What Is Oomisoka?
Happy New Year! What is your new year resolution? Quit smoking? Start jogging? Or get a car licence?
But wait. Before talk about 2012, let´s talk about the last moment of 2011. How did you spend the new year eve? With friends? With family? With your cat?
In Japan, new years are quite important and usually a family moment, just like Christmas in the Western world. When I was little my family jumped on the car in the early evening of the 31st of December and merged into the "going home" car traffic. By the time we arrived at grandparents´ house, which was usually quite late, my uncle, aunt, grandma and grandpa were in kotatsu heating and watching TV. Most likely they were a little drunk and smelt beer.
My mum stuck her feet in kotatsu and started picking the food on the tabletop of kotatsu while she was talking to her sister. My dad would sit at the corner of the room, trying to drink a glass of beer my uncle poured. My dad doesn´t drink alcohol whereas my mum´s family was heavy drinkers, and I knew he often felt uncomfortable going to my grandparents´ house.
For me it was always a strange environment, seeing a house that is very different of ours, the taste of food, the smell of the house, people drinking and smoking, everything was unusual for me.
In Japan New Year´s Eve is called Oomisoka (大晦日). Misoka (晦日) is the last day of the month and as the 31st of December is the very last of the year, it´s added Oo as in "Grand" to differ from "just" an end of the month.
Japanese families watch the end of the year special programs on TV and eat tons of mikan until the clock hits the 12 o´clock. When the midnight comes, suddenly you hear the sound of bells, ding-dooooong, ding-doooong. This is Joya no kane (除夜の鐘). Then all the TV channels show different temples around Japan. First, the chief monk of the temple starts hitting the bell, then in some temples, they let people in the neighbourhood hit the bell.
It´s a solemn moment, in the cold night sky, you can only hear the deep sound of the bell. And usually the bell is hit 108 times but why 108 times?
According to the Buddhism, humans have 108 Klesha. Klesha is a Buddhism word and means unclean mind/spirits such as desires. obsessions, jealousy or anger to other people. Humans can reach the state of Nirvana once get rid of all 108 Kleshas. So, at the midnight of Oomisoka, monks hit the bells to purify all those filthy spirits to start a new year.
This is from a Temple Chion-In (知恩院) in Kyoto.
As I said earlier, this is a quite solemn moment, however, sometimes things happen like him. Perhaps the bar was too heavy to manage or the floor was slippery.
In Spain people eat 12 grapes at midnight and lentils in Italy, then in Japan people eat noodles called Toshikoshi soba (年越しそば). Soba is a type of noodle which is made of buckwheat and toshikoshi means cross the year, which is New Year´s eve.
This tradition has quite a long history and there are several views for how it started.
1. In Kamakura period (鎌倉時代 1185-1333), a temple in Hakata (博多) in Fukuoka prefecture (福岡県) served soba noodle to poor merchants, and the next year, those merchants´ business went well. So since then, people started eating toshikoshi soba on the New Year´s Eve.
2. In Muromachi period (室町時代 1336-1573), one of the three rich people in Kanto area (関東地方) always ate Sobagaki (そば掻き / soba dumpling) for a good health and success. And other people started following their custom.
3. As soba is long, people started eating it by relating to a long life and a long time success of the family.
4. As soba is easy to cut, people started eating it by believing in cutting off the troubles and bad lucks from the old year.
Some people eat a cup noodle but I liked eating soba my mum prepared. You can always order from your local noodle shop but there will be many people waiting, so if you don´t want to get cold gooey soba, I recommend to cook yourself just in case.
In some places, you can see fireworks. In my grandma´s city, they always shoot fireworks and I used to go to the bridge near the house with my mum to see it.
So this is how Japanese people spend the New Year´s Eve traditionally. How did you spend yours?
More about New Year preparation