The grocery aisles are lined with various important foods on display, many of which may not be too familiar to foreigners.
In this modern day you will see stores bustling with pre-orders, as not many people have so much time to prepare all these foods! Again, it usually falls on the wife of the oldest son to prepare these things, so as you can imagine ordering a platter with all the required items from a restaurant or grocery store is much easier than making everything yourself.
There are a some traditional foods necessary for Okinawan osechi-ryouri, and it is typically the same items you see in usanmi (feast boxes), so click on the post to learn a little more about these foods. Honestly in the stores, the fried foods and Okinawa hors d’oeuvres plates (オードブル) were flying off the shelves while the mainland-style foods were left somewhat untouched.
Some items in the aisles are traditional Japanese, while others are traditional Okinawan; here are a few of the things you may see: (I have more to add to this list, but here it is for now).
Oranges/mikan みかん (also called daidai 橙): you will see bags and bags of oranges for sale, these are an important symbol for New Year, meaning “generation to generation.” These are put on the altar, eaten, even attached to a shimenawa (rope wreath made from rice straw).
Beans 豆: I wrote a post on beans already… basically beans are good luck, ward of evil… all sorts of things really. Often the store sell different types of sweetened beans (particularly kuromame, black beans 黒豆), ready made in the refrigerator section for eating.
kuri kinton 栗きんとん: sweet chestnut mash with sweet potato. It symbolizes fortune and wealth.
kamaboko (fishcake) かまぼこ: usually seen in kouhaku 紅白 (red/pink and white colors), as well as fancy designs, or even shaped like Mt Fuji. Traditionally, slices of kamaboko are in rows or arranged in a pattern. The color and shape are reminiscent of Japan rising sun, and have a celebratory, festive meaning.
konbu 昆布: a kind of seaweed, usually tied in knots. It is associated with the word yorokobu, meaning “joy.”
datemaki (伊達巻): cooked sweet egg and hanpen (fishcake) rolled into an omelet; it has a ribbed outer surface like the sun. In Okinawa, something called castella kamaboko カステラかまぼこ, fishcake “cake” is also very popular. It is similar to “datemaki,” though datemaki is usually a more rolled shape where you can see layers. This is yellow with minced fish and eggs, resembling more of a castella sponge cake.
sardines/tazukuri (田作り): dried sardines cooked in shoyu; the fish were used historically to fertilize rice fields. It symbolizes an abundant harvest.
ebi 海老 (shrimp): hunched like an elder, so it represents a long life.
mochi/wagashi sweets: often you will see sweets in fortuitous shapes or in the shape of the upcoming year’s zodiac.
Another “favorite” here in Okinawa is nakamijiru 中身汁, intestines soup (pork). This is a very traditional dish for Okinawan people, but younger generations are (for perhaps obvious reasons) less inclined to eat it these days. Bags of pre-made soup (just heat and serve) and large bags of “chitlins” (pieces of intestines, pardon the American slang) are easily found in the center aisles of the store this time of year.
As mentioned before about toshikoshi soba 年越しそば (year-end soba, or year-crossing soba), buckwheat noodles are not very common in Okinawa. Rather, many people may eat Okinawa soba instead. So you may also see many rows of Okinawa soba noodles, broth, and pork prominently displayed in aisles under New Year signs.
**in Okinawa language it is pronounced “toushinuyuruu” とぅしぬゆるー
New year’s eve in Okinawa is a bit different from the mainland. Overall, there are less temples and shrines in Okinawa than in the mainland (not only, this but historically there are some differences in religion), so visiting at the stroke of midnight is not nearly as common. Some people do it, but it is much less of a thing here than mainland Japan. Mostly only the big ones like Naminoue Shrine in Naha, or Futenma Shrine in Ginowan, are crowded. I have a list of some temples and shrines in Okinawa in a previous post, as well as a description of hatsumode. I described some of the Okinawa New Year’s customs in another post.
As far as countdown fireworks, there are some, mostly at the resort areas. Again, mostly for tourists rather than the common folk, these shows are only about 1 minute; typically the resorts also host live music shows or dance parties as well. Outside of the resorts, Itoman Peaceful illuminations by the Peace Memorial Park and the ChuraSun Beach illuminations in Tomigusuku have fireworks. There are also some fireworks by the Nakagusuku Port/Awase area (by the Comprehensive Park) that I can see from my lanai, and then some to the south in Nanjo at the Yuinchi Wellness resort that I can see as well. The Peace Memorial Park has some solemn ceremony as well, to pray for a peaceful New Year.
