I have a little extra time during the holidays so I thought I would show a few Japanese New Year's traditions and give some context for those of you who are interested.
Like many homes, ours has what is called a kamidana (神棚) or a place to worship the Shinto gods that protect our health and house. A kamidana is often a specially built feature of the house and then in that case it will include a number of pieces, but ours is simple and we have just put the things on top of the dresser.
It is best if it faces south or east (ours faces south) and includes a few minimum objects of worship. The tall wooden feature in the back holds the ofuda (御札), which has written on it the name of the shrine and the main god of that shrine (in this case the god Amaterasu 天照大神 of Yasaka Shrine of Kyoto; 八坂神社). It provides the home protection, and we replace it every year at New Years with a new one. We also have the more portable red and blue good luck charms, called omamori (お守り) resting up against it. In front is a small cup for offering the gods fresh water, and another small plate for salt. Finally, in honor of the New Year, we have placed a special kind of rice cake called a kagamimochi (鏡餅) with a small tangerine atop. There are thousands of explanations for the meaning of this ritual, which is to say that we don't really know except that it has become a tradition, and that it is fun to guess about what it originally meant long ago. Actually you are supposed to top it with a Japanese citrus called a daidai (橙), because it has a special meaning: if you do not pick the fruit it will stay on the tree for several years, turning green in summer and then orange/yellow in winter and back to green again in summer. This means that you will have many generations of descendants. Having just produced a descendant three months ago in the form of our delightful baby, I don't feel so badly that I couldn't find a daidai at the store and so replaced it with one of these tiny tangerines instead. Our one descendant is already enough!