Japan Outpost Extra: Winter

No one will disagree that the biggest event by far during winter in Japan is the New Year. Unlike in China, we celebrate the New Year on the normal calendar, not on the lunar calendar. There are so many things we do customarily towards the end of the year and the New Year, and many of you might know quite a few of them already, as they are talked about a lot on many occasions, such as Osechi ryori (おせち料理: special food we prepare for the New Year day), and Toshikoshi soba (年越しそば: buckwheat noodles we eat on New Year Eve).

In this article, I’d like to talk about Kakizome (書初め), which might be less well-known. Kakizome means writing in calligraphy for the first time in the year, and usually, one is supposed to do so on January 2nd, but it is not that strict. At schools, pupils often do Kakizome in their first calligraphy class in the year in January. At some schools, a Kakizome competition might be held, in which a large number of pupils do Kakizome in a school gym together (see the photo), and the best ones are awarded prizes. In both cases, phrases are given in a calligraphy copybook, and pupils try their best to imitate them as closely as possible, and that’s how we learn. Once you are an adult, you can write any phrase you like, and many people choose this occasion to write their New Year resolution in a short phrase. For Kakizome, we tend to use a longer paper than usual, and it is usually about a metre long. So the phrases we write are also a longer than usual. If we are writing a phrase that consists of only Kanji, the phrases for Kakizome could be about 4 to 6 Kanji characters, compared to two characters for usual phrases. Naturally, it’s much harder! As you can see in the photo, you need to place the paper on the floor, and you need to move along the paper to keep on writing a long phrase. I do remember as a primary school pupil that it was very challenging to do so, but also it gave me a sense of accomplishment and the excitement that we were doing something very important and special at the beginning of the year.

Kakizome Competition

Writing Kakizome

Once done, everybody’s Kakizome work will be usually posted on the back wall of the classroom for a while (see the photo), until the day comes when we burn them in a special ceremonial event, called Sagicho (左義長) or Dondo-yaki (どんど焼き). (The name may vary depending on the region.) It is usually on January 15th or around then. Traditionally, it is done in a rice field after the rice is harvested, but at schools, it is done at the school ground. Three or four long bamboos are assembled to create a pyramid-like shape, then all the Kakizome works, together with the Shimenawa and Kadomatsu (let’s just say for now that they are the traditional ornaments that decorate the house for the New Year to invite ancestors’ spirits) are piled up together and burned. It is much like a large bonfire people make for Guy Fawkes night here. We bake Omochi or Odango (they are gooey food made of rice) on the fire, instead of melting marshmallows! I remember watching the powerful fire burning everything up, and at the same time desperately looking for my Kakizome work, because they say that if the ash or a piece of your work flies up high with the force of the fire, your calligraphy skill will improve. And yes, I believed it! On a cold January day, with only my face being hot and my back being cold, I remember watching the fire intensely and with a slight feeling of sadness, as Dondo-yaki marked the end of Oshogatsu (お正月:The New Year), and things would go back to normal after that.

Burning Kakizome works in Dondo-yaki

The soaring flames of the Dondo-yaki