Many people stay at home for New Year’s eve. Young people, Americans, and tourists often go out to all-night events, so some areas around Naha, American bases and resorts hold various types of music and party events.
In terms of food, year-end (or year-crossing) soba 年越しそば (toshikoshi soba) takes the form of traditional Okinawa soba rather than mainland style buckwheat soba. Although toshikoshi soba is not that popular here, you will find that the Japanese soba and Okinawa suba places are very busy on New Year’s eve anyway. Rather, typical celebratory foods also used in other Ryukyu feast days are more common. So those feast boxes, usanmi ウサンミ, are the typical; you can buy them at any grocery store during this time, though it is better to pre-order. In addition to usanmi, hors d’oeuvres オードブル trays are commonly purchased (or pre-ordered) from grocery stores and restaurants. But don’t let the name fool you, it is not what many westerners may consider hors d’oeuvres… but rather lots of fried foods and meats. In Hawai’i it is similar to the idea of “heavy pupus.”
Red vs White (Kouhaku uta Gassen 紅白歌合戦) is one of the New Year’s eve TV programs that I am familiar with; there are others, but this is the tradition for my husband and I. Probably because Arashi 嵐 (boy band of my generation) has hosted it a few times, I insist on watching it. This year, Okinawa’s own Namie Amuro 安室奈美恵 will be singing.
Anyway, there are different options on how to spend the eve of the New Year in Okinawa… choose what you like best.
*I will try to add a little more info to this post with some more traditional customs over the next week or so.
kagami-mochi 鏡餅 is “mirror” mochi displayed in the house during New Years. You are not supposed to open it and “break” the mirror (crack the mochi into pieces) until Jan 11th (some regions might do different days, like the 15th).
I cannot tell you the number of Americans who buy one, open it, and BITE into it raw! Then they wonder why Japanese eat wax. Gross. Please do not do this.
You must heat up the dried mochi in some way: toaster oven, microwave, grill.
On kagami biraki 鏡開き (open/break the mirror ceremony), open up your dried mochi that you bought and break it into pieces (you should not use a knife but mallet or something instead, but I won’t judge you if you decide knife is easier). Inside your plastic container you will find kiri mochi 切り餅, rectangular shaped dried rice cakes. You can buy just packages of these kiri mochi in the stores as well (sometimes you can find them in round shapes as well, those usually these are labelled with maru 丸 meaning round).
My favorite way to prepare it is to toast it in the microwave or toaster oven (just a little until you see it puff up and brown), then add it to hot zenzai ぜんざい (red bean soup, you can make yourself or just buy the prepared package at SanA). Something similar is oshiruko おしるこ, which is more soup-y and smooth.
Another way would be ozoni soup お雑煮, which is usually simple dashi, mochi, plus some vegetables or fishcake.
Shinnenkai is the counterpart to bonenkai 忘年会 which is the end of the year party. These parties are social gatherings for work, classmates, social clubs, or just friends; they typically involve alcohol, much like bonenkai, or well, any other Japanese social gathering.
This year, the hulau (hula dance group) I am in held a shinnenkai in Naha, at an izakaya just off Kokusaidori in Naha called とぅばらーま Toubaraama (it is named after a folk song from the Yaeyama islands). It is a decent sized place, with a large party room (with a small stage) available for rental. As with most large gatherings, it was a set fee for tabehoudai 食べ放題 and nomihoudai 飲み放題 (all you can eat and drink).
The food was mostly local-style Okinawan/Ryukuan favorites, and in the regular restaurant part they had menus in English, Chinese, and Korean (seeing as how we were on the main tourist drag of Kokusaidori, this is not a surprise). The had juices, awamori, Orion beer, and various highball (cocktails). Since it was a large group to accommodate, it was set up buffet and self-service style rather than table service (which is more often how it is with group course plans). When there are not large groups reserving the hall, they also offer entertainment such as sanshin, Okinawa folk music/dance, etc during dinner time.
During the shinnenkai, members from each class put on stage performances, there was a raffle, and a gift exchange. It was my kumu’s (sensei, teacher) birthday, so we also got her a cake. Overall, it was a lot of fun and a good bonding experience.
