Art,craft & Homewares

Shimekazari is a traditional Japanese decoration!

2015.12.02

Traditional Japanese Shimekazari Straw-rope Decorations


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The Japanese Shinto religion has a myriad of deities--it is said to have eight million, in fact--which reside everywhere around us including in places such the mountains and agricultural fields as well as individual grains of rice and even people's kitchens! Toshigami, god of the rice harvest, is believed to come down from the mountains into the villages and towns during the New Year holiday to deliver happiness to the people.

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People undertake various preparations to welcome Toshigami as the New Year holiday draws near. These include the preparation of shimekazari straw-rope decorations, which are put up in holy places fit for receiving Toshigami in order to encourage the deity's visit.

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New Year's shimekazari include various decorative elements which have their origins in old, traditional beliefs. Each element has its own specific purpose--for example, shide zigzag-shaped paper strips designed to resemble lightning bolts are said to drive away evil.

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Although plastic shimekazari have become widespread in recent times, these decorations are traditionally made using the straw of rice, hemp or similar. Customs differ from region to region, but it is standard practice to cut the rice plants while they are still green--before the ears have appeared--and then dry them in the shade before using them to make shimekazari.

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Shimekazari are usually put up between December 26 and 28. Putting them up on either December 29 or 31 is considered bad luck: doing so on the 29th is said to bring suffering (ku in Japanese, which sounds similar to the niju-ku pronunciation of the number 29), whereas putting them up on the 31st means they can only stay up for one night before Toshigami's visit, which is considered disrespectful toward the deity. Following Toshigami's visit, it is common to take the shimekazari down on January 7 and burn them during the Dondoyaki ritual on January 15, although in some parts of the Japan the shimekazari are kept up throughout the year.

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Shimekazari come in many forms. Those from the Ise-Shima area of Mie Prefecture feature the phrase "shomon" (gate to happiness) written on a wooden tablet, which is considered an auspicious phrase and thus displayed as a prayer for happiness.

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Shrimp have a curved shape much like that of an elderly person's curved back, and they also have long, beard-like projections, which is why they are often said to resemble an old man. For this reason, shrimp have come to be considered symbols of health and long life, and they are often used as models for shimekazari designs.

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The turtle-shaped shimekazari is quite impressive to behold. Japanese people view turtles as symbols of long life and thus consider them to be auspicious animals.

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Some shimekazari are designed to resemble horses. Since ancient times, horses have been viewed as the means of conveyance used by the gods and thus came to be offered up to deities at Shinto shrines. Today, wooden votive tablets, shimekazari and other such objects are put up as substitute offerings for living horses when people entreat the Shinto gods.

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As described above, each region and local subculture in Japan has its own unique shimekazari. All of them are used to express prayers for happiness during the coming year for one's family and friends. We encourage you to experience this Japanese tradition for yourself: in the seventh-floor "Japan Edition," we are showcasing Japanese traditional culture, crafts and more, so please come and have a look!

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