Towards the end of December, you will see pine, bamboo, and rope-like decorations adorning homes, stores, and other buildings to welcome in the new year in Japan.
These decorations have roots in Shinto, the indigenous faith of the Japanese and are meant to usher in the new year gods (toshigami 年神) who will then bestow a bountiful harvest to farmers and ancestral blessings to the whole family.
As Japan was traditionally a farming society, prosperity and a good harvest were tied to winning the favors of the gods.
But walk by almost any building or home in Japan around the new year today and you’ll see the same traditional decorations to usher in good luck and prosperity.
Couldn’t we all use a little luck in the new year, so let’s get to know the different Japanese new year decorations!
Kadomatsu are traditional New Year decorations made of pine and/or bamboo sprigs, placed in pairs (representing male and female) in front of homes to welcome the Shinto gods. They are derived from the Shinto belief that the divine spirits reside in trees.
The kado (門) in kadomatsu means “gate” and matsu means “pine” (松), and kadomatsu are meant to be temporary dwelling places for the gods. After around the middle of January, kadomatsu are burned to appease and release the gods.
As evergreens, pine trees symbolize strength amidst adversity and the element of luck. Bamboo sprouts quickly and ramrod-straight, so it also stands for strength and overcoming hard times.
Apparently, the composition of kadomatsu vary depending on the region of Japan but in general, the center of the kadomatsu is formed by three large bamboo shoots, representing heaven, humanity, and earth. The shoots are set are different heights, with heaven being the highest and earth being the lowest. The kadomatsu is then bound with a straw mat and newly woven straw rope.
Shime-nawa and shime-kazari
Shime-nawa (注連縄, literally “enclosing ropes”) are braided straw ropes used for ritual purification in the Shinto religion.
If you have ever been to a Shinto shrine, it is likely you have seen shime-nawa strung from the eaves of the shrine or gate, as shime-nawa are used to demarcate a sacred or purified area. Shide (紙垂) or zig zag-shaped paper streamers are often attached to shime-nawa.
Amaterasu and the Cave
According to Iromegane.com, shime-nawa braided ropes trace their roots to Amaterasu, a major deity in Shintoism, the goddess of the sun and the universe. There is a famous myth about Amaterasu and the cave which is said to explain the origin of shime-nawa.
One day, Amaterasu blocked herself in a cave in a fit of anger after another goddess played a joke on her. As she was the sun goddess, the world was cast in total darkness and evil spirits ran free all over the earth. The other gods tried various ruses to get her out and finally succeeded with a strip-tease routine! As she peaked out of the cave, one of the strongest gods, “held behind the goddess a pole of plaited straw and emphatically stated that the goddess could hide no longer and the world was once more bathed in her radiant sunlight.” (Learn more about Amaterasu at ancient.eu)
Apparently, from that time, shime-nawa (enclosing ropes) have been used to delineate sacred, purified spaces.
For the new year, families hang a shime-kazari (しめ飾り) decoration (which often consists of a shime-nawa braided rope and a daidai (the native Japanese word for the color “orange” is daidai, not “orenji”!), a variety of bitter orange) at the entrance to their homes. Shime-kazari decoration supposedly are derived from shime-nawa (braided rope).
Kagami mochi (鏡餅) (pictured in the lead photo) are traditional new year decorations that usually consist of two round mochi (rice cakes), the smaller of which is placed on top of the larger and a daidai (a variety of bitter orange, as explained above in the section on shime-nawa). The mochi sit on a stand which is supposed to ward off house fires in the coming year.
The name of kagami (“mirror”) mochi is said to have originated from its similarity in shape to an old-fashioned round copper mirror.
Mochi dry out quickly when exposed to air, so nowadays kagami-mochi sold in stores are enclosed in plastic so they can still be eaten when the new year period is over.
When to decorate and when to take down decorations
Finally, as Iromegane.com explains, timing is everything when decorating for the new year.
Here are the guidelines:
It’s bad luck to put up your decorations up on December 31st, as this is considered last-minute (ichiiya-kazari 一夜飾り) and will bring back luck.
December 29th is apparently also not a good day to put up decorations because the number nine has the same sound as “suffer” (ku 苦) in Japanese, so it is also considered to be bad luck.
This means it’s best to decorate on the 28th of December.
On January 7th, it’s time to take down new year decorations because that is when the new year gods leave our world.
There you have it. Now we know the significance of pine, bamboo, and braided rope in new year’s decorations and Shintoism, and we won’t have to wonder why our next-door neighbor has an orange-adorned decoration hanging on their front door.
This article was originally published in December 31, 2015 and republished on December 28, 2020, with updates.
Lead photo: Traditional Japanese new year decoration Kagamimochi via iStock