New Year is one of the most important holidays and celebrations in Japan. It is one of the only times of the year when Japanese businesses all have holidays and a lot of Japanese people head home to spend the New Year season.
The celebration of New Year is very different from any other country in the world. The celebration starts in December for Japanese people, with traditional celebrations and unique activities, welcoming the year ahead to come.
We broke it down here exactly what to expect, how to enjoy and ways to leverage New Years if you are in Japan for this festive season!
The entire month of December is when companies hold bonenkai, end of the year parties. Bonenkai literally means “Forget the year gatherings”. They are parties to celebrate the end of the year, be grateful for all the amazing things that had happened and putting all the troubles and stress from the year behind and welcoming the new year to come.
Smaller companies usually have dinners in izakayas and restaurants, where bigger companies rent out entire venues with buffet, free-flow drinks, performances, shows and more. Not just companies but friends also gather together and have bonenakis, celebrating the end of the year and preparing for another great year to come. Many people use this opportunity to travel out of the country, since it is rare to get consecutive public holidays in Japan.
Cleaning for the New Year
December is usually when families clean the entire house, from dusting to scrubbing. It is also common for all clothing to be washed. It is said to bring good fortune to start the year with a clean house, welcoming good spirits.
December is the time to throw away old things, clean and decorate your places. It is common for families to have a big cleaning day, where they throw away, give away or donate things that they no longer need. It is believed that throwing away old and broken down things is like throwing away bad luck as well as making space for good luck.
New Year Decorations
Once the house is nice and clean, ornaments and decorations are being set up. The most common decorations are made of pine, bamboo and rice. Each ornament has a deep meaning and is a long history and culture.
New Years decoration is usually put up during 13th December-28th December. Putting decorations up on 29th December is being considered as bad luck and putting decorations up on 31st December is considered as rude to the gods. Afterwards, the decorations are being left and taken down by the 15th January.
門松, Kadomatsu, is used to welcome the gods and is decorated at the front doors of homes. It is a Japanese tradition to place one on each side of the door. However, since most Japanese people live in apartments, it is common to have smaller Kadomatsu at the door.
しめ縄, Shimenawa, is made with Shime and is usually hung at the genkan, which is where people take off their shoes, before entering the home. It is to symbolise the separation between the cleansed area within the house and the spirits that are outside. It shows and welcomes the gods into the home by showing the home is clean.
鏡餅, Kagamimochi, is another ornament that is placed inside that house, usually in the living room during New Years. Kagamimochi has two mochi on top of each other. It symbolises the food that is served to the gods and good spirits when they enter the Japanese homes.
Unlike most Western countries, it is very common for Japanese people to spend New Year’s Eve with their family. It is very common for people to stay up till midnight, if not the morning to fully experience and enjoy the New Year. Unlike most Western countries, it is very common for Japanese people to spend New Year’s Eve with their family. It is very common for people to stay up till midnight, if not the morning to fully experience and enjoy the New Year in Japan.
At the very last minutes of the year, shrines have the tradition of burning big bonfire to symbolise the cleansing of the soul and sins. Temples ring the bell for 108 times, symbolising the removal of human’s 108 worries.
It is extremely popular for people to visit a shrine or temple from midnight of the New Year. A lot of people arrive to witness the bells being rung at midnight. It is said that millions of people arrive around midnight at one of Tokyo’s most famous shrines, Meiji Shrine.
Making a prayer on New Year’s Day is said to be powerful since it is believed that the first prayer you make of the year will always come true. People come to the shrine or temple to dispose their omamori, lucky charms, and get their new ones.
Not just during New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day but for the next few days as well, food stalls and game stands are being set up for people to enjoy.
Watch the first sunrise (Hatsuhinode)
Hatsuhinode, the first sunrise, is a very popular activity for the New Year. The first sunrise of the year symbolises the beginning of the year, with good wishes and good fortune. It is a common practice for people to stay up until the morning and watch the sunrise either at the temples or shrines, or somewhere with a nice view.
This might be a strange one but for those that don’t want to line up for hours to enter a famous temple and just stay in their cosy and warm homes to witness the beginning of a new year with family, it is very popular to watch the TV show Kohaku Uta Gassen. It is a popular TV program, where Japan’s most famous singers and bands come together to perform.
In recent years, other shows have also appeared, including game shows, to attract people’s attention and keep people entertained during the last moments of the last year and the celebration of the new year.
Japanese New Year Food
Food is a big part of Japanese traditional New Year celebration. For this time of the year, a lot of Japanese homes enjoy extravagant traditional Japanese meals, Osechi Ryori.
Osechi Ryori has become a common culture from around the Edo period. It is traditionally served in Ojubako, lacquer boxes. A few layers are set on top of each other, symbolising the happiness and unity of the family.
The food is prepared in advance as there is a belief that cooking around New Year should be avoided in Japan, in order to not disturb the gods with the sound of cooking, as well as to give the mothers a time to rest.
In the modern days, many Japanese families reserve Osechi Ryori meals well in advance and purchase from convenience stores or from the basement floors of department stores, “Depachika”. Each item of food in these boxes has special meanings and symbolises the welcoming of the new year in Japan.
Some of the common items in Osechi Ryori include “Kurikinton”, chestnut and mashed sweet potatoes. It is said to bring good luck and prosperity to the new year. Another popular item is the delicious “Datemaki”, which is sweet rolled omelette. “Kuromame” is another must-have item in your Osechi Ryori. It is black beans and is considered as a food that can bring you good health for the new year.
Apart from Osechi Ryori, another item that is widely eaten during New Year’s Eve is Toshikoshi soba.
People eat Toshikoshi soba for New Year, a tradition that started in the Edo period. The thin and long noodles symbolise longevity and long lives. In the olden days, gold factory workers would collect the gold dusts and mix them into the soba flour. Since then, soba noodles is also said to have the meaning of collecting money and wealth.
Soba is buckwheat noodles and is a very healthy option. It can be eaten plain or with simple vegetables or meat accompanying the noodles.
After New Years
Fukubukuro – Lucky Bags
To celebrate the arrival of the New Year in Japan, a lot of shops sell Lucky Bags, Fukubukuro. They are a limited number of bags, filled with unknown items sold by the shop, for a largely discounted price. The price of the bags is usually more than 50% less than what the actual items cost so they are extremely popular.
A lot of famous brands attract tens of hundreds of customers fighting over the lucky bags. Lately, there are more and more brands that allow the customers to have a sneak peek into the content before purchasing, to soften people’s worries.
New Year Greetings
At the beginning of the year, especially in the first week, you can hear greetings everywhere in the streets. As people meet each other for the first time in the year, they greet each other by saying “Agemashite omedetou (gozaimasu)”. It means “congratulations on the beginning of the year”. In recent years, many people have started greeting each other in English, saying “Happy New Year” as well.
New Year’s cards
There has been a long history and tradition in sending 年賀状, New Year greets through Nenkajyo, New Year’s cards. It is very common for people to send out dozens of cards to friends, relatives, colleagues and even acquaintances. The content of these cards usually contain greetings and wishes.
In recent years, a lot of people have started messaging, sending emails or e-cards to deliver the message.
If you happen to be in Japan over New Years, there is a lot of traditional and cultural activities that you can participate and you will definitely have a great time.