Visiting Japan during New Year (Shogatsu) is a once in a lifetime experience. It is Japan’s most important National Holiday, even bigger than Christmas! It is a family affair, where everyone gets together, exchanges gifts and there are many tourist attractions. Stores, and restaurants are closed, and getting around may be a bit of a challenge.
The New Year’s season in Japan is full of special traditions, in particular, one before the new year begins, when the Japanese look back on the past year and bid farewell to old worries as a way to start fresh. A bonenkai, or “forget-the-year party” is an end of year party for friends and coworkers to forget the trouble and stress of the year about to finish. Lately, countdown parties have become more popular in large cities.
However, fireworks remain uncommon (tip: in Tokyo, if you wish to celebrate the New Year with fireworks, you’ll have to travel to Yokosuka and the Yokohama Hakkeijima Sea Paradise or to Tokyo Disney).
January 1st symbolizes joy and no obligations. Japanese homes are decorated with pine, bamboo, and plum trees to ring in the New Year. It is customary for people to start the year by viewing the first sunrise (Hatsu-Hinode), and your Japan Rail Pass can take you wherever you decide to enjoy this tradition, believed to be representative for the whole year that has begun.
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Religion in the Japanese New Year
Another favorite New Year tradition of the New Year is hatsumode or the first visit to a shrine or temple. The best temples in Japan attract several million people during the first three days of January, and here, you can experience a festive climate with food and stands, and join in the crowds at the main hall praying or buying good luck charms.
We suggest a visit to a temple around midnight on New Year’s Eve when the bells are repeatedly rung. It is indeed an incredible experience. The main urban trains run through the night from December 31 to January 1, to help with the hatsumode dynamic.
New Year’s food
Food plays a huge part in New Year´s celebration. Japanese people have various unique dishes for Shogatsu. They include osechi ryori which comes in an assortment of colorful dishes packed together in special boxes called jubako, very similar to bento boxes. Every dish has a special meaning in welcoming the New Year. It is also traditional to eat toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles) for longevity, mochi (rice cake), ozoni (soup with mochi) and otoso (sweetened rice wine).
Traditional games and TV shows
In recent years the Japanese added watching a highly popular television program called “Kohaku uta gassen” as a New Year’s tradition. An annual music show on New Year’s Eve produced by Japanese public broadcaster NHK and broadcast on television and radio.
There are also some Japanese games that children in Japan play on New Year. Some of these are very similar to games played in the western world, but with a twist: Hanetsuki (Japanese badminton), Takoage (kite flying), Fukuwarai (pin the tail on the donkey), Sugoroku (consisting of dice and some board pieces) and Karuta (a card game).
Nengajo, Japanese New Year’s cards
The nengajo business is a big thing in Japan. It goes beyond sending them to relatives and friends. Japanese send New Year cards to basically everybody they know, classmates, coworkers, and business partners.
Japanese cards are more than season’s greetings they also enable the people who receive them to take part in a special lottery using the numbers that are printed on every card.
Emperor’s New Year Greeting
If you happen to be in Tokyo during the New Year, be sure to check out the Emperor’s New Year Greeting. It is a yearly event where the Imperial Family makes several appearances throughout the day. Be sure to get there with time to spare before the appearance is scheduled, as you’ll need to get through the security checks and lines can be long.
Take this opportunity, since this is one of only two occasions when the private grounds of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace are open to the public. The other is the Emperor’s birthday on December 23rd.
The days between December 29th and January 4th form one of the busiest seasons, with large crowds and long lines. However, New Year is for some people one of the best times of the year to visit Japan.
During the high season most people leave the big cities to visit their relatives in the country, and of course, there is a round trip after the New Year celebration. For that reason, trains, airports, and expressways get very overcrowded.
New Year’s Closures
Most tourist attractions, stores, restaurants and banks are closed between December 29th and January 4th, limiting your sightseeing, shopping and dining choices, especially on January 1st.
Museums are typically closed for most of the holiday season. There is no closing schedule for gardens and castles, some close all days or only on some days, while others on a specific day, and some don’t close at all. However, temples and shrines do not close over the New Year.
Shops and restaurants traditionally close one or two days over the holiday, typically on January 1st. However, in recent years, modern shopping districts and malls remain open.
After reading our article, you will be more than prepared to explore Japan at this time of the year. Remember that it is customary for people in Japan to say to each other “Happy New Year,” so you can start practicing “Akemashite-omedetou-gozaimasu.”.
Visiting Japan during New Year (Shogatsu) is a once in a lifetime experience. Find all about this Holiday, its traditions, religion, activities and food!