is KAGAMIMOCHI which usually consists of two different size round shape mochi (rice cakes) small one on top of the bigger one.
Since its traditional for the Japanese to eat MOCHI during New Year’s holidays, MOCHITSUKI (pounding of mochi rice to make mochi) is done at the end of the year. People traditionally use a KINE (wooden mallet) to pound steamed mochi rice in the USU (stone or wooden mortar). After the rice becomes sticky, it is cut into small pieces. As prepackaged mochi are commonly sold at supermarkets nowadays, mochitsuki is not as common as it used to be. Many people use automatic mochitsuki machines to make mochi at home. In addition, a plenty of OSECHI RYOURI (New Year’s food) are prepared before New Year’s holiday.
Japanese usually spend OOMISOKA (New Year’s Eve) rather quietly with the family. It is traditional to eat soba (buckwheat noodles) on New Year’s Eve since thin long noodles sympolize longevity. It is called TOSHIKOSHI SOBA (passing the year noodles). Soba restaurants around the country are busy making soba on New Year’s Eve. People say to each other “YOI OTOSHI O” which means “Have a nice year passing” at the end of the year.
Before midnight on New Year’s Eve, temple bells across Japan begin to toll slowly 108 times. It’s called JOYA-NO-KANE. People welcome the New Year by listening to the sound of temple bells. It is said that the temple bell tolls purify us of our 108 worldly desires. At many temples, visitors can strike joya-no-kane.