New Year in Japan
—a Solemn Yet Colorful Time of Year
Many traditional customs are observed at the beginning of the new year in Japan. For example, entrances to homes and shops are decorated with the pine and bamboo kadomatsu decoration or shimenawa braided straw ropes, a custom with its roots in the Shinto religion. It’s also the time of year when people enjoy mochi soft rice cakes and osechi-ryori, the traditional foods associated with New Year celebrations. These customs derive from harvest thanksgiving rituals developed over the centuries by the Japanese, who were mainly engaged in farming then, and from ancient religious ceremonies. Each of these practices is imbued with meaning, and experiencing a traditional Japanese New Year will surely be the highlight of your stay.
Ringing the Old Year Out
Japanese consider December 31 a very important day, and it’s not unusual for people to stay up all night on this occasion. Old customs related to the last day of the year continue in many regions of Japan, but one of the most popular, which started in the Edo period (1603–1868), is eating soba buckwheat noodles. People eat soba on December 31, either for dinner or as an evening snack, to wish for a life that’s as long as the long, skinny noodles they’re eating. Eating soba past midnight, however, is to be avoided as this is believed to bring bad luck.
As midnight nears, the air is filled with the deep sound of temple bells being rung. The bells are rung 108 times as the old year fades out and the new year comes in. One explanation for the bell-ringing is that this is done to forswear the 108 human desires. Some temples allow ordinary people to ring their bells. Try it if you have the opportunity.
First Sunrise, First Prayer for Good Fortune in the New Year
In Japan, sunrise on New Year’s Day is believed to have special supernatural powers, and praying to the first sunrise of the year has become a popular practice since the Meiji ear (1868–1912). Even today, crowds gather on mountaintops or beaches with good views of the sunrise to pray for health and family wellbeing in the new year.
Another custom still observed today is visiting a temple or shrine at New Year’s. Even people who do not ordinarily go to shrines or temples in everyday life go at New Year’s to pray for their health and their families’ happiness. Many young women take this opportunity to dress up in vividly colored kimono, a touch that adds to the festive atmosphere. When praying at a Shinto shrine, the usual way is to bow twice, clap hands twice, and then bow once more. At a Buddhist temple, one simply places the palms of the hands together in silent prayer, with no clapping.
Meiji Shrine in Harajuku is Tokyo’s best-known spot for paying a New Year’s visit to a Shinto shrine. For years, Meiji Shrine has attracted the largest number of New Year’s visitors in Japan. From December 31 through the first few days of the new year, crowds here number in the hundreds of thousands.
Buddhist temples with large numbers of New Year’s visitors are Narita-san Shinsho-ji, which is near Narita Airport, and Kawasaki Daishi, in Kawasaki, adjacent to Tokyo. On their visits, shrine- and temple-goers pray for good luck, protection from traffic accidents, or to ward off evil fortune.
Festive New Year Celebrations
A few days after Christmas, the entrances to many homes, stores and buildings in Japan are decorated with a pine and bamboo kadomatsu. This decoration is prepared to welcome the Shinto gods and derives from the Shinto belief that the god spirits reside in trees. Furthermore, the display of pine, which stays green even in winter, and bamboo, which grows quickly and is ramrod-straight, expresses the desire to obtain virtue and strength to overcome adversity.
Entrances to ordinary homes are decorated with a shimenawa braided straw rope. Like the kadomatsu, it signifies that the home has been purified in order to welcome the gods.
After the New Year’s Eve temple bells have sounded and the first temple or shrine visit of the new year is made, many people return home to eat the o-sechi traditional foods at a meal for the whole family. O-sechi foods were originally offerings to the Shinto gods, but they are also “lucky” foods intended to bring happiness to the family. Each of the ingredients has a special significance, and the foods are prepared so that they will keep over the entire New Year period, which lasts nearly a week (Preparing foods that will keep for a while was also, in the past, intended to reduce work for housewives).
Many hotels and ryokan in Japan serve o-sechi menus for the first three days of the new year. It’s also worth checking out special New Year accommodation plans, which include traditional entertainment such as koto (Japanese harp) and shishi-mai lion dance performances, to add ambience and make a stay in Japan at New Year’s unforgettable.
