New Year’s Day is called ganjitsu and gantan in Japanese. The word ganjitsu refers to the first day of the year. This is also the first day of shogatsu. The word shogatsu historically meant the first month of the lunar calendar. Today, however, it generally means the first three days of the year or the first week of January. The period from the first to the third of January is called sanganichi.
Shogatsu is one of the most important times of the year in Japan. In Japan, people generally celebrate the New Year with their families. Schools have a two-week winter vacation that includes New Year’s Day in the middle of the vacation. Many businesses and government offices also give their employees winter holidays at this time of the year for between several days and one week. These vacations make it possible for everyone, including people who live far away, to return to their hometowns to spend the New Year.
On the morning of New Year’s Day, family members gather together and exchange New Year’s greetings. They say, “Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu”, which means “Congratulations on the beginning of the New Year.” Then they drink toso and eat zoni for their New Year’s breakfast. On New Year’s Day, and for the following several days, people wish their family members and everyone else, “Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu.”
It is customary for Japanese people to send New Year’s cards called nenga-jo to many people they know including relatives, friends, and business acquaintances. Most families receive many New Year’s cards on New Year’s Day, and people enjoy reading them to see how their relatives and friends are getting along. On New Year’s Day, many people also make resolutions to follow during the New Year. This is because, as a Japanese proverb says, New Year’s Day is the day to make plans for the year.
In addition, people visit nearby relatives and friends to exchange New Year’s greetings. They also visit Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples to pray for good luck for the New Year. The first visit after the New Year to relatives and friends is called nenshi, and the first visit after the New Year to a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple is called hatsumode. Many people climb mountains before dawn on New Year’s Day to see the first sunrise from the mountains.
Children also enjoy the shogatsu period. They receive New Year’s gifts called otoshidama (usually money in little envelopes) from their parents and relatives. Children play several traditional games during the shogatsu period. Boys like flying kites (takoage) and spinning tops (komamawashi), while girls love Japanese badminton (hanetsuki) and card games (karuta).
After the three-day period called sanganichi, the Feast of the Seven Herbs of Health falls on January 7th. In ancient times, these seven spring herbs were believed to be effective against all kinds of diseases. Even now, there are still some people who eat rice porridge with seven herbs on that day. The shogatsu period concludes with kagami-biraki. Kagami-biraki refers to cutting or breaking New Year’s rice cakes called kagami-mochi. This day falls on January 11th, or in some regions, on January 20th. The New Year’s rice cakes, which look like round mirrors (kagami in Japanese) and therefore are called kagami-mochi (mirror-shaped pounded rice), remain placed as offerings on the household Shinto altars (kamidana) or the alcoves (tokonomas) in each family’s home during the shogatsu period. People start to eat the New Year’s rice cakes on the day of kagami-biraki. They cook the rice cakes by cutting them up or breaking them into pieces, toasting them, and then putting them into hot sweet red bean soup called shiruko.