Afterwards, groups broke out to go to nijikai 二次会 (these means “round 2” in Japanese, and then sometimes 三次会, etc.). We went to a westernized izakaya that had a lady’s course menu 女性コース. At this point, our little group was pretty tipsy and went home~
New Years: the first day of the New Years is basically the Black Friday of Japan. Shopping centers will be packed full of people in Okinawa.
Some places will have specials or good deals. Others will have fukubukuro 福袋– lucky bags. The bags are a set price (ranging from 1000yen up to several 10,000 yen) and usually include items with higher total value. Sometimes you know exactly what you are getting and all the bags will show what is inside. Other times, it is fairly random as to what exactly you might end up with.
I typically purchase clothing lucky bags; usually the sets are coordinated so there is no thinking, you have a few combinations of new outfits making shopping a breeze. For someone like me, this is absolutely perfect. I might not always love the color, but it forces me to vary up my wardrobe a bit (otherwise everything I buy is blue or brown). I admit, I love the cuteness of Axes Femme, and was able to get in line to purchase one last year. We got a choice between 2 types of bags, 1 was a coordinated set (I bought this one) and the other was a combination of clothing items; each bag is usually pretty unique.
I also like to purchase a lucky bag from a clothing store called Joshua. This one is filled fairly randomly, but comes with some tops, cardigan or sweater, bottoms (either pants or skirt) and small accessories, and if you buy the more expensive one it includes a coat and shoes. The strategy for choosing these types of lucky bags is to look at the store the weeks/months beforehand… do you like the type of clothes they sell, are they your style? Then go for it, if anything you can try some new things. Often times, this is a chance for stores to clear out inventory in preparation for new styles in the upcoming season.
The hair accessory lucky bags are also awesome for me… for only 500-1000yen I can get an assortment of about 30 random hair bobs (and sometimes earrings) of varying styles. This is so much better than paying the individual prices (usually 700yen a piece), even if I don’t love the color or pattern, it probably matches something in my wardrobe anyway. Plus I lose hair thingies all the time, so it makes me much less upset when they don’t cost so much.
SanA サンエー malls in Okinawa also have a deal for the first hundreds of customers; starting at 9am, they sell a gift card (attached to your SanA point card) that you purchase for 30,000yen but you receive a bonus 3,000 yen– a total of 33,000yen good for all the shops and restaurants at any SanA. Believe it or not, this is actually easy to get if you show up by 9am and the line is not very long at all. Even better yet, the “gift card” is actually individual 1000yen certificates, so it is easy to distribute among family members. Plus later when you redeem them to pay for your groceries or whatever, if you don’t use the full 1000yen, it comes back to you in change so there is no concern about half used gift certificates! Basically to sum up, by promising to shop at SanA, you receive ~30USD. Not bad at all.
Many types of stores and even food shops like Kaldi and MisDo (Mister Donuts) sell these types of fukubukuro. For some reason, Starbucks is also very popular. From electronics, to home goods, to clothes, to designer items, to specialty food items or wine/liquor, these types of bags are sold everywhere in Okinawa. Places like SanA Main Place and Aeon Rycom mall are the busiest and largest selection for fukubukuro in Okinawa.
After the New Year, perhaps I will post photos of the lucky bags I purchase.
初詣 Hatsumode: First visit to a shrine or temple in the New Year.
Every year on January 1st, I visit a temple or shrine. Here in Okinawa, I am lucky enough to have a temple within reasonable walking distance from my house, Naritasan Fukusen-ji 成田山福泉寺 (reminder, the “ji” 寺 means temple).
After a big shopping trip to pick up some fukubukuro 福袋 (lucky bags), we bundle up and climb the hill up to the temple. We walk rather than drive due to the extremely heavy amount of traffic around the temple. As we make our way up the hill, we pass a long line of cars idling on the hill, waiting to make it to the top and eventually park. We bring along old omamori お守り (amulets/protective charms) from the previous year; these are tied along the temple property (there will be be strings or ropes or posts to attach the omamori, then the monks will come through to collect them for the burning ritual). Some of the bigger shrines/temples may even have a large omamori collection bin to put them in.
