A Celebration of the New Year in Japanese Woodblock Prints
The dawn of the New Year is a special time of rebirth and renewal in Japan. It is a time of festive celebration called oshogatsu which spiritually and physically welcomes the new year through a multitude of traditional customs. The excitement of the holiday season begins well before New Year's Day with traditional pine and bamboo decorations placed at building entrances (kadomatsu) and people hurrying to complete work, finish their New Year's cleaning at home, and prepare the assortment of traditional, symbolic foods (osechiryori) intended to last at least the first three days of the year. The activity reaches its climax on New Year's Eve when temple bells are rung 108 times at midnight and on New Year's Day when everyone, frequently dressed in traditional kimono, makes the first shrine or temple visit of the year (hatsumode) to give coin offerings and pray for good health and happiness. The shrines and temples offer the public an array of festive foods and souvenirs ranging from votive tablets, horoscope readings, papier-mache dolls of bodhidharma (daruma) , wooden arrows and lucky charms to greet the new year. At home, at least three days are traditionally set aside to relax, play games, exchange New Year's greetings with friends and enjoy the traditional foods which include pounded, sticky rice cakes (mochi), sake, and foods symbolic of happiness, prosperity and fertility such as rolled seaweed (kobu), sweetened black beans (kuromame), a type of sardine (iwashi), and herring roe (kazunoko).
The Museum is fortunate to have a number of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century prints and surimono (deluxe, privatelycommissioned prints) that were probably used to celebrate the New Year. Surimono were distributed as New Year's greeting cards among members of small literary circles. Several surimono prints make reference to the year of the horse in the Chinese zodiac which coincides with the zodiac sign of the current year. Moreover, images of cranes or falcons, especially pictured with the rising sun, have long been associated with New Year's celebrations. The crane motif, symbolic of longevity, functions as an auspicious prayer for long life and happiness. The falcon is one of three lucky omens in the tradition of "the first dream." Traditionally, a vision of Mt. Fuji, falcons or eggplants in one's first dream of the new year foretells a happy year. Another popular motif is that of the treasure ship takarabune, a wooden sailboat laden with riches and often bearing the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Paintings of takarabune were often placed under one's pillow on New Year's Eve in hopes of having lucky dreams.
The New Year season is essentially optimistic in spirit with great emphasis on purifying the soul, making new beginnings and renewing hopes for good health, prosperity and happiness. As in early spring images of bird and flowers in snow--so popular in paintings and prints--the thought of spring, and the first plum and cherry blossoms, is ever in the air.