Friday, 19 January 2018

New Year Decorations going up in Smoke

Mochi sticky rice cakes
January 1st to 3rd may be Hatsumōde, or the first shrine visit, for many Japanese but the second visit is often a week or two later to ritualistically burn the new year decorations known as dondo-yaki (どんど焼き). This is a practice to appease and "release" the gods which they have been housing over the new year period. Fuchu City in Western Tokyo is host to what is said to be the biggest of these bonfires, made with bamboo and straw, on the morning of January 14th. After the fire has burned down, participants roast sticky rice cakes (mochi =餅) - a popular new year food - on the embers, supposedly guaranteeing health for the new year. Dates differ between regions, but decorations are often taken down by January 7th and burned on or around January 15th.

So what new year decorations are usually burned? A previous post mentioned one of the most ubiquitous new year decorations, the kadomatsu (門松), a collection of pine, bamboo, and sometimes plum (ume) branches which are typically placed in a male/female pair either side of a door or gate to welcome the ancestral spirits or kami. Sometimes this is simplified to a pine branch or branch (matsu-kazari =松飾り). Pine and bamboo are both said to symbolise longevity and strength/hardiness.

Another common decoration placed on the dondo-yaki bonfire is the shime-kazari (しめ飾り), a wreathe like adornment typically hung on the door (or even on the grill of a car - see picture) featuring some combination of pine, fern, tangerine (mikan), and berries adorned with rice straw rope (shime-nawa =しめ縄). Note also the white jagged zigzag-shaped strips of paper (shide) which were explained in detail in this earlier post. The calligraphy in the picture reads kinga shin'nen (謹賀新年) a formal written form of "Happy New Year."

A final popular new year decoration but one which is eaten rather than burned after the new year break is the kagami-mochi (鏡餅), with kagami meaning mirror (the copper mirrors used in the Muromachi period were round like a mochi). The kagami-mochi is thus two round lumps of rice cake (mochi) with the bigger one placed on top of the smaller one (representing the past year and the year to come). It is topped with a tangerine (this time featuring a "lucky" leaf); the tangerine is typically referred to as a "daidai" which is actually the colour orange in native Japanese (with the repetition of the syllables supposedly pointing to the continuation of generations). Although traditionally home-made, today most people buy one from the supermarket (pictured) which is actually plastic containing a small mochi inside. The picture left lists a number of suggestions as to where to place this decoration, including the toilet and bathroom! It is usually cut and eaten on January 11th, a practice known as kagami-biraki (鏡開き) or opening. Here's hoping 2018 is a fruitful year for all!