When we got back from the States it was obviously a little bit of a downer - you know, back to the land where I have extremely limited options for doing all of my own cooking, our apartment is always too cold and work is always sweltering, etc. - but one of the nice things was seeing these early that first morning, when I was on my way to work 7 hours after getting home.
I'm posting about this before our American vacation itself because it's easier, and I'm not sorry.
I read online that in this region of Japan (関東) bamboo versions of these are preferred, but every single one in my neighbourhood was pine. They're simply called 門松 ("gate pines") and are put up for the first week of the New Year so that the New Year god (年神) will descend from the heavens and bless your home. And of course there are all kinds of other positive connotations and metaphors associated with evergreens and bamboo, too.
I put a tiny one like this on the Christmas gift I gave my grandparents.
Even though these things are being used in very different contexts, don't you think there's something relatable and comforting about seeing decorated wreaths on doors shortly after Christmas?
Because the image is familiar but the decorations are rustic, primitive, and very Asian, they come off as very likable and charming instead of weird and unfamiliar. I thought about this while on the walking portions of my morning commutes; it's one of those things where the thought of, "wow, people are mostly just the same and a lot of what we do has a common root in the extremely distant past" really hits home.
Of course, many businesses are closed at this time.
As for all of these, they're called しめ飾り, and are made of rope and straw because of a legend about the sun goddess Amaterasu from one of the oldest surviving Japanese texts.
One day she got all pissy and hid in a cave behind a boulder (Jesus resurrection story again, anyone?) after having an argument, and the other gods had to go in and get her after having tried everything else they could think of, finally using a rope to drag her back out to deal with her shit. While she was in there - because she's the sun goddess - the world was swathed in darkness and overrun by demons, so it was really pretty important that she clam her tits and get her life. They barred her from going back in with a pole of plated straw that was enchanted or something. I should probably remember more of this from college, but I often can't hear my own thoughts over the sound of my crushing student loan debt.
So in a nutshell, that's why there are always rope decorations at Shinto shrines and during occasions like this. They symbolise holiness and purification.
Here's the biggest of both types of decoration I saw in my immediate area. The cinderblocks aren't very attractive but many people use them.
You also see lots of these (well, like, the one on the left) in convenience and grocery stores, and presumably just about everybody has one at home. It's 鏡もち, "mirror rice cake", so named I guess because mirrors used to be large, round, polished stones.
(Sauce: Rinkya Blog)
Happy Year of the Monkey!