Shinto, Buddhist: New Year, 7-Herb Soup (& a cute baby)

SATURDAY, JANUARY 1: Japanese ring in the new year today with old and new customs in the Shinto tradition. Shinto is listed among world religions, but today’s Shinto wasn’t founded or codified in the same way as many other world religions popular in the West. Shinto draws on ancient wisdom gathered from Japanese oral tradition, folklore, indigenous customs and ideas that migrated across Asia. It’s a living religious tradition that continues to be practiced by many Japanese around the world.

Meanwhile, in the rich diversity of Asian cultures, Buddhists today are ringing temple bells 108 times—a number that’s sacred in many Eastern traditions. For Buddhists, the number specifically recalls 108 human sins or temptations to avoid. Buddhists want to be mindful of these 108 worldly desires today in the hope that they might rid themselves and others of these desires for the New Year.

Followers of Shintos like to visit a temple as soon as the New Year arrives—often not even waiting until sunrise. It’s a time for traditional prayers and other devotions. (Read more at the National Association of Japan-America Societies.)

Prior to 1873, Japan followed the Chinese lunar calendar and honored a different New Year’s Day; after the Meiji Restoration, Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar. The Japanese have long greeted days before, during and after the New Year with traditions—and time-consuming tasks. Since the Japanese view years as spiritually separate, the last days of a year are spent cleaning a house of the “dirt” of the old year, completing business and preparing abundant amounts of food. (Japan-Guide has more.)

No one works on New Year’s Day or the couple of days following, so the prepared food is consumed in joy with family and friends. Boiled seasweed, fish cakes, sweetened soybeans, beaten rice cakes and sushi are all popular dishes for New Year’s celebrations, and many contain special spiritual significance. (Wikipedia has details.)

Nanakusa Gayu: Japanese Seven Herbs of Spring Rice Soup
(and that cute baby)

The Japanese eat so well during New Year’s festivities that they even prepare a seven-herb rice soup for Jan. 7 to help heal their stomachs from the previous indulgences! You can find articles all over the Internet on this custom: Many are written by Japanese writers for a Japanese audience; some are written for non-Japanese but tend to explain the customs in terms of the writer’s own personal experience. For example, across the Web, you can find an array of writers describing the “7 herbs” with slight personal variances. (Wikipedia offers its take on the Seven Herbs Festival, which includes a note that says people have long felt comfortable making adapatations.)

This really is a wonderful and tasty spiritual custom and, if you’re a creative cook, you might want to whip up something on a similar culinary theme. Healthy, warm, herbed rice to soothe the stomach in early January isn’t a bad idea in any contry or culture, right?

Our recommendation is to enjoy the Blue Lotus blog by Amy Kakazawa, who moved to Japan in 1996 and maintains a delightfully cross-cultural blog about the Japanese culture she has come to love. Here is Amy’s 2005 post on Nanakusa Gayu, complete with photos and a recipe. Then, here’s an update on Nanakusa Gayu she posted two years later with a great photo of the customary, wicker herb planters that are supposed to grow the various plants at home.

And that cute baby? Before you leave Amy’s site, you’ve got to see her photos preparing holiday greetings with her baby. They’re sure to make you smile! Then, here’s the finished product, a special Happy New Year’s from Japan by Amy and baby.

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