In Japan, after the 25th of December, it’s as if Christmas never happened. That’s because Christmas here is like Halloween, just another fun holiday without much traditional or religious significance. Instead, the traditional winter holiday for the Japanese is oshogatsu (literally “first month”), or New Year.
Japanese New Year celebrations are quite different from typical Western ones. With celebrations extending until January 3rd, New Year in Japan is largely a quiet, solemn, family affair—which is quite fitting in these COVID times. It’s not always marked by noisy reveling, fireworks, or countdown parties, though those can be found. In fact, most Japanese people will be at home (and if they’re not from Tokyo, in their hometowns) with their families. As busy as people are, the working populace gets a few days off for nenmatsu nenshi (literally “end of the year and beginning of the year”).
How to celebrate Japanese New Year
Ever wanted to try celebrating New Year the way the Japanese do? We’ll show you how. Note that you don’t have to do all these things; not everyone sticks to each and every tradition.
1. Invite good luck with auspicious decorations
Walking around Tokyo, you might see kadomatsu and shimekazari adorning shops, hotels, and other establishments. They’re not just for businesses; they’re used as home ornaments as well.
Kadomatsu, an ornament that is placed at an entrance, consists of three bamboo shoots of different lengths (symbolizing prosperity), pine (symbolizing longevity), and plum branches (symbolizing steadfastness). They’re said to be the temporary dwelling places of gods who visit to bless humans, and are usually burned after January 15th.
Shimekazari are hung above doors, also to invite and welcome gods of good fortune and ward off evil spirits. They consist of shimenawa (a sacred straw rope), pine, and a bitter orange (a symbol of posterity), among others.
There’s also an offering to the gods called kagami mochi, two round rice cakes stacked one on top of the other and topped with an orange, which is placed on the household Shinto altar.
Other lucky New Year items are hagoita (a wooden paddle used to play a badminton-like game called hanetsuki, though elaborately designed ones are purely ornamental) to hit and drive away bad luck, and hamaya (an arrow that destroys evil spirits), which is usually only sold in shrines during the first three days of the New Year. If you want to get a hagoita for the New Year, Sensoji Temple in Asakusa holds an annual hagoita market, which takes place every year in December.
If you’re into crafting, some parks occasionally have crafting workshops, in which you can learn to make your own kadomatsu and/or other decorations. There isn’t really a dedicated website for parks to announce schedules of mini-events, so chancing upon one is mostly a matter of luck. Some branches of lifestyle store Tokyu Hands have also held such workshops in past years. However, all Tokyu Hands workshops for 2020 have been cancelled. Check their event page (in Japanese) for next year’s announcements.
2. On the 31st, watch Kouhaku Uta Gassen
Watching this long-running show, which started in 1959, has become a New Year’s Eve tradition for many Japanese families. Broadcast on the public TV channel NHK from around 7:15 pm until 11:45 pm, this 4.5-hour-long program involves a musical battle (in fact, the title literally translates to “Red-and-White Song Battle”) between two teams consisting of the year’s most popular and commercially successful artists. The artists are invited by NHK, so to be on the show is considered an honor.
Kouhaku‘s ratings are no longer as high as they once were in the ’60s and ’70s, for several presumed reasons such as the advent of the internet (and perhaps people being too preoccupied with their smartphones), but the show still has a loyal viewership base.
3. Eat toshikoshi soba, ozoni and osechi ryori
Ushering in good fortune is the rationale behind many Japanese New Year traditions, so it’s not surprising that some dishes are designated as luck-bringing ones.
Toshikoshi soba (literally “year-crossing” buckwheat noodles), are served hot on New Year’s Eve to symbolize the cutting off of the year’s misfortunes, as well as wishes for good luck and long life.
Meanwhile, ozoni (a savory soup with mochi), and osechi ryori (an encompassing term for dishes or food items traditionally eaten during the New Year due to symbolic value) are eaten during New Year.
Basic ingredients (noodles, dashi, and soy sauce for toshikoshi soba; mochi and dashi for ozoni) aside, those ingredients vary across households and regions.
As for osechi ryori, they tend to be pricey, but here’s how you can get slightly more affordable osechi sets.
