O Shogatsu

The New Year's Festival


O-Shogatsu (New Year's Day) is the most festive occasion of the entire year for citizens of Edo. The ceremonies and traditional customs last for several days, and many people spend a week or more making preparations to get ready for the big day. Since this is the first time you ever spent O-Shogatsu in Edo and away from home, you feel a bit sad and homesick, but you also are excited by the elaborate celebrations that are being planned. Once the preparations begin, you are almost too busy to feel homesick, since you have so much work to do.

O-Shogatsu is a traditional festival to celebrate the new year. People in Japan believe that a proper beginning to the year will ensure that the entire year is happy and prosperous. There are many customs and rituals that help to ensure that the coming year will be a good one. The first thing that needs to be done is O-soji (housecleaning). All the dirt that accumulated over the previous year needs to be cleaned away. In a big house like the Matsudaira estate, this is a huge job, and everyone helps out -- even Lord Matsudaira himself.

While most of the people in the Matsudaira household are cleaning the house from top to bottom, the cooks begin to prepare food for the O-Shogatsu meals. It is supposed to be bad luck to cook food on the first few days of the year, so people prepare all the food that they need for the holiday season a day or two in advance. The first few days of the year will be a time for lots of eating, drinking and entertaining, so in the days just before the holiday, the whole house is filled with the smell of delicious food cooking.

You get up early in the morning of the final day in the old year, since you have been asked to go buy some of the special foods needed for the O-Shogatsu feast. When you wake up, you discover that it snowed the previous night, and the garden outside is covered with a beautiful coat of white. You put on a warm cloak over your kimono and set out for the fish market in Nihonbashi. The first thing that you need to buy is tai (red snapper). This fish is a part of most O-Shogatsu meals, and people eat it on other special occasions too. Tai fish is a pun for the word mede-tai, which means "good luck", so people think that eating tai will help bring them good luck in the new year.

You arrive in Nihonbashi fish market early, and despite the big crowds of people who have already arrived to do their last-minute shopping, there is still a beautiful coating of snow on the bridge. You manage to find a nice big fish at the shop of a fish merchant who knows you well. You have bought fish at his shop many times in the past, and he offers you a good price to ensure that you will come back to his shop again in the coming year. As you are leaving, you say to him: "yoi o-toshi o", which means "have a good year". This is what people usually say when they will not meet again until the next year.

There are other foods that are also important for the New Year's holiday. For example, people eat cooked quail eggs to symbolize the birth of a new year and they also eat soba noodles, and hope that their life will be long, just like the noodles. The main food for the O-Shogatsu meal, though, is mochi (pounded rice).

You don't need to buy any mochi, because the servants at the Matsudaira estate are making it themselves. When you get back from shopping, you drop off the groceries in the kitchen and go outside to watch them. Making mochi is lots of fun, but it is also hard work. You have to pound the soft rice with a heavy wooden hammer until it turns into a smooth, sticky, dough-like paste. Mochi-pounding is a big evert for all the workers at the Matsudaira estate. The men take turns pounding the sticky rice with the heavy hammer, while the women turn the lump of pounded rice over and over to make sure that it gets completely smooth and well pounded.

After all the food has been prepared, everyone gathers together in the house to prepare for the new year. The last meal of the year is very simple -- plain soba noodles -- but everyone drinks warm amazake (sweet rice wine) and takes turn singing songs or dancing. The celebration continues long into the night. Matsudaira-dono has hired a group of musicians to provide music, and the whole household taks part in the celebrations.

At midnight, the huge bells in the temples all over the city start to ring to announce that the new year has begun! The low, booming sound of the bells rings out all across Edo. Each temple rings its giant bell 108 times to "ring in the New Year". The whole Matsudaira family and all of their servants and retainers now bundles up in warm clothes, and the whole group sets out for the nearby shrine. The most important part of the O-shogatsu celebration is a visit to the nearby Shinto shrine to pray for a happy new year. The hatsu-mode (first shrine visit of the year) is so important that many people do not wait until the morning. They leave the house as soon as the bells begin ringing and make their way through the snow to the nearest shrine or temple to pray. Only after they have completed their hatsu-mode do people go home to bed.

On the first morning of the new year, everyone greets you by saying "akemashite omedeto gozaimasu" (literally, "Congratulations in the new year"). After a light breakfast, everyone goes out again to visit temples and shrines, or to visit friends and relatives in the city. Since O-shogatsu is a holiday for everyone, you are free to go wherever you like and not have to worry about work duties. Most people travel to some of the larger and more famous temples in Edo. Although everyone visits their local shrine first, the O-shogatsu celebrations at some of the city's main shrines and temples are very elaborate and exciting, so nearly everyone visits more than one site during the holiday season.

The first few days of the year are also a time to visit friends and relatives who live in other parts of the city. The city looks so beautiful with its covering of fresh snow, and all the people of Edo dressed up in their brightest and fanciest clothes. Although you do not have any relatives in Edo, you tag along with some of the other household staff and wait outside in the garden while they pay their respects to their relatives. It is fun just to wander through the city in its fresh coating of snow and see all the sights.

Though you enjoy the excitement of the O-shogatsu celebrations in Edo, your thoughts often drift back to your parents, and theirO-shogatsu celebrations in your small village back home. You can't help but wonder how they are greeting this wonderful New Year. Though you may be far from loved ones, your thoughts will always be close to them at this time of the year

Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu

("Happy new year")

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