Every country has its own customs and traditions surrounding the New Year’s period. While Japan has two calendars, the calendar that follows the Imperial successions, and the Gregorian calendar that is used by most of the world, New Year’s eve is on December 31st, and New Year’s day in Japan is recognized as January 1st. The New Year’s period in Japan officially lasts for 3 days and ends on January 4th, which is the day that many small shops open again and some people go back to the office. Let’s have a look at what traditions make the New Year’s period special in Japan.
New Year’s Day Family Gatherings
Just like in most of the world, the New Year’s holidays are a prime time for families to get together again. In the period around January 1st, cities like Tokyo tend to be a lot emptier than usual. Because most people who haul from a different town go back to their parental homes at that time. For many people, this is the only time in the year that the whole family gets together, in that way it is like Christmas for western people.
Most people will depart for their home towns on the morning after their last day at work, making for an extremely busy traffic situation on that day, both on Japan’s highways and on the trains. If you want to take a shinkansen on that day, you’d better book early. They often only have five to seven days off, and the children have about two weeks of holiday.
Travel During New Year’s Day
Then, one or two days before many offices open again, there will be another 2 days of crowds on the road, this is called the ‘U-turn rush’. The reason that so many people still choose to travel on these days is that salaried workers in Japan only have 2 opportunities per year to take off for a few days in a row, at New Year’s or during the Obon period in summer.
If you travel to Japan during your Christmas holidays, it is good to keep in mind that many museums, parks, and smaller shops and restaurants are closed from the end of the year until January 4th. There is, however, still plenty of ways to enjoy yourself in Japan during that time. You could go on a winter sports trip, visit , or enjoy one of the many onsen resorts which are at their best in the winter.
Many Japanese housewives will prepare Osechi-ryori, or special New Year’s dishes, before the New Year. This is because they would also like to catch a break during the time everyone else is off and because many restaurants are also closed so it is more difficult to get your family dinner. They prepare a wide variety of food in layered boxes, and most of the small bites have a special meaning that should bring you luck in the new year.
For example, konbu seaweed is a symbol of happiness because of the phonetic similarity of the words ‘seaweed’ and ‘happiness’ in Japanese. Beans will help you work diligently, shrimp is a symbol of longevity because it bends its waist like an old person, and we want to live until we become like shrimps.
We also eat soup called o-zoni, which is filled with rice cake. The type of soup that is used varies depending on the region; some areas use clear dashi soup while other areas use miso soup. There is even a sweet version made of red beans in western Japan. Adults also drink ‘otoso‘, which is auspicious sake mixed with medicinal herbs. It is believed that if you drink it, you will stay healthy for the year and ward off evil spirits as a bonus. It is not that far-fetched, as many herbs that are used in this special sake are known for their immune-boosting qualities such as ginger and cinnamon.
Otoshidama is the New Year’s gift money that is given by older relatives to the children in the family in Japan. Children are looking forward to receiving as much Otoshidama as possible from the parents and other relatives once January 1st rolls around. Normally, parents continue to give otoshidama to their children until they finish their educational career, which is usually after high school or college.
The amount of money varies depending on the giver’s relationship to the child and how old the child is. Parents may give 5,000 to 10,000 yen and other relatives may give 1,000 to 5,000 yen. Some children may get more than 100,000 yen in just a few days after they made their New Year’s visits to their many relatives! If the child is very small, the parents will keep the otoshidama money and deposit it safely in a bank account in their child’s name.
The custom of otoshidama is relatively new and only began in the 1950s. The gift actually used to be mochi or rice cake instead of money, as it is believed that the god of New Year lives in a special round-shaped rice cake called ‘kagamimochi‘. People used to give pieces of rice cake for good luck and to drive away evil spirits. This tradition has changed to giving money. Some people say that the round-shaped money has the same meaning as the round-shaped rice cake.
Anyway, the winter holiday is the favorite season for many children because they can receive both Christmas presents and otoshidama, but for the parents, it can be a bit financially straining to be this generous at the year’s end and new year’s start.
New Year’s Day First Shrine Visit: Hatsumode
After eating Osechi-ryori, people often go to a nearby Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple. The first visit to these religious facilities is called Hatsumode. We pray to the gods or to Buddha and ask for the coming year to bring happiness. Most Japanese may be Shintoists and Buddhists at the same time, but they actually tend to not visit shrines or temples that often in daily life.
Many people actually only visit on New Year Day, so you can imagine that on that day the shrines and temples are filled with visitors. Visitors like to buy lucky items on that day such as a good luck charm and an arrow that wards off evil spirits, and many also like to have their fortunes told by omikuji. The most crowded shrine in Japan is the Meiji Jingu in Tokyo. Can you believe that there are 3 million people who visit the shrine during just the first three days of the new year?
Top 10 Hatsumode Shrines
This is the top 10 of the most popular temples and shrines in Japan to visit during New Year:
No.1 Tokyo Meiji Jingu Shrine
No.2 Kawasaki Daishi Shrine
No.3 Chiba Naritasan Shinshoji Temple
No.4 Tokyo Sensoji Temple
No.5 Kyoto Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
No.6 Kamakura Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine
No.7 Osaka Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine
No.8 Nagoya Atsuta Shrine
No.9 Saitama Hikawa Shrine
No.10 Fukuoka Dazaifu Tenmangu
If you are in Japan during one of the first days of a new year, you may want to avoid the large crowds from popular temples in favor of going to one of the many smaller neighborhood temples where you are welcome to partake in the ritual first visit of the year.
The First Dream of the Year
The first dream of the year is called ‘hatsuyume’ in Japanese, and it is believed to be significant in predicting how the coming year will treat you. If the following things appear in your dream, you will have good luck throughout the year; Mt. Fuji, a hawk that can fly in the sky freely, or an eggplant which is pronounced as ‘nasu’ which can also mean ‘to achieve’. So that means that dreaming about an aubergine means you will achieve your goal this year.
In order to have a good first dream, Japanese people employ several methods to influence their dreams. They think that by putting an image of a treasure boat or a tapir will make you have good dreams. A tapir is actually believed to eat bad dreams, so why not give it a try?
Fun and Games
For adults, going shopping on January 2nd is a very popular thing to do. The so-called ‘fukubukuro‘, or lucky bags, are the reason for this. A fukubukuro is a bag that can contain all kinds of goodies, and many larger and smaller stores give them out. The fun part is that you have no idea what you are buying, as the contents are often a surprise and all you can see is a price tag. What you do know, though, is that it will always be a (very) good deal.
A bag that costs 3000 yen can easily contain 10.000 yen worth of goodies. Some stores offer better bags than others, and those who are in-the-know will know where to line up. Lines can become very long at stores with popular fukubukuro bags, and the wait can be many hours. But it is part of the tradition, and often very much worth it. So if you happen to be in Japan on January 2nd, treat yourself to one of these lucky bags!
For the kids, there are special games during the first days of January. Karuta, a card game, is one of them. A reciter will read a proverb or poem out loud, and the other players then try to get the card related to the proverb or poem. The one who collects most cards is the winner. Children also play typical old-fashioned games such as ‘hanetsuki’ or Japanese style badminton, ‘takoage’ or flying a kite, ‘komamawashi’ or spinning tops, ‘sugoroku’ a Japanese board game, and so on.
Your Japan Tour
As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect Japan tour. We can guides who can help you navigate Japan during special events and can tell you all about Japanese traditions surrounding special days like New Year’s Day. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!