mouse, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon (I know, I know), snake, horse, sheep, monkey, bird, dog, wild boar.
Many Asian countries have the same kind of idea so it is hard to say where it originated from...although I do not doubt that China will take the credit.
2009 is the year of the cow...so, if you were born 12 years ago or 24 years ago or 36 years ago etc, you are a cow. This may sound kind of lame but it's not. Cows are supposed to be stubborn and that can be a good thing, sometimes...In most Japanese residences you will be able to find a place where they have the year's animal (called "eto") on display. The above picture is my cow.
I don't have all 12 animals yet...I have 6 more to go, but I always buy mine in Hakata because they have great ceramic dolls called Hakata Ningyo. If you are ever in Fukuoka, you should get one. I like my cow.
The thing to my cow's left is called "kagami mochi" (kagami means mirror and mochi is rice cake in Japanese). It is like an offering to God as well as a symbol of good luck.
There are many ways to display your "kagami mochi" and enhance the "luckiness". For example if you place a piece of dried seaweed (kobu) with it, it will represent "yorokobu" which means "to be happy".
It's hard to tell with the picture above but my "kagami mochi" is plastic. However, there are real prepackaged rice cakes inside the plastic mochi. Before these plastic rice cakes came around they used to be real rice cakes...and since you have to leave them out for at least 10 to 12 days, sometimes longer...they tend to get...green...moldy. So although it may not seem environmentally friendly, it is tummy friendly. We eat the rice cakes on a day (this year was the 11th) called "mochi biraki", which literally means "rice cake opening".
Hopefully this year's cow will work a little harder than last year's mouse...It will be a year of change for many countries, so I hope the cow's stubbornness will be an asset and not something that will just get in the way of good change.