You better watch out, you better watch out…namahage is coming to town!

I might still be feeling the weight of Christmas dinner, but it has undeniably come and gone. It’s now time to look forward to the new year and start making those all important new year resolutions. In Japan this is also a period where many people will hold what we call a 忘年会 (bounenkai), end of year party. I love that amongst the three kanji that make up the word bounenkai is the kanji “to forget”: 忘れる. I guess you can look at this in two different ways. One, if you’ve not had such a good year, this is the moment to forget the past and look forward to the year to come. Or two, don’t be forgetful of all the good things that have happened this year, and instead use it to remember, cherish and be thankful.

In Japan, New Year’s (or 正月 shougatsu) is actually a lot more like Christmas we celebrate in Europe, meaning people spend it at home with their families. Prior to New Year’s eve people will clean every inch of their homes, so as to start the year afresh and anew. And they will prepare special food called osechi ryori (お節料理).

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(image source)

And at midnight, people listen to the 108 bell rings (じょやの鐘 joyanokane), symbolising the 108 human sins, happening in all the Buddhist temples all over Japan.

Finally, on the 1st of January is hatsumode (初詣), the first shrine visit of the year, where people make wishes for the new year, and purchase new omamori (lucky charms) while at the same time returning old ones.

But there’s also another tradition I just recently discovered that happens in the northern region of Japan, Akita: a visit from namahage on New Year’s Eve.

(image source)
(image source)

Namahage are a sort of ancient Japanese ogre, believed to chase away bad luck and evil spirits. But they also make sure children have been good, and not lazy during the year. For the namahage sees and knows all. So on New Year’s eve men dressed up as namahage will go around the village crying out 「泣く子はいねえか?!」「なまけものいるのか?!」”Are there any crying children about?!” “Are there any lazy children about?!” They enter each household where they are greeted by the head of the family, and served small meal, mochi and sake. During their interaction, they will ask if all the kids have been good, and the head of the family will have to confirm whether or not they have been. The namahage affirms that because the children have been good, they will not be taken away, but are given words of warning, and namahage promises to come back again next year… ~_~;

They’re a bit like a scary version of Santa if you ask me! But their message definitely seems to get across:

(image source)
(image source)

Well, seeing as we were lucky enough to survive the Mayan end of the world prediction, let’s all look forward to 2013 and celebrate in style! And don’t forget, 2013 will be the year of the snake ^_-☆

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