How to send a New Year’s card to Japan

In Japan, it is customary to send out New Year’s cards, or ‘nengajou’. While in the West, traditional Christmas and New Year’s cards are gradually being replaced by electronic versions and e-mails, in Japan cards are still being sent through the mail (which I quite like).

Japanese New Year's cards 2014

A few examples of the New Year’s cards that the Japanese postal services offer for 2014. Since 2014 is the year of the horse, many cards feature horses. Usually one side of a Japanese New Year’s card will have an image and/or a message, and the other side is for the address (featured on the bottom right).

New Year’s cards are big business in Japan. Every year, millions of cards make their way into mailboxes all over Japan. It is not uncommon for one household to receive up to 200 cards. Traditionally you are supposed to send a card to everyone you have some sort of relationship with or social obligation to. That includes all of your coworkers, for example. But these days not all youngsters comply with this rule.

The postal service is of course well aware of this massive card sending habit and organises its service accordingly. All the cards posted before December 26th are guaranteed to be delivered on the 1st of January. That’s right. Not on the 31st, not on the 2nd. No, when the Japanese provide a service, they mean business. Postal workers work on the national holiday to ensure that everyone receives their cards on the 1st.

Every year I gladly join in this Japanese New Year’s card extravaganza. Having lived in Japan for a year, I met many people who really did their best to make me feel welcome and who were very generous towards me. Sending New Year’s cards to my Japanese friends seems like the perfect way to show them that they remain in my thoughts and that I am grateful for everything they have done for me.

At first, writing New Year’s cards in Japanese and figuring out the correct way to post them seemed like a daunting task. Once I finally figured everything out, I decided to write a guide for other people who might like to send cards to Japan as well.

Sending New Year’s cards to Japan: a guide

Make sure to send the card well in advance. It should arrive in Japan before the 26th of December. Another important point to note is that according to Japanese custom, you shouldn’t send a card to someone who has lost a loved one in the past year. But don’t worry if you are not sure about the addressee’s family situation. According to a helpful comment by Ayako Mathies, the original custom is that it is alright so send a card to families who have lost someone, but these families are not expected to send out cards or replies themselves.

Choosing the card

Since it will be difficult to find the typical Japanese New Year’s cards abroad, I recommend sending a card that is typical of your home country. For example, being from Belgium, I opted for cards with Christmas trees or cute little shops covered in snow. I tried to choose cards that invoke the romantic European winter feeling.

Writing the message

If the addressee speaks English or is familiar with foreign cultures, you may of course write whatever you like. If you are going for a traditional Japanese message, here are some things you could write:

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu.
明けましておめでとうございます。
Happy New Year! Unlike letters, Japanese New Year’s cards do not require a ‘dear x’. You can just open with the New Year’s greeting.

You may follow up with:

Honnendomo [addressee’s name + san] ni itte yoi toshi de arimasuyou oinori moushiagemasu.
ほんねんども [addressee’s name + さん] にとって よいとしでありますよう おいのりもうしあげます。
For formal situations (like writing to a teacher or someone who is a lot older than you).
Kono ichinen ga [addressee’s name + san] ni totte sutekina toshi de arimasuyouni!
のいちねんが [addressee’s name + さん] にとって すてきなとしでありように!
For informal situations (like writing to a friend or someone you know quite well).

After this, you can add a personal message or you can add words of thanks, requests for continued favor or wishes for health. Some examples from japanese.about.com:

Sakunen wa taihen osewa ni nari
arigatou gozaimashita.
昨年は大変お世話になり
ありがとうございました。
Thank you for all your kind help
during the past year.
Honnen mo douzo yoroshiku
onegaishimasu.
本年もどうぞよろしくお願いします。
I hope for your continued favor
this year.
Minasama no gokenkou o
oinori moushiagemasu.
皆様のご健康をお祈り申し上げます。
Wishing everyone good health.

Sign with your name at the end.

Addressing the envelope

Japanese addresses can be a bit tricky at first. If you are sending a card from abroad, you will most likely have a horizontal envelope in a standard size. Here’s an example of how to address an envelope to Japan:

nengajou Japanese New Year's card address example

Example of how to address a Japanese New Year’s card

Write ‘NENGA’ in big, red letters in the top left corner (or in kanji: 年賀). It should be clearly visible. This tells the post office that it is a New Year’s card and that they should hold it until the 1st of January. In Japan, it is acceptable for cards to arrive after the 1st of January but not before the 1st. Make sure to never write a person’s name in red ink. This is considered bad luck because names on graves are also red.

