How many sleeps until
New Year’s Day?
On New Year’s Day
let’s fly a kite
and spin tops together
Come come quickly
New Year’s Day
Just like the child anticipating New Year’s Day in this well-known Japanese children’s song, I’m looking forward to the New Year, especially this December. To be honest, I’m really looking forward to putting up my New Year’s ornament called shimekazari that I made with my friends in November.
Back in April, I wrote to Robin Koda to ask if she would send me rice straw to make shimekazari this fall. I’ve known Robin for several years now through my shop, and she is the third-generation co-owner of Koda Farms in South Dos Palos, California. Her farm, established by her grandfather in the 1910s, is the oldest family-owned rice farm in the state. I was ecstatic when she graciously agreed to send me some after the harvest.
At the beginning of November, I received several bundles of sweet rice (mochi-gome) stalks. Sweet rice stalks are perfect for making shimekazari, because, from what I read, they are more flexible and don’t easily snap like regular rice (uruchi-gome) stalks.
The stalks were of a serene chartreuse color with plump beige grains that would have become the farm’s famous Sho-Chiku-Bai sweet rice, or Blue Star Mochiko. The smell immediately took me back to my childhood in Japan when I spent countless hours playing in the nearby paddy fields after school.
New Year’s ornaments are made from straw ropes, called shimenawa, that are commonly seen at Japanese shrines. Apart from demarcating areas and objects where ‘spirits’ reside, these sacred ropes also create a boundary to ward off evil.
If you google “shimenawa making,” you can watch videos of pros rolling straw in their palms and making a rope solo while holding the end with their foot. You can also tie the end to a door handle, or anything sturdy and stationary, and make a rope by yourself. But the easiest -and also the best- method is to have someone else hold the end while you twist.
Before making the ropes, the stalks must be cleaned by removing their leaves. After cleaning enough stalks and spraying them with water to soften the fiber, I gathered with my friends to make the ropes.
For a three-strand shimenawa, the bunch is divided into thirds. Two of the thirds are twisted clockwise and entwined counterclockwise to initially make a two-strand rope. Once this is completed, the last third is twisted clockwise and wrapped around the two-strand rope to make a three-strand rope.
Twisting in one direction and twining in the opposite direction is counterintuitive, but when I realized that the rope stays together by the strands’ natural force to unravel, I was fascinated. The finished rope is ready to be formed into different shapes as ornaments.
Making shimenawa is a tactile act of building a relationship with the land, people, and to the lives we take to make ours possible, and I think this is the most important aspect of our New Year’s decoration. People in ancient times must have seen these real-life interrelationships symbolized in a rope because there are many similar ornaments, like corn dollies, made in other parts of the world using various fibers of cereals grown locally.
The Japanese believe that a good year only arrives to a clean house, so next week I will begin cleaning. All of that should be finished by around the 28th when I will put up my shimekazari on the door marking my house to the good spirits. I hope that they’ll find my house. I’m excited that my 2024 will begin with a little more connection to this land.
Thank you all and have a wonderful New Year!