Once we finally reach the top, there are a few tents selling food and drinks. We join the end of the line to pray at the temple and purchase new omamori for the year. The line is usually quite long. At most temples, when we get close enough, we cleans ourselves at the temizuya 手水舎 (water fountain); the ritual is like a type of misogi 禊 (cleansing before entering the shrine). Remember: hold the wooden dipper in your right hand and first pour over your left, then switch and pour over your right hand, then switch again pouring a little into your left hand and use it to rinse your mouth (please don’t spit back into the basin!), and finally turn the ladle upright so the remaining water rinses over the handle. At Naritasan Fukusen-ji, there is a sign at the basin: instead of the hand/mouth cleansing you are supposed to throw water at the statue’s face 3 times for luck, so don’t be surprised to see this strange act at the temizuya!
As we approach the main worship area, we toss offerings into the box and pray for a prosperous and healthy new year. Afterwards, we head to the omamori tables and choose some assortment for the house, the car, or maybe some personal ones.
Besides omamori, it is fun to draw a fortune, omikuji おみくじ. Most temples and shrines have some in English as well as Japanese. After reading our fortune to see if we have good luck, middle luck or terrible luck, we usually tie the omikuji to a tree. I have heard both versions of tie it to a tree to leave bad luck behind, or tie it to tree to make sure it comes true. Well, whichever it is, I almost always do it no matter what.
There are a few food tents set up, so often I like to grab a dango 団子 or daifuku mochi 大福餅, and an amazake 甘酒 or hot zenzai ぜんざい.
Many places will also offer a small cup of New Year’s sake, too. At this point, most of what we have come to do at the temple is finished, and it is time to head back down the hill to home. It is a small ritual that I enjoy every year, both here in Okinawa as well as in Hawai’i.
This year I donned kimono for hatsumode; some people stared, but everyone was complimentary about it. After all, how often do you see a westerner wearing a kimono that she put on by herself? As it is in Okinawa, very few people wear kimono for hatsumode, but I wanted to go at least once to the temple in kimono.
If you cannot make it on Jan 1st, many temples and shrines in Okinawa actually stay open 24 hours, for as long as the first week in January. So don’t sweat it if you do not feel like dealing with the crazy amount of traffic the first day (or the second or third days since traffic remains heavy around these areas)… wait until a few days later and you can still participate without the crowds! On the 15th of January, we gather up our shimenawa (and other decorations as necessary) and take to the temple for burning.
Futenma Shrine: extremely popular; many foreigners visit this one since it is close to the American military bases.
Naminoue Shrine: probably one of the most popular to visit! Tents with foods and goods line the street as you approach the main area. It is very crowded– but pretty spectacular to see! This shrine also draws a lot of tourists, both foreign and domestic.
Okinawa Gokoku Shrine: another extremely popular shrine to visit! Again, tents with foods, games, etc line the street… it is so crowded here, and you will have to wait a bit until you can get in. But again, it is an amazing site to see, and a lot of fun. This one offered nihonshu (sake); there will be a salt box, so grab a small pinch of salt, then a cup and go for it.
Awase Bijuru (shrine): This is rather small, but still crowded with locals! It is very cute, and you will probably need to wait in line a bit depending on when you go. Don’t expect much food or games here. It is a much smaller scale than the Naha shrines.
I will add a link with some uploaded pictures of all the different Okinawa shrines and temples at New Year’s… I visited quite a few!
**in Okinawan language it is pronounced “sougwachi” そーぐゎち
大晦日 oomisoka: New Year’s Eve
**in Okinawa language it is pronounced “toushinuyuruu” とぅしぬゆるー
There are many, many Japanese customs that come with the beginning of a New Year. In Okinawa, several of them are observed, and some are a little different. Okinawa usually observes most of its customs on the lunar calendar, so there is also a second, slightly different observance for lunar New Year celebrated later as well.
Before the New Year, houses go through major house-cleaning (osouji 大掃除) to prepare for the new year. It is a busy time for everyone. New Years is mostly a family event in Japan, and perhaps especially Okinawa, so they are not usually a lot of large countdowns or fireworks shows. The only fireworks tend to be at the resorts, mostly for tourists. There are some drinking/dancing parties for the younger people. The Itoman Peace Park has a special event with torches and sounding the bell for world peace, then ending with some fireworks. ChuraSun Beach in Tomigusuku keeps their illumination up through midnight and ends with countdown fireworks. There are usually some fireworks up in Awase by the Comprehensive park as well. Overall they are very short shows, nothing like the summer. Every year I see someone online saying there are fireworks in American Village, but then I never see any info on it and later people complain there were none; I am guessing some jerk thinks it is fun to troll new Americans for New Year’s eve.
