Happy New Year


Haiku writers in Japan have five seasons to choose from when writing their poetry – with New Year’s Day being considered a season all of its own. William J Higginson in his 1996 book The Haiku Seasons (Kodansha International) has this to say:

“In the old calendar [New Year’s Day] was about the beginning of spring, and considered a doubly auspicious day. Now moved to January 1 as a result of the new calendar, New Year’s Day is still treated as the beginning of spring by some haikai poets.”

April is such a busy time in Japan – cherry blossom viewing, the start of the new school year, people changing jobs and homes – and before 1873 it was also the start of the year! (Spring seems a much more logical time to celebrate a new year, doesn’t it?)

In readiness for New Year’s Day Japanese people clean their houses (oosoji / susuharai):

極月や箱階段の薄埃   石田経治

gokugetsu ya hako kaidan no usubokori

            year-end month —
            thin layer of dust
            on the box steps

                     –  Keiji Ishida
from Blue Willow Haiku World, translator Fay Aoyagi

New Year’s Day
dawns clear, and sparrows
tell their tales

Hattori Ransetsu, 1654-1707
from The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse, translators Geoffrey Bownas & Anthony Thwaite


Yuzu is a kind of citrus that in Japan is not only used for culinary purposes but on the winter solstice whole fruit are a vital ingredient … in a hot bath, whether at a public onsen (hot spring) or at home. The aromatic oils released from the skin of the fruit are not only said to protect from colds and flu, but are also good for chapped skin. Read more here.

Or you could try the annual New Year’s Day ice bath held at a shrine in Tokyo – although the photos in the link show men only, women also participate while wearing a thin, white robe.

The first sunrise of the new year is believed to have special significance and praying at sunrise for health and happiness is widespread.

it’s play for the cranes
flying up to the clouds
the year’s first sunrise …

Chiyo-ni, 1703-75
from The British Museum Haiku, translator David Cobb

Japanese attach special significance to the first of many things they do in a new year. Some traditional firsts that are notable are kakizome (first writing), hatsuyume (first dream), hatsumōde (first shrine visit), hakizome (first house cleaning), and hatsuburo (first bath). Read more about the many traditions here.

the first dream of the year —
I keep it a secret
and smile to myself

–  Sho-u
from The British Museum Haiku, translator by R H Blyth

Dondoyaki (about January 15) ends the New Year observances when people take last year’s talismans and New Year decorations to their local shrine where they are burned (so no symbolic fir/pine trees hanging around until April!).

  • This posting is dedicated to the memory of two lovely men lost to the world of haiku and renku in these past 12 months – John Carley and Martin Lucas, both of Lancashire in England.

remembering those gone
thankful to be here —
pond of purple iris

– Margaret Chula
from Haiku Mind by Patricia Donegan

Horikiri iris garden by Hiroshige, 1857 (Wikimedia)

A New Year!

Along my journey
through this transitory world,
new year’s housecleaning

– Matsuo Basho

Many sajiki (dictionary of Japan season words) have five seasons, the fifth being “new year” (from The Haiku Seasons by William J Higginson, Kodansha International, 1996). Bill goes on to say that: “In Basho’s day the New Year roughly coincided with the beginning of spring; when Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar [in 1873] the two-week-long New Year celebration came to be treated separately.”

Along with many other traditions associated with the new year (special tea, etc), the first dream of the year was/is considered particularly important in Japan, and you can read more about that here.

For us in the West, it’s about looking back and looking forward at the same time, about making resolutions to stand us in good stead for the coming year – and, if you’re Scottish, having a dark-haired man be the first to step through the front door on January 1, carrying a lump of coal, whisky, small cakes and a coin! First-footing, as it’s called, apparently dates back to the days of Viking raids on the east coast of Scotland – a fair-haired man stepping into your home would be very bad luck indeed!

New Year’s Day:
some breaths are long,
some breaths are short.

– Stuart Quine (from The Haiku Seasons)

toasting the new year –
a puriri moth
hits my glass

– Sandra Simpson (Kokako 6, 2007)

My haiku is as the moment happened, I haven’t changed a thing. Puriri moths, native to New Zealand, are large (15cm wingspan) and green; striking, so to speak … and mostly emerge between October and December.  See some photos here.

And read a blog post by poet and outdoorsman Barry L Smith about his encounter with the moths.