4. Joya no kane: Ring out the old year
A few minutes before New Year, some temples ring a large bell 108 times as part of a ritual called joya no kane. Why 108 times? In Buddhism, 108 is the number of earthly desires that cause humans suffering, and joya no kane is supposed to purify humans’ minds and souls for the year ahead.
According to a crowd forecast on Zojoji’s official site, large crowds are expected from 11 pm on December 31 until 1 am (the next day). If you’re willing to stay up and visit between the hours of 3 am and 8 am on New Year’s Day, no major crowds are expected. Alternatively, you can—safely—watch the festivities via Zojoji’s YouTube channel from the comfort of your home.
5. Send nengajou—New Year’s postcards
Although many young adults don’t send these anymore (letter-writing in general is no longer popular, after all), the fact that the post office, convenience stores, and stationery shops carry a lot of these postcards indicates the market for nengajou. Families and businesses still send nengajou; think of it as the Japanese equivalent of the holiday greeting card.
They come in beautiful and/or cute designs, and the ones sold by Japan Post even come with a numerical combination as part of a lottery. The winning combinations get some prizes like cash (don’t expect much, though) or local specialties. If your friends collect postcards, a nengajou might make their New Year.
6. See hatsuhinode, the first sunrise
Start the New Year as an early bird and catch the first sunrise! The observatories at Tokyo Skytree and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building usually hold hatsuhinode—viewing events as early as 5 am on January 1st. Besides being canceled for this year, those events are usually only for a very limited number of participants, with names selected by lottery, and applications start months in advance. So why not take an early-morning hike up Mt. Takao or Mt. Mitsutoge.
7. Hatsumode: Make your first shrine or temple visit of the year
Kick off the year by praying or wishing for prosperity, safety, and good health (and whatever else you’d like to come your way). Hatsumode traditionally refers to visiting a shrine or temple between January 1-3. Any later than the first week of January, and it’s not typically considered hatsumode anymore, even if it may be your first time stepping foot on holy ground for the year.
Any temple or shrine will do, but expect Tokyo’s popular ones—Sensoji, Zojoji, Meiji Shrine, and Kanda Myojin, in particular—to be packed. Our suggestion: Skip the hours-long queue at those spots, and instead visit a smaller, local one for a less stressful start to your New Year.
8. Fukubukuro and New Year sales in Japan: Shop till you drop
What, you thought retailers would miss a chance to start the year right? Fukubukuro, which literally means “lucky bag,” is a bag filled with a random selection of items, usually sold for way less than the total value of the items. It’s a clever way of clearing out the previous year’s inventory, and the mystery aspect also makes it exciting for shoppers. Surprisingly, this tradition is older than you think, as it was started by the Ginza Matsuya department store in the 1900s, although it’s unclear if fukubukuro sales during that time also took place over New Year.
In addition to fukubukuro, many shops also have New Year sales, which tend to start at or past noon on January 1st.
New Year in Japan: Western-style celebrations in Tokyo
Since New Year’s Eve is typically spent at home with family, countdown events are not all that common. However, in recent years, crowds have been gathering at Shibuya Crossing on New Year’s Eve. Sadly—but for good and obvious reason—the Shibuya Crossing countdown has been canceled for 2020.
Countdown parties in Tokyo
Of course, bars, nightclubs, and lounges throughout Tokyo will likely have countdown parties, too. While many of the major events have been canceled for 2020, the two biggies still going forward are ageHa COUNTDOWN 2021 “New Real Experience” and New Year Countdown to 2021 at Womb.
Something different: The Oji Fox Parade — Canceled for 2020
The Oji Fox Parade is a unique way to welcome the New Year. It’s a Japanese festival, all right, but it’s not exactly a widely known tradition. Legend has it that a long, long time ago, one New Year’s Eve, some foxes dressed up as humans and visited Oji Inari Shrine. But at this festival, it’s the other way around, as humans dressed as foxes make their way to the shrine to receive some blessings.
While we do our best to ensure everything is correct, information is subject to change. This post was originally published in December, 2015. Last updated December 21, 2020.