Steep in traditional Shinto practices, Japan welcomes the New Year (Shougatsu) with an arrangement of tree sprigs, known as kadomatsu “gate pine” to decorate the inside and outside of homes.
Shougatsu has always been considered the most celebrated and important event of the year. Derived from China, the word "shou" refers to renewal, thus making Shougatsu the first month of the renewed year. The origin of Shougatsu is based on the agricultural ceremony to welcome the deity (toshigami) who would bring a bountiful harvest to the farmers and prosperity to the people. It is believed that kadomatsu serves as a temporary dwelling place (yorishiro) for toshigami.
Shinto practices were first recorded in the 7th and 8th century based on folklore, history, and mythology. Kami means “spirits, natural forces, or essence” in the Shinto faith. It has been noted that the custom of kadomatsu was observed as far back as in the Heian period (794 - 1185). Like any old tradition, its significant meaning and purpose have been diminished or forgotten in modern customary practices.
There are regional variations in the type of tree used - bamboo, sakaki (a low evergreen of the tea family), and Japanese chestnut. In some parts of Japan, two or three different ones are combined in the arrangement of kadomatsu. The most common arrangement features fresh pine placed at the entrance of the house. When displayed outside the house, kadomatsu are usually arranged in pairs, one on the left, and the other on the right of the entrance. Inside the house, they are displayed singly.
In general, decoration of kadomatsu composes primarily of pine boughs, three bamboo stalks sliced diagonally at the end, and a plum branch - each of which bears significant meaning. Pine, an evergreen, symbolizes endurance and longevity; bamboo represents growth and strength; and plum tree indicates purity and steadfastness for it brings sweet, beautiful blossoms after enduring the cold winters.
Designs for kadomatsu vary depending on region and there exist specific rules about the arrangement of the elements for display. The central part of the kadomatsu consists of three large bamboo trunks, representing heaven, humanity, and earth. The bamboo stalks are set at different heights with heaven being the highest and earth being the lowest. A straw mat and newly woven straw rope are used to bind all the elements together to complete the kadomatsu display.
In the past, the Japanese in the countryside began preparing for Shougatsu in mid-December by placing a pair of kadomatsu at the entrance of their home. The old calendar based on the phases of the moon shows that Shougatsu falls on "the full moon of the fifteenth day" in December. However, when the new calendar was adopted, the tradition of celebrating Shougatsu was then changed to the first day of the month (January 1st). Nevertheless, Shougatsu events still begin on December 13 with the practice of cutting pines for kadomatsu and the custom of cleaning the house and office for purification in order to welcome toshigami for luck, prosperity and protection.
Nowadays in the cities, some Japanese display pairs of kadomatsu after Christmas celebration at the entrances to houses, hotels, offices, shops, and bars. Miniature kadomatsu for display in apartments and condominiums are sold for around 1,000 yen at the supermarket.
The Shougatsu festivities used to go on for a whole month ending on January 15, but due to the pressure of modern work lifestyle, the ceremonies have been shortened to January 7. In fact, today Shougatsu holiday is usually observed for the first three days up to a week. Schools and offices are closed for one to two weeks for the Japanese to get together for family reunion. To release the toshigami, the kadomatsu is finally burned after January 15.
As Japan transforms from an agricultural to a high-tech society, the tradition of placing a pair of kadomatsu at the entrance is waning, however, the practice is enthusiastically embraced and perpetuated in Hawaii, a place with a large population of Japanese descendants.