If you write the address in romaji (our Western, romanized letters), make sure to write very clearly. It is difficult for Japanese people to read our handwriting. If you can write Japanese, try to write the address in hiragana or even in kanji. If you opt for kanji, double-check that you write the addressee’s name correctly.

Write your own address on the back of the envelope. And of course don’t forget to put a stamp on it.

All finished! Your card should be good to go!

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Homecooking: miso soup

If asked what the most typical Japanese food is, I would probably say miso soup. I already imagine some of you raising your eyebrows at this point, thinking to yourselves “what about sushi?” Contrary to popular belief in the West, sushi is not a part of daily meals in Japan. Sushi is more of a restaurant food, enjoyed on special occasions or on a fun night out with the family.

Miso soup, however, is very much part of Japanese home cooking. I think it is safe to say that most Japanese people still eat miso soup (almost) every day. Rice and miso soup make up the basics of most Japanese meals. When I found myself missing Japanese food after having moved back to Belgium, the taste of miso soup was what I missed most. It is just so typical of Japan.

The recipe for miso soup is very simple. The first thing you need is of course miso paste. Miso is made by fermenting soy and/ or rice and barley. The result is a thick, salty paste. It comes in many varieties. Most common are white miso (shiromiso 白味噌), which has a mild taste and the more spicy red miso (akamiso 赤味噌), which is typical of the Nagoya region.

Japanese miso

Japanese miso

The other basic ingredient for miso soup is fish and seaweed stock (dashi, 出汁). These days most people use dashi powder that can be added to water, rather than making their own stock from scratch. Other than miso and dashi, you can add anything you like to miso soup. Typical things to add are wakame seaweed and tofu, or daikon and fried tofu.

miso soup ingredients

Ingredients for miso soup: on the left instant dashi to be solved in water and on the right miso paste

When I had just arrived in Japan, the task of making miso soup at home seemed daunting. There were so many overly complicated recipes on the internet, while in fact it is very simple to make miso soup. I will therefore describe my own, easy way of making miso soup. Of course you are more than welcome to leave suggestions or remarks in the comments section. I’m always open to learn more!

Japanese miso soup with wakame and daikon

1. Soak the dried wakame in water for about five minutes or until it has stopped swelling. Drain the water and rinse the wakame. Don’t take too much; perhaps start with a teaspoon. The quantity of dried wakame can be deceiving since it swells so much in water.

daikon and dried wakame

daikon and dried wakame

2. Cut off 1/3 of the daikon. Peel it, cut in half lengthwise, cut in half again and then slice it.

peel the daikon

peel the daikon

slice the daikon

cut lengthwise and then slice the daikon

2. Heat water and add the instant dashi according to the instructions on the package.

3. Add the swelled wakame and the daikon to the dashi and boil for a few minutes. At this stage you can replace the wakame and daikon with other ingredients of your choosing.

miso soup recipe

4. Remove the soup from the fire. Take a spoonful of miso paste and dissolve it in the soup. You can add as much as you like. It depends on everyone’s individual taste. Start with a large teaspoon and add more if you like. Never bring the soup to the boil after having added the miso.

miso paste

miso paste

miso soup

It is possible to dissolve the miso paste directly into the soup but I prefer to use a small strainer. It makes dissolving the miso easier and you avoid finding chunks of undissolved miso in your soup afterwards.

miso soup finished

Miso soup finished. I used a lot of miso since I like the taste to be quite strong. If you use less miso, the soup will be a little less opaque.

Et voila! You have the basis for a simple Japanese home cooked meal. Enjoy!

basic japanese homecooked meal

Simple Japanese meal with salad, brown rice (genmai), miso soup (miso shiru) and pickles (tsukemono). The solid ingredients in the miso soup are eaten with chopsticks. The liquid is drunk directly from the bowl. The miso drops to the bottom of the bowl after sitting for a while. This is normal. You can stir it with your chopsticks before drinking.