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Q: As I drive around in Japan lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of cars with wreaths on the grille. What’s up with those?

A: Christmas may be over, but the Japanese celebration of the new year was in full swing last week. And shimekazari — decorated wreaths made of rice straw — are a sign of holiday spirit.

Shintos use shimenawa, the rice straw itself, to denote sacred space - that’s why you’ll also see rice straw ropes year-round at shrines. The ropes are also thought to ward away evil spirits. Many people display small shimekazari in their homes, to keep things pure and non-evil and all, but some people figure that evil should stay away from their car, too — probably a good idea, considering traffic in Japan’s urban areas can indeed be evil.

Another common sight in Japan around the new year is kadomatsu, or “gate pine.” These arrangements of pine, bamboo and other greenery are placed just outside the front door of a home or business to shoo away evil. The pine symbolizes strength and longevity, and the bamboo is for resilience.

Both shimekazari and kadomatsu are usually decorated with white and red accents - white symbolizing innocence and purity, and red for energy.

But, like Christmas lights and other holiday decorations, you don’t want to leave your shimekazari or kadomatsu out forever. After the New Year’s season is over, you’d better put them away, or you risk being those neighbors.

Got a question about goings-on in the Pacific? E-mail Stacy Chandler at

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