From an ethnographic point of view, it is significant that the final rituals of the Japanese year involve Buddhist temples throughout Japan ringing out the “old” year on temple bells during the last fifteen minutes before midnight. One can assume that the image and mood transmitted through this ritual is symbolic of “death”. And at the start of the New Year, Japanese similarly experience a ritualized “rebirth” through the image of the Shinto shrine which symbolically represents “growth and productivity”. Thus, the “first” visit to the shrine hatsumode has a close association with the motif of annual renewal for the vast majority of Japanese people.
It has taken me almost three decades of living in Japan to understand the importance of the prefix hatsu 初 which connotes “first”. It is used so robustly during the first few weeks of the Japanese New Year, that for many years it seemed hackneyed to this foreign observer. Actually, the succession of “first” observances of the New Year begins with the “first sunrise” hatsuhinode. According to Japanese legend, the Shinto deity Toshigamisama, appears during the first sunrise of the year and many Japanese people pray for good health and set New Year’s resolutions at that time. Urban dwellers in 21st century Japan have lost the traditional connection to agricultural practice (rice cultivation), which previously provided a mechanism for greeting Toshigamisama. No longer living in the close-knit community of the agricultural village, most modern Japanese still make efforts to maintain their individual selves, their families and their societies. In order to refresh themselves at New Year, they require rituals which can function as opportunities for “rebirth”. Hence the continuing popularity of mass pilgrimage to large urban shrines. On a symbolic level, these ritual visits promise an experience of sacred time and space within the city.
In fact, the prefix hatsu– 初 is assigned to almost any activity done for the first time in the New Year. For instance hatsuyume connotes the “first dream”, while the first laugh is hatsuwarai. This series of “firsts” doesn’t just stop there. Many writers, artists and tea people write the “first kanji of the year” kakizome. The observance of “firsts” continues for the first few weeks of January and is seen to clearly demarcate the New Year with auspicious beginnings. Finally I understand that the “scaffolding” that hatsu provides, leads to a much more solid set of foundations for renewal than the hastily abandoned New Year resolutions that are typically made perfunctorily in Western culture.
Traditionally on January 11th, families will eat the kagami-mochi “mirror rice cake” that has been laid out since New Year as an offering on their domestic shrine or altar, and pray for harmony in the year ahead. This custom is known as kagami-biraki or “opening the mirror”. The “broken” rice cake is typically eaten in traditional dishes known as ozoni, a soup that contains mochi and vegetables. In Kyoto the sweet white miso is used for this delicacy.
This second week of January is severely cold, yet the poetic phrase that describes this micro-season suggests the latent yang warmth emerging deep from within the earth, that will start to “thaw the frozen springs”. In my morning walks I was delighted to discover the presence of icicles tsurara. From ancient times, Japanese people described ice as something “noble”. The aristocratic 11th century courtier Sei Shōnagon describes it as “elegant” in her The Pillow Book. In her inimitable fashion, the pleasures of this season emerge.
“In winter, the early morning – if snow is falling, it’s unutterably delightful, but it is perfect too if there’s a pure white frost or even just when it’s very cold….”
Sei Shōnagon The Pillow Book (translated by Meredith McKinney)