As Japan have lots of cultural customs, New Year is one of the distinct occasion that is very different from the western countries. In this article, we will look closely into how Japanese people begin a new year. Hope this will be an useful guide to those of you who will travel to Japan during winter holidays.    

How Japanese begin a New Year

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.

Toshikoshi Soba, end of the year soba

Toshikoshi Soba, end of the year soba

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.

See also: 10 Best Ways to Experience New Years Eve in Tokyo

Rituals and Customs of the New Year

1. Watching the first sunrise, Hatsuhinode

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  practice since the Meiji era (1868–1912). It has become a very important ritual and a custom. 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.

People gather to watch the first sunrise Hatsuhinode

People gather to watch the first sunrise Hatsuhinode. From Wikipedia

2. First shrine visit of the new year, Hatsumode

Another custom still observed today is visiting a temple or shrine at New Year’s, “Hatsumoude”.

Meiji Shrine’s Hasumode

Meiji Shrine’s Hasumode. From Wikipedia

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. 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 Naritasan 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 or the devil.

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.

Omikuji fortune usually costs 100-200 yen.

Omikuji fortune usually costs 100-200 yen.

See also: 10 Best Hatsumode Spots in Tokyo To Start the New Year

3. New Year’s greetings, Nengajou

Post cards called “Nengajou” is sent for New Year’s greetings.They are sent with various designs, for example illustrations of that year’s Chinese zodiac or eto and words of congratulations.

4. New Year’s monetary gift, Otoshidama

This is the most famous custom where the parents and the relatives who come to visit each other during the new year period give children, some pocket money put in fancy envelopes. Every children is excited about Otoshidama, thinking of what to use those money for.

Otoshidama, every children is excited.

Otoshidama, every children is excited.

5. New Year’s decoration, Kadomatsu, Shimenawa and Kagami mochi

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.

Kadomatsu in front of a shopping center

Kadomatsu in front of a shopping center. From Wikipedia

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.

Shimenawa is supposed to put on the entrance door

Shimenawa is supposed to put on the entrance door. From Flickr

Kagami mochi is another popular home decoration. It usually consists with two round mochi, put together like 2 stairs cake. It is meant to be spiritual food which is dedicated to Shinto and Buddhist gods.

Kagami mochi is a popular new year home decoration

Kagami mochi is a popular new year home decoration. From Flickr

6. New Year’s food, Osechi

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 Osechi, traditional foods at a meal for the whole family. Osechi 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. For instance;cooked black soybeans or kuromame wish for a diligent life…etc. The food are usually coming in a lacquered box which is known as Juubako.

The foods are prepared so that they will keep over the entire New Year period, which lasts nearly a week. It is also intended to reduce work for housewives during the holiday.

A typical Osechi in Juubako.

A typical Osechi in Juubako.

What you will experience when visiting Japan for New Years

Many hotels and ryokan in Japan serve Osechi 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 Shishimai lion dance performances.

To add ambience, make a stay in Japan at New Year’s Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto’s Gion area, is the site of the Okera Festival. Okera Festival 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. 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 unforgettable.

The Japanese New Year becomes and outstanding festival among the world with all these special, wonderful and unique traditions, rituals, customs and norms.