Kyoto Garden Blog

冬至 Winter Solstice: (Tōji) January 1-4 (Microseason 66)

雪下出麦 Yuki watarite mugi nobiru: Barley sprouts underneath snow

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu: Happy New Year!

The New Year holiday has always been the most important celebration in the Japanese calendar, and is marked by many special customs that lend a sedate dignity to the transition from one year to the next.

This year in particular, I have really enjoyed seeing the ubiquitous sacred straw decorations shimekazari, that grace house entrances in my neighborhood. Shimekazari are similar in function to the shimenawa rope which is hung at the gate of all Shinto shrines to keep evil spirits away.

To celebrate New Year, shimekazari are decorated with some fortuitous elements which have their origin in traditional beliefs. Primarily they are made of a small rope of rice straw to which zigzag paper strips called shide are attached. The zigzag shape resembles lightning bolts which are powerful symbols of keeping misfortune away from the family home. The small bitter orange daidai is considered to be good luck since daidai if written with a different kanji character 代々can be translated as a symbol of posterity. Fern leaves urajiro represent hope and a desire to have a happy family which continues to grow and prosper.

In the few decades that I have now been privileged to call Kyoto home, I have seen a gradual disappearance of the traditional New Year decorations. It used to be that many cars were seen polished and gleaming resplendent with shimekazari attached to their front grilles. It always seemed incongruous from my foreign perspective but of course it was to pray for traffic safety in the coming year. Particularly conspicuous were shimekazari attached to taxis. It is really rare to spot these vehicular ornaments these days so I was really chuffed to find some in my neighborhood this year. I have wondered if the younger generation loses interest with upkeeping these traditions especially as 21st century appears to become more and more secular. It might be my imagination but I feel that because of the global pandemic last year, there was an increased presence of these lucky talismans during this year’s starting period.

Another auspicious decoration that welcomes the Shinto deity Toshigami during New Year is the kadomatsu 門松, literally “gate pine”. Kadomatsu are placed in pairs (male and female) in front of homes and business offices. They consist of a number of plant components each of which has a symbolic meaning. Visually, the most dominant central material are three fresh green bamboo shoots of different lengths, cut either diagonally or horizontally and bound together with straw rope. Bamboo symbolizes renewal as well as prosperity and newly cut bamboo is important in any New Year decoration. Most importantly, branches from pine trees are also used to symbolize longevity. In the Japanese language, the kanji character for “pine” has the same pronunciation as the character for “waiting” so it can be said that the pine branches are “waiting for the Gods”. The third component that is traditionally used in a kadomatsu are plum branches representing steadfastness. To make these decorations even more gorgeous these days, seasonal plants such as ornamental kale and heavenly bamboo are often added to bring extra color.

Both shimekazari and kadomatsu are traditionally thought to be temporary dwelling places yorishiro for the Shinto deity. Following the visit by the rice harvest God Toshigami during this special period, it is common to take down these decorations before January 15th and burn them during a fire ritual at a local shrine. Basically shimekazari and kadomatsu are visual prayers for the happiness of family and friends during the coming year. Taken at the deepest symbolic level, the traditional Japanese New Year observances show a radical break between “death” and “new life”.

Even though I am not Japanese, I find great hope and comfort in the presence of these ritualistic transition markers at New Year in Kyoto. Particularly as 2020 proved to be so challenging and tumultuous in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, this opportunity to slow down, this pausing for breath creates room for reflection, focusing on gratitude and appreciation kansha, amidst the difficulties of the current world situation.

Let us dare to hope for a brighter New Year in 2021…

Ganjitsu ya/ kamiyo no koto mo/ omowaruru

On New Year’s Day everything feels so fresh that even the legends of the past seem not to be so distant.