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Did you know that New Year is actually the most important national holiday in Japan? You may be forgiven for not having had Japan at the top of your list of places to spend Christmas and New Year. After all, celebrating New Year in Japan is not quite as famous as Christmas in New York, or Hogmanay in Edinburgh, but it’s one of the best times to visit the country and one of the best places in the world to spend the New Year. Not least because New Year is such a special celebration in Japan.
New Year in Japan: A Brief History
New Year’s celebrations are very important in Japan and are closely associated with beliefs of purification and renewal. The Japanese New Year celebration is called shogatsu, and New Year’s Day is called gantan. Japan has celebrated New Year’s Day on 1 January since it adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873. Before that, the country celebrated New Year based on the timing of lunar cycles. Oshogatsu is celebrated on January 1 and lasts three days. The word itself means the ‘first three days of the year’. Schools shut down for two weeks over this period and most businesses close from December 30 to January 3. Shinto – one of the two main religious practices in Japan alongside Buddhism – traditionally believed that kami (gods) visit people’s homes on New Year’s Day, so it is important to have a clean home in order to turn over a new slate and to have a happy and prosperous year.
New Year Traditions
As arguably the most important national holiday in the country’s calendar, Japan’s New Year celebrations naturally come with many unique customs and traditions, including special decorations, rituals, food and drink and more. It is typically a time of year for families and friends to come together, and people will travel the length of the country to return home to their loved ones. Thankfully Japan’s public transport, particularly its outstanding domestic rail network, is world-famous for its quality, efficiency and reliability. Visitors to the country from overseas can save time and money on individual tickets by purchasing the JR Pass for unlimited travel right across the whole country and you’ll likely see lots of Japanese business people and students heading back to their hometowns for the holidays. Here’s a list of Japan’s New Year traditions, activities and everything you need to know:
Omisoka – The final day of the year, December 31, is called omisoka (New Year’s Eve). In keeping with Shinto beliefs, houses are often thoroughly cleaned from top to bottom, including attics, basements and under tatami mats, to welcome the gods. The big clean-up is known as Oosuji. The same happens in shops, and merchants often use this as a chance to sell off old stock by offering fukubukuro, or lucky bags. It is also a tradition to pay off any outstanding debts and settle any disputes ahead of the New Year, to start afresh. Families will often start cleaning well in advance of New Year’s Eve to ensure their house is in order.
On New Year’s Eve itself, families gather together to watch special omisoka TV programs (such as the popular music program ‘kohaku uta gassen’) and eat toshikoshi soba (‘year-crossing’ buckwheat noodles) in the belief that their lives will be as long as the noodles. Children are also allowed to stay up late.
Joya no Kane – At midnight on New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bonsho (temple bells) exactly 108 times. This number represents the total human desires, which Buddhists believe lead to pain and suffering. The ritual of Joya no Kane banishes these negative desires from the past year in order to start anew.
Shimekazari and Kadomatsu charms – These traditional decorations can start appearing from early December. A shimekazari is a wreath made from straw rope, Shinto ritual paper strips, bitter oranges, and fern leaves. They are hung on doors to ward off evil spirits and invite the New Year deity. Kadomatsu, which literally means ‘pine gate’ are pairs of ornaments placed on both sides of the house or shop entrance, to invite the god of harvest and other ancestral deities. These are made of pine branches, bamboo stems, and plum tree twigs.
Nengu – This is the tradition of exchanging postcards and greeting cards at New Year. It is very popular, so the post office makes a special effort to ensure everyone’s postcards arrive on New Year’s Day.
Otoshidama – It is a tradition in Japan to give children money in an envelope as a gift at New Year. This is called otoshidama.
Hatsuhinode – This is the first sunrise of the year. This beautiful tradition sees people gather at special locations with a good view of the horizon to catch the hatsuhinode, as they believe a glimpse of the sunrise will help ensure good fortune and happiness in the coming year.
Hatsumode – This is the first shrine visit of the year for families and individuals, from 1 January. Hatsumode festivities are held at almost every shrine and temple across Japan during the first few days of the year. You’ll experience a festive atmosphere with food stands, and you will be able to buy a lucky charm for the year ahead. Some of the busiest temples and shrines such as Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha, Osaka’s Sumiyoshi Taisha and Kamakura’s Tsuruoka Hachimangu attract more than a million visitors each over the first few days of the New Year.
Omamori – These are good luck charms for the New Year. You purchase a new charm at the beginning of the New Year and leave your old ones behind at a temple or shrine to cast off bad luck. There are also fortune-telling papers, called Omikuji, and Aitai mikuji, where you fish out a red paper seabream to predict your fortune.
Shishimai – A traditional lion dance performed to bring good luck in the year ahead.
