Shogatsu Decorations


あけましておめでとうございます  A Happy New Year!

Another batch of photos from my collaborator in Tokyo has just arrived. They were photos of the end-of-the-year scene in Tokyo in preparation for the New Year’s days (正月 /shoogatsu/). In this post I would like to show you two kinds of decorations — 門松 “New Year’s decoration of pine and bamboo” and しめ飾り “Hanging New Year sacred festoon.” Both are to welcome the arrival of the god of the year (年神 /toshiga’mi/) at the entrance of a house or building.

門松 Kadomatsu


Photo 1 Kadomatsu

Kadomatsu is a pair of decorations to mark the entrance so that the god of the new year would find your home quickly. Shinto is a multi-god religion. In the word 門松 /kado’matsu/, 門 /ka’do/ means “gate; house” and 松 /ma’tsu/ means “pine tree.” A pine tree, being evergreen, symbolizes constant prosperity. Typically each has three fresh bamboo stalks of different length whose tops are cut diagonally, pine branches and the straw wrapping around the base. Photo 1 was taken in front of a residential building in Tokyo. This pair has a decoration of tied straws added.


Photo 2 Kadomatsu

Photo 2 is also a pine branch decoration with the traditional backside of ferns showing (I will come back to this in a moment.) This unassuming pair was placed outside the window of a sushi restaurant in the Kagurazaka (神楽坂) area in Tokyo.


Photo 3 Kadomatsu

In Photo 3 you almost have to look for a pine branch. It was stuck on the pillar of a building outside a book café. It is a humble one but the proprietor showed the spirit of welcoming a new year.


Shimekazari is a decoration that is placed above the front door of a house or building or in a small Shinto family altar (神棚 /kamidana/). しめ (注連 /shime/) is usually a rope to mark a sacred area in Shintoism, and 飾り /kazari/ means decoration.


4 Shimekazari

The shimekazari decoration in Photo 4 was hung above the entrance of a business building in the Yarai (矢来) area near Shinjuku (新宿). As I look at each item on this shimekazari, it strikes me how much of the decoration relies on a word play in Japanese and on symbolism. Let us look at what each item attached to this decoration symbolizes in three categories – (a) from a shape, (2) word play or pun in Japanese and (3) Shinto practices and historical craft.

(a) Symbolism from a Shape

 1 OPEN FAN – A hand-held fan opens out like a pie shape. The end (末 /sue/) widens (広がる “to widen” /hirogaru/). So an open fan matches the meaning of the word 末広がり (“increasing prosperity as the time goes on” /suehirogari/).

2 PRAWN –A prawn’s back is bent like an old man’s back. A prawn symbolizes longevity. Sometimes エビ /ebi/ (蝦) is written as 海老 “an old creature in the sea,” which is an arbitrary substitute kanji.

(b) Word Play 語呂合わせ

In the word  語呂合わせ /goroa’wase/ “word play; pun,” 語呂 /goro/ means “sound fitting; combined sounds” and 合わせる means /awase’ru/ “to fit; match; put together.” We say 語呂のいい (“sounds fit well; good-sounding; catchy” /goronoi’i/) or 語呂が悪い (“it sounds unpleasant/unlucky” /goro-ga-waru’i/).  I see four items of goroawase in here.

3 FERNS – The fern leaves are placed with the wrong side out, and it is called 裏白 /urajiro/ “white back.” The wrong side of a fern leaf is whiter. Less light, thus less chlorophyll, I suppose. It suggests you are not hiding anything from behind. It symbolizes your purity and innocence.

4 YUZURIHA LEAVES –The leaves are taken from a tree called ユズリハ /yuzuriha/ (translated as “false daphne” in my dictionary.) The word 譲る /yuzuru/ means “to pass on; give way,” and 葉 /ha/ means “leaf.”  Passing on something ensures generations to come. It symbolizes long lineage.

5 KELP – The Japanese word for kelp is 昆布 /ko’nbu/. Kombu and Katsuobushi (鰹節 “dry bonito”) are essential to make good dashi (出汁 “stock”) in Japanese cooking.  But in this case, it is not used for a culinary reason, but for a word play — /Ko’nbu/ is close to /yoroko’bu/ (喜ぶ “to rejoice; be delighted”).  So kelp represents a joyous time people share with others. The new year’s special dish called osechi-ryoori (お節料理) always includes knotted kelp.

6 DAIDAI ORANGE (daidai  bitter orange) – 橙 /daida’i/ is a type of bitter orange, and is only used for the new year’s day decoration for Shimekazari and 鏡餅 (“stacked up round rice cakes for the new year’s days” /kagami’mochi/) because it tastes terrible. Frankly I have never attempted to bite into it. No one does. When left on a tree, a daidai orange stays orange and does not drop from the branch for a couple of years.  The name daidai was synonymous with  代々 /da’idai/ “generations to succeed,” so it suits well long lineage. The color of daidai is orange, and is called 橙色 /daidaiiro/. Younger people may say オレンジ色 /orenjiiro/ instead.

(c) Shinto Practices and Cultural Traditions

The boundary between religious practices in Shinto (神道 /shi’ntoo/) and customs in Japanese culture is very blurry.

7 PAPER CHAIN – Paper chains are made from a piece of white paper cut in a certain way and folded to make a chain. It is usually hung on a 注連縄 or しめ縄 /shimenawa/, a rope made with straws or hemp fibers to ward off evil and mark a sacred area.  In this decoration, a sheet of red paper was added. The combination of red and white means “auspicious” in Japan.

8 PAPER STRINGS–水引き/mizuhiki/ is a bundle of a few twisted rice paper strings to tie a gift. If it is for an auspicious occasion, such as new years day, wedding, special anniversary, it is red and white, and if for mourning, it is black/gray and white.

9 STRAWS – Dry straws symbolize wishing for an abundant harvest in the fall.

A New Year decoration is adorned with things that had intended symbolism from a shape, word play and historical practices. It is all about people wishing long life, prosperity, and continued lineage of the family.

Japanese language seems to have a lot of word play. In olden days if you do not want to take the trouble of 餅つき (“rice cake pounding” /mochitsu’ki/) at the end of December, you would have a neighborhood store make fresh ones for your family. I remember my mother and grandmother discussing that they could not get the rice cake on the 29th because 餅つき could not be done on the 29th /ni’juu ku’nichi/ (二十九日). 二十 /ni’juu-/ sounds similar to 二重 (“double; duplicate” /nijuu/), and 九 /ku/ to 苦 (“pain; trouble” /ku’/). As a child I thought it was silly. But, who is to laugh?  No one wants to be blamed for bringing bad luck.  Superstition or not, it is a part of people’s life.


5 Modern Shimekazari

By the way it is not just Japanese culture where people avoid any possible misfortune. When I visited an apartment building in Southern California last fall, I noticed that the building elevator did not have a button 13 on the floor number panel. Instead it was marked with a letter A in a circle.

People move on to adjust to their new life, keeping a part of their traditions. The new, more creative, type of shimekazari is seen around this time, such as Photo 5, with the writing 謹賀新年 /kingashi’nnen/ in the middle, whose literal translation would be “Reverently celebrating a new year.”

I wish that the year of 2017 will bring a lot of happiness, good luck and good health to you and your family.


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