New Year in Japan is a time of year when this modern, high-tech country goes back to custom and tradition.
In past years, it was customary for many stores, businesses and places of interest to close for a holiday over the year-end and New Year, but now many places are open even on New Year’s Day. But to avoid disappointment, checking the website of the places you are interested in visiting over New Year’s is recommended. For example, if you’re thinking of visiting museums, you may find this web directory in English helpful.
Suggested Tours for Enjoying Japanese New Year
Tokyo: Greet the Awe-inspiring First Sunrise of the Year at Mount Takao
Mount Takao, one of Japan’s most popular mountains right now, is just an hour away from Tokyo Station by JR Chuo Line express train, or 50 minutes from Shinjuku Station on the Keio Line. Climbing Mount Takao overnight to reach the summit on New Year’s Day promises a fine adventure.
The lift and cable car from the foothills up to the middle of the mountain operate around the clock from December 31 to January 1. The walk to the top of Mount Takao takes about 40 minutes from the lift or cable car station. Yakuo-in Temple, located along the way, begins a Buddhist prayer ceremony at midnight, giving the environs a solemn atmosphere.
From there, join the throng of people making their way to the top of the mountain, 599 meters above sea level, and wait for sunrise with the crowds at the lookout. Around 6:30 a.m., the priests from Yakuo-in conduct a “festival to welcome the light” at the mountain-top prayer hall, and the crowds shout for joy as the sun rises to the chanting of sutras. And with luck, you might even be able to see Mount Fuji from the top of the mountain.
On your way down the mountain, be sure to stop by Yakuo-in to pay your respects. Yakuo-in is one of Tokyo’s most revered temples, and if you pray for good fortune, you are sure to have a good year ahead of you.
Kyoto: See an Ancient Ritual and Enjoy Traditional New Year Cuisine
Yasaka Shrine, in Kyoto’s Gion area, is the site of the Okera Festival, which starts from around 7:30 p.m. on December 31 and goes on through January 1. This traditional ritual consists of burning thin slats of wood onto which people have written their wishes. Shrine-goers then light a straw rope from the fire, which they twirl to keep the end of the rope glowing and take home with them. This rope is then used to ignite the fire at home, over which zoni, a soup served at New Year that contains mochi rice cakes and other ingredients, is prepared, to protect the family from illness and disaster in the coming year. Tourists can’t take a smoldering rope back home, but they can partake of the okera sake served until the early hours of the New Year to pray for good fortune.
Before daybreak, visitors can move to Kyoto Tower, located near Kyoto Station, to welcome the first sunrise of the year. On New Year’s Day only, Kyoto Tower is open to visitors from 6:30 a.m. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy the Japanese New Year and get a great view of the city.
With the sun now definitely risen, maybe it’s time to get a bite to eat. Restaurants at the Hotel New Hankyu Kyoto and the New Miyako Hotel (Kyoto), both near Kyoto Tower, offer breakfast menus featuring foods modeled on the traditional o-sechi fare. Hotel Granvia Kyoto, right next to Kyoto Station, serves an evening buffet of traditional Kyoto-style cuisine (reservations required). For an authentic Kyoto experience, geiko and maiko stage traditional geisha entertainment and diners can have souvenir pictures taken with them on this occasion.
Omikuji—Pick Your Fortune for the Year
One of the “musts” of a New Year visit to a temple or shrine is buying an omikuji fortune. Written on a thin roll or strip of paper, the omikuji tells your fortune in various grades ranging from great blessing to ill luck, and comes with detailed explanations concerning your prospects in health, love, money matters and so on. Some omikuji, rather than telling your fortune, contain a poem that comes with an explanation of a moral.
With more international visitors also going to shrines or temples now, many omikuji are available in English. At Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, or at Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji Temple, omikuji written in Korean or Chinese are also for sale. Will you try your luck and see what your fortune will be?
There are many other customs related to New Year’s in addition to those described above. Go to the link below to learn more about typically Japanese ways of enjoying the New Year.