Emperor’s New Year Greeting – On January 2, the Emperor will make an annual public appearance at the Tokyo Imperial Palace. The inner grounds of the palace are only open to the public on this date and one other. (The Emperor’s birthday on February 23).
Winter illuminations – Japan loves illuminations, and while these aren’t specifically related to New Year and Christmas, they are a key feature of the winter months and how Japan celebrates this time of year. Tokyo in particular has a huge number of illuminations to see in the run-up to Christmas, but some of the biggest are elsewhere in Japan. If you love illuminations as much as the Japanese try Kobe Luminaire or Sagamiko Illumillion festival in Kanagawa, which is said to use six million LED lights in its Pleasure Forest at Lake Sagami Resort. You’ll definitely want to take lots of photos given how ‘Instagrammable’ these festivals are, so make sure you buy PocketWifi in advance to stay connected without expensive data roaming charges while you’re travelling the country. To read an extensive rundown of all the best winter illuminations in Japan read our indispensable guide to Winter Illuminations in Japan You Can’t Miss.
Winter is a great time to visit Japan generally, with a huge amount to see and do at this time of year, especially if you’re a lover of cold climates and beautiful snowy vistas. From snowboarding to snow festivals, winter wildlife to warming food and drink, Japan is a winter wonderland and you can read all about it in Spending Winter in Japan.
Food and Drink at New Year
Japan is a paradise for food lovers, and New Year is no exception. As you would expect from a country with such an incredible reputation for culinary excellence, New Year is another opportunity to come together with family and friends and enjoy a wide range of delicious dishes, including specialities that are eaten every New Year. Here are some of them:
- O-sechi ryori – The traditional New Year’s Day feast is intended to invite luck, prosperity, and good health for the year ahead. The feast is served in a Jubako box which has several layers, and each element of the overall dish has a meaning, such as prawns for long life, herring roe for fertility. It is also traditional to eat Zouni (rice cake soup). The ingredients vary depending on regions and families. Traditionally, the feast was prepared and planned over several days, but now families can order pre-prepared o-sechi ryori if they wish.
- Toshikoshi soba – Literally ‘year-end’ soba, this is a dish of noodles in hot broth traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve.
- Mochi – This chewy rice cake is a classic Japanese New Year’s food, and is also used in decorations known as the kagami mochi. It is traditional to make mochi yourself on New Year’s Day.
You can find out much more about Japan’s love affair with food in our dedicated guides to sushi and ramen, our article on table manners and dining etiquette, and our Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Food and Regional Dishes.
Christmas in Japan
Naturally, before you get to New Year, there is the small matter of Christmas too. Christmas is a little bit different in Japan. Yes, you have Santa Claus, Christmas lights and decorations, and festive markets, but there are some key differences too:
Kentucky Fried Christmas – Yes, you did read that right! Believe it or not, Kentucky Fried Chicken or KFC is a big Christmas favourite in Japan, with an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families celebrating with KFC at Christmas. The chain’s success over Christmas has been attributed to a successful advertising campaign in the 1970s.
Christmas Cake – Japan’s middle class adopted the cake as a symbol of wealth after the country’s economy bounced back after the Second World War.
Romance on Christmas Eve – Couples spend Christmas Eve together, and celebrate it almost the way Valentine’s Day is celebrated in western countries. Gifts are also exchanged on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day.
For a more detailed guide to these traditions, read our recent blog Do People Celebrate Christmas in Japan?
New Year is a wonderful time to visit Japan, but it’s also important to remember that it is a holiday for the Japanese people, so it is worth being mindful of the following:
- Holiday closures – Museums, galleries and restaurants often close during the New Year period. However, many shops now remain open for New Year’s sales, while supermarkets and fast food outlets also choose to stay open.
- Travel activity – As you might expect, when everyone is travelling across the country to spend time with their families it can get busy, but thankfully Japan’s outstanding public transport infrastructure, particularly its domestic rail system, is incredibly efficient and reliable. If you’re visiting Japan from overseas, the JR Pass for unlimited rail travel is essential. Find out everything you need to know in our guide, Is the JR Pass Worth it?
- Shrines and Temples – On January 1, it is traditional to visit a temple or shrine for Hatsumode, which can lead to lots of queues. However, despite this, winter is actually one of the least crowded times to visit Japan so you’ll likely find the temples and shrines must quieter at this time of year generally. You can learn more about Japan’s shrines and temples in our Spiritual Guide to Japan.
Nevertheless, Christmas and New Year are a great time to visit Japan, and many of the small downsides mentioned are things you would be dealing with in your home countries (or any country) during the holiday seasons. Winter is a great time to visit Japan generally. It’s quieter, visually stunning, and there is lots to do from snowboarding to snow festivals, if you choose to spend Winter in Japan.