Japanese New Year’s decorations

Around New Year’s time, you will see special decorations outside shops and in temples all over Japan. For foreigners, these public decorations are very interesting. Since we often don’t have access to Japanese family life, the decorations put up by shops and temples are the best (and often only) way for us to learn about Japanese New Year’s decorations.

The picture below was taken exactly two years ago, on January 7th 2012. It is a small restaurant underneath the train overpass next to our apartment building.

japanese New Year's decorations

Japanese New Year’s decorations outside a small restaurant

The two decorations on the ground are kadomatsu (門松, literally ‘pine gate’). Kadomatsu always come in pairs. Designs vary depending on region but they are typically made of bamboo and pine. Pine is considered lucky because it remains green in winter. Sometimes plum (ume) tree sprigs are also included, which represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness.

Kadomatsu are placed at the gate or door of a house, temple or business. They are an invitation for the New Year God (toshigami 年神) to come down from the sky. The kadomatsu are meant to provide temporary housing for the god. The New Year God is believed to bring a bountiful harvest for farmers and bestow the ancestors’ blessing on everyone.

Kadomatsu are left outside until the 7th of January. After that, they are burned to  appease the gods and release them.

japanese new year's decorations kadomatsu

Two kadomatsu outside a wayside service area on December 30th

If you look back at the first picture – the one of the restaurant – you will also see a decoration above the door. That is a shimekazari (しめ飾り). Again, there are many different designs for shimekazari but most of them include a sacred braided straw rope (shimenawa), fern leaves, white ritual paper strips (shide) and a bitter orange (daidai). Like the kadomatsu, the shimekazari invites the New Year’s God to visit the home. Additionally, it is also meant to keep out bad spirits and thus prevent bad luck.

shimekazari at ryoanji temple in kyoto

Shimekazari at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto

Japanese new years decorations kyoto

Japanese New Year’s decorations in Kyoto, with a shimekazari above the door and kadomatsu at the entrance

japanese new years decorations shimekazari restaurant kyoto

A shimekazari at the entrance of a restaurant in Kyoto

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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!

Japanese New Year’s Eve TV show ‘Kōhaku Uta Gassen’

It was quite exciting to spend New Year in Japan. I was very curious about Japanese New Year rituals and we tried participating in as many as possible.

Our Japanese New Year experience began on New Year’s Eve with a popular TV show called ‘Kōhaku Uta Gassen’ (on the channel NHK). It features spectacular performances by Japan’s most famous music artists, as well as some guest appearances by foreign celebrities. It is a legendary tv show and last year was the 62nd edition.

NHK Kohaku presenters

NHK Kōhaku presenters

Jackie Chan on NHK Kohaku

Jackie Chan on NHK Kōhaku

Lady Gaga on NHK Kohaku

Lady Gaga on NHK Kōhaku (live from New York)

There were more traditional performances: (unfortunately blocked by YouTube I think)

Spectacular performances by J-Pop bands:

And even a male singer (at least I hope he/she is male) in a big golden dress:

I found out later that this singer is female (see comments). My apologies, whoever you are!

Even later I found out she is called Akiko Wada.

(Thank you for the infomation Yuko and Ayako.)

The rest of our Japanese New Year adventure is for another post!