New Year is one of the biggest celebrations in the Japanese calendar, with much of the country shutting down as people head to their hometowns to celebrate with family. Despite travel and accommodation being patchy during this period, it’s a great opportunity to experience unique Japanese customs in person. In this article we’ll look at what you can expect from celebrating New Year in Japan.
When is New Year in Japan?
Unlike many Asian countries, Japan celebrates New Year on the 1st January as the Gregorian calendar was adopted during the Meiji period. However some islands in Okinawa still celebrate New Year according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar; this means New Year falls somewhere in late January to early February.
The New Year celebrations go on for several days, with build up starting on 28th December and continuing to the 6th January. There are various traditions and rituals to be followed on each specific day.
How Is New Year Celebrated in Japan?
Japan celebrates Christmas and New Year in the opposite way to the West. While many westerners spend Christmas with family and New Year partying with friends, in Japan the emphasis is the other way round. Christmas Eve is a romantic date night, while New Year is a time to spend with family at home. New Year is a much bigger celebration than Christmas, with many business and shops closing to allow staff time off.
The first ritual is Osoji; this is similar to spring cleaning and involves cleaning and ‘purifying’ the house or business in preparation for the New Year. This relates back to the Shinto religion which holds purity in high regard.
These are a typical decoration put up around New Year. They usually consist of an arrangement of bamboo, pine and plum tree branches placed either side of the entrance to the home or business. The arrangement is held together with straw rope and placed on a straw base. The kadomatsu welcome ancestral spirits to the property and provide temporary shelter for the spirits. Having the spirits around at New Year is believed to usher in a prosperous year.
This is New Year’s Eve, and is celebrated on 31st December. This day is usually spent preparing from the New Year celebrations by cooking all the food that will be needed for the next few days; it’s seen as unlucky to cook in the first few days of the year. While many families will now buy the food ready prepared, many will make noodles and other dishes traditional eaten at this time of year. As midnight approaches, families gather together and eat toshikoshi-udon; noodles that represent the crossing from one year to the next. Many will also watch Kohaku Uta Gassen, one of Japan’s biggest TV shows. Popular singers and groups appear with men put on the white team and women joining the red team. Both teams sing and compete throughout the evening, with the winner named just before midnight.
Buddhist Bells and Hatsumode
At midnight, Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times. This symbolises the 108 sins in Buddhism, and it is believed that ringing the bells will help rid people of these sins and allow them to start afresh in the new year.
Another midnight tradition is the first visit to a shrine (hatsumode). Bigger shrines like the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo or Fushimi Inari in Kyoto will have a festive atmosphere and thousands of visitors queuing to make their first offering of the new year, but even small local shrines will be busy. There will often be stalls selling snacks and drinks, as well as lucky charms for the new year. Many Japanese will take their lucky charms from the previous year and ritually dispose of it at the shrine; burning the charm releases the god inside from their work protecting you for the last year. If the weather is nice many Japanese will wear kimonos and traditional dress to perform hatsumode.
Alongside hatsumode, there are several other “firsts” that are given special importance at New Year. The first sunrise (hatsuhinode) is one, with viewpoints over mountains or the sea being a popular place to watch the sun rise. The first tea ceremony, letter and laugh of the new year are also notable moments.
Nengajo is the custom of sending New Year’s Day postcards to friends and family. The Japanese send these in a specified period to ensure they will be delivered on January 1st. These postcards usually have the sign of the Chinese zodiac on them, although it is also possible to buy ones featuring cartoon characters, especially ones associated with the zodiac animal of that year. For example, Mickey Mouse was a popular design during the year of the rat (2008). The address is written on the card in calligraphic handwriting, with many Japanese buying new ink brushes to best show off their handwriting skill. Some cards also have space for a personal message. The only people who do not receive these cards are families that have suffered a bereavement in the last year; postcards are not sent to show respect for the lost relative.
Another custom for New Year’s Day is to give money to children in small envelopes. Shops will sell colourful envelopes in the run up to New Year specifically for this purpose; if you are visiting a family with children at New Year it’s a good idea to stock up. The amount given is usually the same for each child no matter what the age, so no child feels more favoured than the others. It is not unusual for older children to receive over ¥10,000 (approximately £60) or more from close relatives, so prepare to be generous!
Children also celebrate New Year by flying kites, spinning tops and playing traditional games. However these are dying out and tend to be seen as a little old-fashioned by today’s children.
If you are in Tokyo for New Year, then the Emperor and his family make several public appearances on 2nd January. The inner grounds of the Imperial Palace are opened to the public specially, and the Emperor speaks to the crowds from a balcony 5 times over the course of the day.
There are several foods that are eaten as part of the New Year traditions.
This is pounded rice, which is formed in to chewy dumplings. They can be sweet or savoury, with sweet mochi most commonly having a filling of sweet adzuki bean paste, although other flavours like green tea or chocolate are also popular. The mochi is prepared in advance and eaten throughout January.
This is a lacquered box layered with preserved food such as pickles, mashed sweet potato, fish cakes and burdock roots; many of the recipes were devised in a time when refrigeration was not possible. The box is designed to last several days so no one has to cook during the first days of the year. The visual presentation of the box is very important and many will have the food elaborately arranged inside. Each region of Japan has specific dishes and local specialities on the Osechi menu, but the general principle is the same throughout Japan. The food in the box often represents wishes for the coming year, such as health, happiness or prosperity.
This is a rice cake served in a fish flavoured soup. This is one of the luckiest dishes to eat on New Year’s Day. The mochi cake can be grilled or boiled, with each region having its own way of preparing this dish.
This is a rice soup flavoured with herbs, and is usually served on 7th January as the celebrations end. It’s the perfect antidote to the heavy food eaten in the days before.
Traveling in Japan at New Year
Spending New Year in Japan can be tricky. Many businesses, shops and tourist attractions close during this period so it can be boring and frustrating if you only have a limited time to see the country. Transport and hotels are also very busy, as many Japanese will travel to visit family members. If you are planning to stay in Japan over New Year, make sure you book well in advance.
However New Year can be a fascinating time to experience Japanese culture, especially if you speak Japanese or have Japanese friends to show you the ropes. If you are planning on spending several months in Japan, then New Year is not to be missed.