As I was shopping in SanA (grocery store), they had a nice poster (shown above) of where to put all the New Years decoration (in Japanese, but nice nonetheless). Right now there are tons of different pieces that one can purchase to get the house ready for the New Year. Some of the common decor and traditions you will see in Okinawa:
shimekazari しめ飾り: a rice straw rope wreath しめ縄 (shimenawa) with white paper 紙垂 (shide). In Okinawa, it is common to have a fairly simple straw “wreath” with a piece of charcoal wrapped in konbu 昆布 (seaweed) and an orange (mikan みかん) attached, though plenty of people also buy the fancier ones. You can even buy ones with Rilakkuma and other characters on it. This kind of thing can be placed on your door, or above the entrance to your house. It is to purify/protect the house. A more simple shimenawa rope is often placed above the family butsudan 仏壇 (altar). Some people even buy small ones and put them on their cars. I buy new ones every year, but I have heard people admit they reuse them for a few years (instead of burning it on the ritual day) and just add a fresh orange/charcoal. So again, if you buy a nice one that is too pretty (or expensive) to burn… don’t feel guilty for not burning it according to tradition.
kadomatsu 門松: 3 pieces of bamboo with pine are arranged on a circular base. Also typically placed at the entranceway, to welcome the toshigami 年神 (year deity/god) to the house (they can land on the bamboo posts). I have a (plastic-y) set that I reuse. Sometimes it is nice to buy fresh new ones, but the New Year adds up quickly. Again… you can buy them and burn them in the ritual… but don’t let anyone make you feel bad for being a little frugal. Japanese people are like this too.
minori 稔り: this is rice straw tied in a bunch. Can be placed by the altar/butsudan, but I think some people in Okinawa use these instead of kadomatsu at the front entrance. Some people may even braid their own shimekazari from these.
kagami-mochi 鏡餅: this is “mirror” mochi. I cannot tell you the number of Americans who buy one, open it, and BITE into it raw! Then they wonder why Japanese eat wax. But no… you must heat up the dried mochi! Anyway, these are stacked pieces of dried mochi with a New Year decoration (like an orange or zodiac symbol on top). This is usually placed at the butsudan /altar or kamidana 神棚. You are not supposed to open it and “break” the mirror (crack the mochi into pieces) until on Jan 11th (some regions might do different days). Anyway, on kagami biraki 鏡開き (break the mirror ceremony), open up your dried mochi that you bought and break it into pieces (you should not use a knife but mallet or something instead, but I won’t judge you if you decide knife is easier). You can heat it up a number of ways. My favorite is toast it in the microwave or toaster oven or even a grill (just a little until you see it puff up and brown), then add it to hot zenzai ぜんざい (red bean soup, you can make yourself or just buy the prepared package at SanA). Yum! You could also check online for some ozoni soup recipes お雑煮.
charcoal wrapped inkelp: 炭= charcoal, so sumi-kazari 炭飾り is charcoal decoration. In Okinawa, charcoal is very important for purification, health, and for longevity (since it does not “decay”). Pieces of charcoal wrapped in kelp and with auspicious kanji/ribbon are placed not only on the shimekazari, but also on the butsudan (altar) or the hinukan 火の神.
figurine of New Year zodiac animal: This year is year of the rooster and last year was year of the monkey. In recent years I have started getting the cheap Hello Kitty zodiac figurine. It is cute although I suppose not so traditional. Only 500yen at Tokyu Hands.
