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Okinawa Celebrates New Year in Big Way

Date Posted: 2000-12-29

The Okinawans celebrate the New Year in a big way. The official New Year falls on January 1st, however, the season itself runs this year from Dec. 30 through Jan. 3. Preparation for the New Year begins from the middle of December, with people preparing New Year's postcards known as nengajo. These cards are sent to business clients and partners, friends, and family members.

The nengajo often have drawings of the animal representing the coming year on them, this coming year being the year of Snake, together with a standard New Year greeting. A brief, handwritten message is usually added to the back of the card to express his or her thanks for the past year with wishes for the new year. Cards are not sent to people who have had a relative pass away during the old year.

Nengajo are mailed before the end of the year, although it is considered within etiquette to send them out until the 15th of January. This is important because quite often cards are received from people to whom cards have not been sent.

The cards are delivered on New Year's Day by the Postal Service, which employs part-time help to distribute the huge volume of cards, which come in each year. Considering each of 120 million Japanese persons sends anywhere from 20 to several hundred cards, the burden on the Japanese postal system is tremendous.

As the year's end draws near, people begin cleaning their homes and workplaces in preparation for the New Year. This is a time of major cleaning. Every company spends at least half of their last day of work cleaning.

New Year's Eve is a big occasion and one of the highlights of the season. Noodles are eaten during the the evening to ensure prosperity and longevity. The noodles are called toshikoshi soba and are eaten either at a shop or at home.

Many people gather with their families on New Year's Eve to watch the Red and White Song Festival (Kohaku Uta Gassen ) broadcast by the national television station, NHK. The Song Festival features singers whose songs enjoyed the most popularity during the past year and is a New Year's institution. As the evening goes on, some families will make an early start for the local shrine to welcome in the New Year.

At midnight, the Buddhist temples toll out the requisite 108 peals on their bells summoning in the New Year. T.V. stations broadcast the centers of activity at the various major shrines around the country and show the ringing of the massive temple bells at famous temples. People at the shrines get as close as they can to the main altar and cast coins and paper money into the shrine. After making their offering, they clap their hands to summon the gods, then pray. In some shrines people toss their offering into a box, pull a cord attached to a bell hanging from the rafter in front of the box, then clap their hands and pray.

Before going home, the visitor to the shrine might buy an amulet for good luck or other charm such as an arrow. The charms are good for a year and there are places in the shrine compound to deposit the old charms from the year past, which are ceremoniously burned in a bonfire.

Awakening before sunrise on the first of the year is also considered important, as viewing the first sunrise of the year is thought to be a good and proper start for the New Year Children receive monetary presents during the New Year's called toshidama. The money is handed in special small envelopes and is usually 1,000 per child.

During the three days of the New Year, people visit friends, go shopping, or just watch television. Visits to teachers of traditional cultural art forms (flower arrangement, martial arts, etc) are often made during this period.

Food during the New Year celebration is special as well. Traditionally, New Year's food is placed in nestable, lacquered boxes. These boxes contain food, which does not spoil easily and obviate the need for cooking for the holidays. Contents vary from region to region, but popular items include candied black beans, fish eggs attached to seaweed, dasheens, kelp, and fish. Mochi, a glutinous rice cake is also an essential part of the New Year. Making of mochi can be an elaborate ritual in itself, and many department stores and other businesses ceremoniously prepare mochi outside the shop.

Visitors during the New Year's can be expected to be treated to Japanese sake, beer or awamori. Lovers of alcoholic beverages are encouraged to drink as much of whatever they favor and it is not unusual to find many inebriated New Year revellers making their way home on the streets.

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