Friday, February 3, 2017

It’s not Christmas, but New Year, Tree: New Year Decoration, Japanese style

Yeah. We Japanese do not have much attachment to Christmas trees. In the end, Christmas is a foreign festival imported from somewhere. Though, it does not mean our traditional home decoration is removed from forest during the New Year Festival. Far from it. So, in this post, I report how we danced with forests during 2017 New Year. In Niinaru, our preparation for New Year’s decoration began one early December weekend. A senior member of Lovers Organization negotiated with rice-paddy owners in the town to procure rice straws from this year’s harvest. Meanwhile, we went out in several parties to the forest. One group harvested thick enough old bamboos. Another entered a hill which has lots of 10 or so years old Quercus mysrinifolia. Our leader told us, “Today, we harvest the oaks for Dontoyaki どんと焼き. We need at least 120 well-formed trees for the festival. Let’s cut, (inspecting the field) …, OK, the trees planted along 50m of this side the road.” Well-formed? “Yes. Leave too large trees, and harvest ones that can make a good stick, of … well, about 3m long with bushy branches near the top. We are going to trim them later.” On that day, we harvested about 50 old bamboos and 150 young Quercus mysrinifolia. Then, next week, we again went into the forest to harvest plum tree branches with buds. A senior member talked with one of the landlords in Niiharu Town to collect from his garden branches of Pinus thunbergii and Sarcandra Glabra with red and yellow berries … It’s sad Pinus thunbergii is still hard to come by in the forest … They were all cut during the World War II for pine oils … Niiharu has several bushes of wild Sarcandra Glabra, but they were kept uncut for 2017. Now, Niiharu Lovers were ready for making New Year’s decorations.

“We need this size of oaks.”
Oaks will be trimmed …
Harvesting plum branches
Buds, buds …

We Japanese prepare for a New Year first by cleaning our house, inside-out. In Shinto shrines, the day of shrine cleaning is December 13th, and often on the same day the pines are procured from the forests. Then, we decorate home by “strategically” locating particular ornaments made of materials from the forest (and sea for some communities). Simply put, the whole operation is an amalgam of Shintoism ritual and folk belief. It states that on every January 1st the god of New Year visits every household in Japan to inspect the situation. If the house is clean with proper New Year ornaments, the god brings good luck to the family for the entire year. (Hey, it’s serious business!) Some say the New Year god presides over the harvest of the year, or s/he is the spirit of ancestors who know our family and community rather well. Good manner is a key. If you decorate an ornament on the 31st of December, the New Year god can find it easily and thinks it’s a rush job without sufficient respect to him/her. In the old Japanese lunar calendar, December had only 30 days so that preparing the decoration on the 30th is no-no for the same reason. The 29th is also no good since 9 in Japanese is pronounced “ku” that is phonetically same as “suffering .” In conclusion, we have to complete the cleaning and decoration by midnight 28th of December for the New Year God. So, in the weekend of 2016 Christmas, Niiharu Lovers came into the forest to make New Year’s decorations: the 24th was for visitors (paying the actual cost of 500 yen for each decoration; we’ll do the same in December 2017. Please make a reservation via our web-site in order for us to provide enough materials), and the 25th was for houses of the members.  Our to-do-list stated (1) Kadomatsu 門松 making, and (2) Shimenawa 注連縄 weaving.

Lots of department stores sell New Year ornaments.
The best selection appears on 25th,
after the Christmas shopping.
This street stall is for a more traditional vender.
In front of Koganji Temple
this year, Sugamo
巣鴨, Tokyo.
Lovers in action for New Year decoration-making!

Kadomatsu is an ornament to be situated at the gate of a house. Its function is to tell the visiting god of New Year the household is ready to welcome him/her. For a proper Kadomatsu, the decoration must guard 2 pillars of the gate so that we are supposed to make 2 ornaments for one gate. Each community has their own design for Kadomatsu. Normally, we can add bamboos, plum branches, and other decorations to Kadomatsu. Niiharu Lovers’ Kadomatsu was made of pine branches, bamboos, plum branches, and Sarcandra Glabra. The trio of pine, bamboo and plum is a traditional symbol for good luck imported from China long ago. Since the 17th century Sarcandra Glabra has been uber-popular horticultural plant that symbolizes the wealth, which makes it appropriate for Kadomatsu. In Niiharu, we made small vases with thick enough old bamboo trunks. Inside of a bamboo-base, we put 3 thinner young bamboos, with the head sliced, neatly, and then the pines, plums and Sarcandra Glabra were arranged in Ikebana-style. There is a legend that cutting the head of young bamboos was started by Tokugawa Ieyasu 徳川家康 after his defeat by Takeda Shingen 武田信玄 in 1572. On the other hand, my seniors told me the ends looked like smiley faces that were appropriate for the New Year. I love their explanation rather than the savage war episode …

The top of a young bamboo is cut.
Start of the arrangement for Kadomatsu.
Please look the cut ends of young bamboos,
and compare them with …
One of my Kadomatsu became like this.
The yellow Sarcandra Glabra makes sense
in terms of Feng Shui
(“Money, money, money!!!!”).
My mom’s verdict:
“Hum, it’s rather eccentric.
You need to learn Samadhi in 2017.”
This was how Kadomatsu decorated
the entrance of shops in Ginza, Tokyo, this year.
The head of the bamboos were not sliced.
Some say this style is older.
They are huge!
At the entrance of Mitsubishi Kaitohkaku
Shinagawa, Tokyo.
They are also Kadomatsu,
with taller bamboos and shorter pines.
In Nihonbashi, Tokyo.
These days,
it’s common to have an abbreviated version.

