New Year in Japan is a special time of year. Do you know about the Japanese New Year (Oshōgatsu) traditions? How do Japanese people celebrate the new year?
All throughout the country, people spend winter getting ready to celebrate the holiday with all sorts of New Year’s traditions. Here are a few:
1. New Year’s Eve (Omisoka)
On December 31, the Japanese ring in the beginning of the New Year in their own unique ways. This is the celebration on the last day of the year. People observe it by following a wide range of customs, such as eating soba, visiting a shrine or temple at midnight, watching NHK’s Kōhaku uta gassen on TV, house cleaning, and etc.
Shrines hold ceremonies to purify the year, while Buddhist temples ring a bell to remove the desires of the body and soul.
If you’re looking for a countdown, visit Shibuya Scramble Crossing and many places in Roppongi area celebrate New Year’s with awesome party atmosphere.
2. Joya No Kane (New Year’s Eve Bell)
As mentioned above, Buddhist temples have their own unique cleansing ritual centered around a bell. This is the Joya-no-Kane. “Joya” is a way of saying “Happy New Year”, while “kane” means bell.
The bell is rung 108 times to cleanse people of their worldly desires in the New Year. Every site is a bit different, with its own traditions around the bells.
If you want to experience and celebrate Hatsumode, head over to Zozoji temple as it is one of the most popular Buddhist temples in Tokyo.
3. Toshikoshi Soba
The eating of these noodles became a tradition during the Edo era. Their long-form is said to represent a long and happy life.
Soba is easier to cut than many other noodle types, as well, and is said to represent the wish to cut away the past year’s misfortunes as you go into the new year.
It is eaten on omisoka (New Year’s Eve, 31 December).
This decoration consisting of pine, bamboo, and plum trees is believed to provide temporary housing for the toshigamisama (deity).
The blessings this deity bestows with the New Year are good harvest and fortune from the family’s ancestors.
Pine, bamboo, and plum are symbols of longevity, prosperity, and sturdiness respectively.
5. Kagami Mochi
Often translated as mirror rice cake, this cake is shaped like the round mirrors of ancient Japan, said to be the residence of gods.
Kagami mochi consists of two mochi (rice cakes) and a daidai (citrus fruit) with an attached leaf on top. It is offered to Toshigamisama, god of New Year, and displayed on a stand called sanpo.
They are elaborately decorated symbols of hope for prosperity over generations and can often be found as decoration for the New Year.
6. New Year’s Day – Ganjitsu (January 1)
New Year’s Day is a busy one in Japan! After breakfast with relatives, Japanese families visit shrines and temples, then shop special New Year’s Day sales.
The day is special because people visit a temple or shrine and pray to spend a good year and buy lucky charms. In addition, they also purchase Omikuji, a Japanese fortune-telling slip, and it is written on a small white paper.
7. Osechi Ryori
Served in beautiful, multi-layered bento boxes, these traditional goods are eaten by Japanese people on the New Year.
This is one of the major Japanese New Year’s tradition you will experience in Japan during Oshogatsu.
Each food item within the box symbolizes a certain fortune for the coming year. The food is offered to a deity first, who will then share the food with you to grant you fortune in the New Year.
8. Iwai Bashi
To eat the delightful special foods of the Osechi Ryori, you use special chopsticks called iwai-bashi.
Unlike normal chopsticks, both ends of these are sharp, as it is held one side will be used by you, and the other will be used by a deity. Because of this, only use one side!
This New Year’s sake is said to drive away hostile spirits and help you have a year free of disease. Families sharing Otoso share three special cups.
The drinking order typically starts with the youngest people and ends with the oldest ones so that older members of the family can absorb some of their vitality.
This tradition is one children look forward to quite a bit. Parents, grandparents, and other close relatives will give children money in envelopes.
Most kids receive an envelope from around five or six people. The amount usually starts with 500 yen and tends to grow with the child.
This tradition actually started as an offering of rice cakes from parents to children. It then became toys, and then became cash as it is today.
This is the first visit to a shrine or temple in the New Year to pray for good luck in the New Year. This typically happens between January 1st and 3rd, though it is fine to visit afterwards in order to miss the crowds.
Many visit the nearest neighborhood shrine, though more lively hatsumode can be found at larger shrines and temples.
In Tokyo, the best places to experience Hatsumode are Meiji Jingu Shrine and Sensoji Temple. On the first day of the year, these two places are always packed by tons of visitors.
These special postcards are sent out to family and friends to give them season’s greetings at the end of the year, similar to western Christmas cards.
Usually, they arrive on January 1st. They start with a standard sentence Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu (Happy New Year) and Kotoshimo Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu (Thank you for all your support for this year in advance).
People often include updates on how they’ve been doing and maybe family photos. Besides just updates, all nengajo have lottery numbers on them that can win the receiver prizes, some of which are quite expensive.
In modern times, digital nengajo are growing popular, often sent by SMS.
Directly translated as lucky bag, these bags are full of leftover and surplus goods of the past years, which are sold together by department stores at a steep discount on New Year’s Day.
This tradition is believed to come from the Japanese proverb that says “There is fortune in leftovers (Nokorimono ni wa fuku ga aru).”
Long lines form in front of popular stores just to get their lucky bags. It’s always a bit of a stampede, so be prepared!
The First Sunrise of the New Year is very special. Witnessing it is a tradition of Japanese New Year’s. It represents hope and renewal.
Most Japanese observe the practice by leaving their homes early and finding a place to watch the picturesque sunrise.
Mountains, open fields, seaside areas, and more scenic areas are popular locations for this refreshing tradition.
One of the most popular places in Tokyo to see the first sunrise of the year is Mt. Takao (Takaosan). It is a 50-minute train ride from Keio Shinjuku station to Takaosanguchi Station by Keio Railways.
A lot of visitors also visit some places where you can see the sunrise of the year with Mount Fuji. Lake Motosu is my favorite place to go for Hatsuhinode.
Translated as Big Cleaning, Japanese people do their spring cleaning in winter, sweeping and scrubbing so that the deity of the New Year can take up residence. It is not just physical purification, but a spiritual one as well.
All the bad fortunes and bad thoughts of the past year are swept out to make room for good fortune and a new positive outlook in the New Year. Everything is organized. This not only applies to homes, but workplaces as well.