Oshōgatsu is the traditional Japanese name for the New Year celebration. In Japanese one of the kanji characters use to write this term means “correct” because the Japanese believe that the proper beginning of a new year ensures that the year will be both prosperous and happy.
Kagami mochi, or mirror rice cake, is one of most familiar Oshōgatsu icons. It is made from two round mochi, made from pounded rice, that are placed one on top of the other; some people say they symbolize the past year and the new year. A small Japanese orange is then placed on top, and the kagami mochi is often decorated with seaweed, persimmons, and strips of paper that have been folded to look like lightening bolts. While kagami mochi is primarily a New Year decoration, some households and martial arts studios have a tradition of eating it on the second Saturday or Sunday of January.
In Japan the celebration of the New Year lasts for three (or more) days, not just 24 hours. During the holiday family and friends often visit each other in their homes to eat special holiday foods and engage in traditional pastimes. Historically one of those activities was a game called hanetsuki, which was played with hagoita or battledore paddles and with hane shuttlecocks (center photo below). Hanetsuki was primarily a game for girls, and perhaps because of that the hagoita often featured elaborate decorations. Eventually the hagoita and hane shapes became decorations in themselves. They make pretty good hashioki, too.
Sho chiku bai — pine, bamboo and plum — are a motif that are associated with winter, and therefore with New Year celebrations. They are sometimes called the Three Friends of Winter because unlike many other plants they do not shrivel up when the weather turns cold. Because of this, the motif is said to represent resilliance and perseverance. Sho chiku bai usually appear in kadomatsu or “gate pine” arrangements that appear at doorways and other prime spots during Oshōgatsu.
While Japan has celebrated the New Year holiday on January 1 since the late 19th. century, many Japanese also celebrate the Lunar or Chinese New Year which begins in late January or early February. One of the best parts of that celebration is the lion dance which is supposed to chase away bad spirits as the new year begins. While these shishi-kashira or lion head hashioki look more Chinese than Japanese, they were actually all purchased in Kyōto, including the large one with the movable hinged jaw.