Many New Years flower arrangements will have plum blossoms, pine, bamboo, cabbage and other plants that have special symbolism for spring or the beginning of a new year.
otoshidama お年玉: who doesn’t love to receive an envelope full of money? Usually this is for kids to receive. Even as a school teacher in Hawai’i I observed this custom on a small scale during the lunar New Year, and gave kids otoshidama envelopes (called pochi bukuro ポチ袋) with a chocolate coin it– no money, but a little piece of chocolate, so it was still appreciated.
osechi-ryouri 御節料理: Traditional New years food! The best part, amirite? In this modern day you will see stores bustling with pre-orders, not many people have so much time to prepare all this! Again, it usually falls on the wife of the oldest son to prepare these things (some of the ladies in my eikaiwa say it is best to marry a second son!), similar to Obon, so as you can imagine ordering a platter with all the required items from a restaurant or grocery store is much easier. There are a few traditional foods necessary for Okinawan osechi-ryouri, most of them are fried, some type of pork, or shrimps. Honestly in the stores, the fried foods and Okinawa hors d’oeuvres plates (オードブル) were flying off the shelves while the mainland-style foods were left somewhat untouched. I will try to take a few pictures this year; below are pictured more mainland Japanese types of food for New Years.
nakamijiru 中身汁 (also 中味汁): Nakami-jiru is intestines soup (pork). This is a very traditional dish for Okinawan people, but younger generations are (for perhaps obvious reasons) less inclined to eat it these days. Bags of pre-made soup (just heat and serve) and large bags of “chitlins” (pieces of intestines, pardon the American slang) are easily found in the center aisles of the store this time of year.
Winter gift, oseibo 御歳暮: just like summer gift (chuugen), all the groceries drag out the box gifts. You can buy the same types of item: spam, laundry detergent, beer, rice… and you can have them ship it to relatives afar or just have them wrap it and deliver yourself during the days leading up to the New Year.
On New Years Eve, we typically watch Kohaku Uta Gassen 紅白歌合戦 (red vs white singing competition) featuring popular music artists and enka singers. Basically it is women (red) vs men (white), and while it is sort of cheesy at times (people complain about the talentless AKB48 groups), it is actually fun to have on while waiting for the end of the year. At the end, the votes are tallied and the winning team determined. Hotaru no hikari 蛍の光 (to the tune of Auld Lang Syne) is sung at the end, and then the program flashes to celebrations at New Years temples and shrines around Japan.
On the first of January, the Japan Post delivers New Years Cards with lottery numbers printed on them; see a related post on New Years Cards 年賀状 called nengajo 年賀状.
During the first week of New Years, especially on January 1st is the custom of hatsumode 初詣, the first visit to a shrine or temple (click here for info on shrines and temples in Okinawa); at midnight on New years you can usually hear the bells tolling 108 times. This is the time to buy new omamori お守り (protective amulets) and leave the old ones at the shrine or temple for the ritual burning. The shrines and temples are open 24 hours for the first 3 days of the New Year, so you can really go any time!
One tradition that is also very popular here in Okinawa is watching the first sunrise of the New Year, called 初日の出 hatsuhinode. Many people gather on ridges overlooking the east side of the island, and some locations have special events, such as Nakagusuku-jo ruins site. The 東太陽橋 Agai-tidabashi (bridge) by the SanA in Nakagusuku is always very crowded (this is also a popular moon-viewing spot).
And of course, the biggest shopping day of the year to score some good deals and fukubukuro (lucky bags) 福袋.
Some words/phrases you may see (or hear) a lot of:
よいお年を(お迎え下さい) yoi otoshi wo (omukae kudasai): said only before the New Year in December, basically “have a a good New Year.”
明けましておめでとうございます akemashite omedetou gozaimasu: Happy New Year (said after the New Year has begun)
今年もよろしくお願いします kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu: Please take care of me (again) this year. Said after the New Year begins.
今年もいろいろお世話になりました kotoshi mo iroiro osewani narimashita: Thank you for everything you have done for me this year. Said before the New Year begins.
また来年も宜しくお願い致します mata rainen mo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu: Next year please also take care of me. Said before the New Year begins.
謹賀新年 kinga shinen: Happy New Year (written, not usually said) 賀正 gashou: Happy New Year (written, not usually said)
迎春 geishun: welcoming spring (again, written not said)
元日 ganjitsu: January 1st
元旦 gantan: The morning of January 1st.
あけおめ ake ome: slang (shortened version) of akemashite omedetou (Happy New Year).
It is customary to send out postcards for the New Year (oshougatsu お正月) in Japan. This is really a huge business, similar to Americans sending Christmas cards every year. You write some customary sayings, and perhaps include some news from the year or personal messages.
