Japanese New Year: Traditions, countdowns and fireworks

By Tiffany, Tokyo Cheapo

In some countries, Christmas decorations get taken down well after Christmas (or even New Year), but in Japan, after the 25th, it’s as if Christmas never happened. That’s because in Japan, Christmas is, like Halloween, just another fun holiday without traditional, cultural (let alone religious) significance, and the traditional winter holiday for the Japanese is "oshogatsu' (literally, “first month”), or New Year.

Japanese New Year celebrations are quite different from Western ones. With celebrations extending until January 3, New Year in Japan is a quiet, solemn, family affair, and it’s not marked by noisy reveling, fireworks, or countdown parties. In fact, most Japanese will be at home (and, if they’re not from Tokyo, in their hometowns) with their families. As busy as many people are, the working populace gets a few days off for "nenmatsu nenshi" (literally, “end of the year and beginning of the year”).

Celebrating the New Year, Japanese-style

Ever wanted to try celebrating the New Year the way the Japanese do? Now you can learn how! Note that you don’t have to do all these things; not everyone sticks to each and every tradition, after all.

1. Invite good luck into your place with some 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 15. "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’re into crafting, some parks occasionally have crafting workshops, in which you can learn to make your own kadomatsu and/or other decorations. Some Tokyu Hands branches might also have such workshops. 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, and as for Tokyu Hands, you can check their event page (in Japanese) for announcements.

2. On the 31st, watch Kohaku 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 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. The audience and judges then vote for the best team.

Kohaku‘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" and "mochi" and "dashi" for "ozoni") aside, these dishes’ ingredients vary across households and regions. As for "osechi ryori," they tend to be pricey, but we’ve written about how you can get cheaper "osechi" sets here.

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 much suffering, and "joya no kane" is supposed to purify humans’ minds and souls for the year up ahead. In Tokyo, the temples that are famous for this ceremony are Zojo-ji near Tokyo Tower (access: Onarimon, Daimon, or Hamamatsucho Station) and Asakusa’s Senso-ji. Both get extremely crowded, so get there early! You also don’t have to worry about missing the last train home, as trains and subways will run all night until the following morning on New Year’s Eve.

5. Send nengajo: 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 still carry a lot of these postcards indicates that there is still a market for "nengajo." Some families and businesses still send "nengajo;" 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 you and/or your friends collect postcards, a "nengajo" might make their New Year!

6. See hatsuhinode, the first sunrise.

Start the New Year as an early bird and catch the first sunrise! This year, the observatories at Tokyo Sky Tree and Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building are holding "hatsuhinode"-viewing events as early as 5:00 am on January 1. Unfortunately, we found out that these events were only for a limited number of participants (800 for the former and 600 for the latter), which would be selected by lottery, and applications started months ago. So why not take an early-morning hike up Mt. Takao or Mt. Mitsutoge, or even go to resort areas like Hakone or Izu for "hatsuhinode?"

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 to a smaller, local one for a less stressed start to your New Year. You might also want to make a pilgrimage to areas beyond Tokyo that are considered sacred.

8. Fukubukuro and New Year sales: Shop till you drop!

What, you thought retailers wouldn’t 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. You might just get a prized item for a steal, after all! 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 during New Year).

In addition to "fukubukuro," many shops also have New Year sales, which tend to start at or past noon of January 1.

But if you want a Western-style celebration…

There are a few places in Tokyo that have countdown events, but from experience, most are much quieter than countdowns elsewhere, which are usually accompanied by partying and performances. For one, at the stroke of midnight, Tokyo Tower releases balloons into the air as its lighting changes. For other family-friendly ones, check out Ikebukuro’s Sunshine 60 observatory and Namjatown (a small amusement park inside Sunshine City), Hanayashiki in Asakusa, Joypolis in Odaiba’s Decks Aqua City (near Tokyo Teleport Station), and Oedo Onsen Monogatari (free shuttle bus available from some stations such as Shinagawa and Tokyo Teleport). Usually, you just have to pay for admission to these establishments; there’s no extra fee to join their countdown events. Also, in recent years, crowds have gathered at Shibuya Crossing on New Year’s Eve, so if you want a rowdier affair, head to that area.

Of course, bars, nightclubs, and lounges throughout Tokyo will have countdown parties, too. If you want to go all out, you’ve got some options:

AgeHa (Tokyo’s biggest nightclub) will be throwing a event. Advanced tickets have already sold out, only regular admission tickets remain at 4,980 yen a pop. New York Lounge at the Intercontinental Tokyo Bay is also holding a countdown and DJ party starting at 6,500 yen.

Whistlebump Countdown at XEX Nihonbashi tickets start from 3,000 yen.

In general, Shibuya and Roppongi areas should have plenty of establishments where you can enjoy a lively countdown party as well.

If fireworks are what you’re after, you’ll want to head to Tokyo Tower, which seems like the main spot for the general public to gather and celebrate. Besides that, there are few other options, like the Sunshine 60 observatory’s countdown event, although this author remembers seeing very few sparks at the 2013 event — sparks that weren’t even enough to light the night sky. In neighboring Yokohama, you can see fireworks displays at the Red Brick Warehouse (or Akarenga in Japanese) or Hakkeijima Sea Paradise (near Hakkeijima Station).

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Oshogatsu was one of the things I really enjoyed about my more than twenty years in Japan.

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Regarding Kohaku Uta Gassen which I watched from 1984 until 2014, sadly, it is no longer a contest between the women's and men's teams, but almost always an automatic win for the men.

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Regarding the comment above that Kouhaku Uta Gassen is "no longer a contest" and has been an automatic win for the men since 2014: the red team (women) won the next two years (2015-2016), and as of the Jan 31, 2018 show, the overall record is white team (men) won 55% of all the battles and red team (women) won 45%. This is fairly even and the kind of results you'd expect from a fair competition, but really, this is a concert and year-end celebration. The "winner" is not the important part. Just be happy it's a fun and beautiful show full of entertainment and not some self-aggrandizing boring night of speeches like the US Academy Awards. Why does it matter who wins? It's just for fun, not to be taken too seriously by people who are obsessed with "men vs. women" issues. You get to see a night full of beautiful performances, smiles, accomplishments, and high spirits. That's the important part.

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