In Shintoism, Shimenawa of rice straws is to create a secluded sacred space for the gods. So, for the New Year, we decorate the entrance door of our houses with Shimenawa, which means inside is at least temporarily clean and sacred enough for the god of New Year to visit. As Shimenawa is more of a part of Shinto ritual, there are lots of ways to weave according to a particular symbolism. I have learned just one way of doing it, and it was a kind of team work with one of my seniors. He held the one end, and we collaborated to plait rice straws. It was a fun!

My Shimenawa
This Shimenawa is really for making a sanctuary.
At Samukawa Shrine
寒川神社, this New Year.
It’s a fusion of Shimenawa and Kadomatsu.
The ball below a small whitewood roof is
also for New Year, made of cedar leaves.
The cedar ball is common among communities
within Okuyama
奥山, like
丹沢 or Hakone 箱根 Mountains.
I found the scenery in the middle of
owntown Tokyo, this New Year.
Oh, by the way,
if you want to make a cedar ball
for New Year by yourself,
Kanagawa 21st Century Forest has
a workshop every December
(; this year, the cost was 3000 yen).
Their email address is
Lots of lots of Shimenawa in a department store.
They can be used like a Christmas wreath.

Now, all the decorations were made from the bounty of the forests, and we had a peaceful 2017 New Year. I hope the god visited our home this year found the place at least at “Pass” level. (“Oh, I know, that part needs more cleaning up … so sorry …”) It is said that the New Year god is enjoying the New Year celebration for the first 7 days of January with us humans. We have to keep the decoration until January 7th. Then, what? We do not have a special garbage collection like in the post-Christmas US or elsewhere. Many Japanese city-folks dispose the decoration as household trash. Because of this, quite many even skip the New Year’s decoration all together these days … It’s a pity, because actually the Japanese tradition takes care of this part of relationship between the forest and the humans, in a sort of sustainable way. It’s Dontoyaki on January 14th, a festival to return New Year decorations to the gods of the land, rice paddies and forests. People from a neighborhood collect the Kadomatsu, Shimenawa, and any other New Year decorations, such as Dharma dolls (after accomplishing the wishes), brushes for Japanese calligraphy, and the New Year calligraphies. In Niiharu, the members of the Organization for Promoting Niiharu Satoyama Community 新治里山「わ」を広げる会 set up a bonfire fire around 14:00 with 2 long bamboos and burned the things brought by the neighbors. You should stand around the fire to steep your body with the smoke from the fire made of these sacred objects, in order to purify yourself for the entire year. The smoke is also believed to ward off sick spirits, like flu. When your calligraphies make a good fire, it is said that your penmanship improves.

The start of the Dontoyaki fire this year in Niiharu
On January 14th in Niiharu,
the kids from Tokaichiba Junior-high volunteered
to sort out the donations into “flammables” and “the others.”
They are to Dontoyaki.
The plastics are collected and disposed
according to the City ordinance.
Wishing for good health …
the ashes from Dontoyaki is believed to
guarantee a good harvest of the year.
Well, there would be a scientific reason for this.

People also roast round rice cakes with the fire and eat them, which would guarantee a good health for the year. To roast the cake, a young tree is cut and trimmed to make a long 3 teeth fork. A round ball of cake was attached to each tooth, and people gathered around the fire to roast the cakes. Those families who lived in Niiharu for generations came to Dontoyaki with their long forks with rice cakes made by themselves. For the rest, our work with Quercus mysrinifolia in December came in. With our harvest, the Organization members prepared 120 forks with rice balls: about 40 of them went to the kids of Tokaichiba Junior-high and the others who helped the preparation. The rest, more than 80, was available for 200 yen, on first-come-first-served bases from 15:00. I was amazed that already at 14:00 there were more than 200 people gathered around Dontoyaki, and they spontaneously made a long line to get a hold of a rice ball fork. The people from the Admin Office told the people they did not have enough for all of them … nonetheless people waited and kids were laughing and running around with bamboo helicopter toys made by Niiharu Lovers seniors. I realized it does not matter to have a rice cake. We have been there to enjoy a traditional forest winter around the fire. Warm, warm, end of the New Year festival in Niiharu.

Waiting for rice cakes …
The forks are ready.
Quercus mysrinifolia were trimmed for the rice cakes.
He brought his fork from home.
We are roasting!
This couple brought a sweet potato wrapped with
aluminum foil to Dontoyaki.
The Organization people were very kind
to take care of the roasting of their potato …
so, we can bring marshmallows on a stick, next year,
I guess

If you find a problem in Niiharu Forest, please make a contact with

Office for the Park Greeneries in the North 北部公園緑地事務所
Yokohama Municipal Government Creative Environment Policy Bureau 横浜市環境創造局
Phone: 045-311-2016 (I guess in Japanese only)
FAX: 045-316-8420 (I hope there is somebody who can read English …)

Niiharu Administrative Office / Satoyama Exchange Center
Phone: 045-931-4947
Fax: 045-937-0898

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