Into the New Year

Kadomatsu in place at Shioyasu, the sales outlet of the Shioyasu Lacquer Workshop in Wajima
Well, it’s nearly 2015.  It’s a time to reflect on the year we are leaving and an opportunity to consider the year to come.  It’s a special time in Japan.  There are festive foods, all kinds of decorations and the nation comes together to follow time honoured customs, all of which make the three days of the New Year holidays special and immensely meaningful.

Sadly the New Year in the UK seems to have become more of an excuse to drink too much and to “have fun”, often resulting in a visit to the Accident and Emergency department of a local hospital.

The tradition in Scotland is much stronger.  It involves “first-footing” or the welcoming of a person to bring good fortune on New Year’s Day.  Gifts  such as a piece of coal to warm the home, a silver coin to bring good luck and, inevitably, some whisky to help make the day go well.  But these traditions too have weakened.

In Japan, however, the coming of the New Year is still very much a collective experience as much as a family one.  And it is definitely a time to say goodbye to all that was unpleasant or regrettable and to welcome in a spirt of hope and anticipation the new year ahead.

In the past, people began there celebrations with the coming of darkness on New Year’s Eve but nowadays, just as in most other parts of the world, midnight is a marker and fireworks are a modern addition to so many traditions of this nationwide celebration.

Kadomatsu—Nara style arrangement

Preparations, however, begin much sooner.  One of the first signs of the approaching festivities is the appearance of kadomatsu—often an assemblage of bamboo, pine and perhaps a floral accent placed either side of a the entrance to a house or even company to welcome the kami or deities, which are said to make an auspicious visit at the New Year.

These and other decorations to mark the coming of the New Year are seldom tacky, although even such cheap products have a charm of their own.  They are, however, much more likely to be works of sheer artistry, pregnant with symbolic meaning.

The pine in the kadomatsu is expressive of hardiness and therefore long life.  The clean sharp lines of the interior of the bamboo most poignantly represent purity and virtue, and consistency is identified in the regularity of the nodes along the culm.  In other decorations there are pieces of fern, its multiplicity in form alluding to ever increasing good fortune.  A type of bitter orange called a daidai has a name with the same meaning as “from generation to generation” in Japanese.  Then there is a small lobster bent in a characteristic position similar to how the elderly become bent with increasing years.  To be blessed with long life is the suggestion.  And so it goes on—the hopes of mere mortals symbolised and artfully combined to welcome in the New Year.  This is as true in Noto as it is throughout Japan.  What comes next?  Wait and see.

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