The post office delivers them on January 1st, as long as you send them in before the deadline (December 25th)! Last year I received a few. Last year was the year of the monkey, here are some examples (I will post new Year of the Rooster after the New Year):
This year, my husband and I custom printed some cards from a popular shop in the SanA mall. We picked a design (not going to lie, it was a Hello Kitty/Year of the Rooster design, and I am not really embarrassed about it despite being a grown married woman) and a picture of us for the front. It is not terribly cheap, but includes the postage. It is rather cute, so I am happy with the result. We will be sending them out to some local friends.
There are not too many rules as to how to write a card, just as long as you can the address on there. The address can even be written in English characters (romaji), or if you want to challenge yourself, write in kanji. Otherwise you can design as you like; the stores are all brimming with ink stamps, stickers, specialized pens and more to design the perfect nengajo! If you google it, you can get all sorts of info on how to send nengajo, but honestly, it is not as complicated as some of them make it out to be– just pick some designs you like, write an appropriate message, and write the address clearly in either Japanese or English. If it does not have postage prepaid on it, go to the post office, the workers will be very helpful; otherwise if the postage is already taken care of, simply drop it in the postbox before December 25th. You can also send them AIRMAIL to other countries, I have sent a few to the US as well for just an additional 18yen per postcard. Again postal workers will be very kind and knowledgeable about this so do not hesitate; on the card in the printed boxes instead of the postal code, just write AIRMAIL, although the postal worker will also affix an Airmail sticker somewhere. It is a good idea to also include your own address at the bottom or front in small print for person receiving the card.
There are some typical phrases you will see on most cards. あけましておめでとうございます akemashite omedetou gozaimasu means “Happy New Year” (well, literally Congratulations on the newly opened year, or something like this). By the way you can only use this AFTER the New Year has begun (so it is okay on nengajo as they are delivered on the first of the new year); if you use it before the New Year, people will give you odd looks. Last year I had heard あけおめ! ake ome! which is a shortened version of this. It was spoken by college age kids to their friends, so remember this may not be the best version to use as a 外国人, though it may elicit some giggles.
Another popular phrase is 今年もよろしくお願いします kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu (or some variation of this, ranging on more polite to more casual). It means, Please take care of me again this year.
You will find that the stationary stores are filled with ink stamps, stickers, cards, envelopes, and more for decorating your nengajo. It is almost overwhelming, and so many of them are cute… I have to restrain myself every year.
Nengajo with lottery numbers for the New Year Jumbo Lottery are issued by the Japan Post and usually printed on the bottom of the card. Prizes are announced on January 15th and are household objects or local products. I have never won anything… but then again I have not received so many cards, so my odds are probably pretty low.
忘年会 bonenkai (or bounenkai) is an end-of-the-year party or gathering; these are for social clubs, coworkers, old classmates, friends, family… everyone! And often you may have a few to attend. I have currently already committed to some myself.
The first kanji 忘 means “to forget”, 年 mean “year,” and 会 means “gathering” or “meeting.” Basically, it means a forget-the-year-party! As it was explained to me by an older Okinawan, his feeling was that the deeper meaning meant to forget the bad things that happened over the past year, as well as the good things, since there is no promise for the future– the next year is a clean slate and a chance to start anew. I never thought of it that way until I heard that, but it actually does make quite a bit of sense; I think I assumed it mostly referred to only forgetting the bad (and imbibing as much alcohol as possible in order to do so, and possibly forgetting your senses as well).
Bonenkai is a type of nomikai 飲み会 which just means “drinking party.” There is also a shinnenkai 新年会, first gathering after the New Years as well; sort of like bonenkai, part II, but this time celebrating the beginning of a fresh new year.
Anyway, typically everyone agrees on a day/time and whoever is “leader” will make reservations at an izakaya 居酒屋 (or some other type of place with food and drinks). It is popular to have an enkai 宴会 option (banquet plan, party plan), so everyone just pays a set fee; obviously it is also typical to also include a nomihoudai 飲み放題 plan (all you can drink) in addition to the enkai plan for a set fee. It is a fun time with friends, to go out and get ready for the new year with chatting, drinking, and possibly karaoke or other shenanigans. It is something that everyone looks forward to as the year is coming to a close.
I doubt I will include any pictures, as most of them tend to be drunken embarrassment… maybe I will try to take some before everyone has had too much to drink at the next bonenkai I attend.