In many cultures, New Year is a time for putting the past behind you and preparing for a new beginning. One of the reasons why New Year is a great time to visit Japan is because you will be able to see some of the country's unique traditions and participate in the celebrations.
Although the date of New Year is January 1st as in other countries, the way the Japanese prepare for and celebrate the arrival of New Year is different from most other people.
In this article, we explain everything you need to know about celebrating New Year in Japan, including how to say "Happy New Year" in Japanese, basic information about the celebrations, Japanese New Year traditions and food, and some tips for visiting Japan at the time.
How to Say "Happy New Year" in Japanese
In Japan, it is traditional to greet everyone you see on January 1st by saying "Happy New Year". In Japanese, that is akemashite omedetou gozaimasu (which sounds like Ah-kay-mash-tay Oh-may-day-toh goh-zai-mas).
Many Japanese people say this to their relatives as the clock strikes midnight on New Year's morning. At that time, the greeting is more serious than fun, and is often accompanied by a deep bow.
Japanese New Year
The New Year’s holiday in Japan is often called shogatsu or oshogatsu and is celebrated from January 1st to 3rd. New Year’s is the most important holiday in Japan and focuses on tradition and family.
Unlike many western countries, with fireworks or countdown parties, New Year’s in Japan is more family-centric and quieter. Japanese people engage in traditions that help them to be thankful for the past year and foster good luck in the coming year.
Almost everyone in Japan gets time off work during the New Year’s holiday. People travel back to their family homes to see old friends and relatives, and relax for a few days.
For tourists, this means quieter city streets and more closed shops, but also a chance to experience some of the country's oldest and most important cultural traditions.
Japanese New Year Traditions
Japan is a country with many New Year’s traditions, old and new. Here's a list of the most common ways Japanese people celebrate the New Year with family and friends.
Visiting a Temple or Shrine
From the night of December 31st to the morning of January 1st, Japanese people normally go to visit a temple or shrine. On that night, the most popular shrines in Japan can attract millions of people, who go to receive blessings and pray for good fortune in the New Year.
In Japan, the first visit to a temple in the New Year is called hatsumode, and is regarded as very important. On the night of New Year’s Eve, hatsumode events and festivities are held in almost every temple throughout Japan, so that Japanese people can make their first temple visit of the year just as the New Year begins.
During these events, people visit the main prayer hall, purchase New Year's fortunes, visit food stands, and listen to the temple bell as it is rung 108 times to ring in the new year. The bell-ringing is an ancient Buddhist tradition recognizing 108 human sins.
The most popular shrines to visit in Japan during New Year's Eve include the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, the Kawasaki Daishi Heikenji Temple in Kanagawa, the Naritasan Shinshoji in Chiba, and the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.
Watching the First Sunrise of the Year
Another Japanese New Year's tradition is to wake up on time to see the first sunrise of the year. Although this requires getting up earlier than most people like to, there is something relaxing and beautiful about watching the first sunrise, while meditating on a wish you have for the upcoming year.
This tradition is called hatsuhinode and stems from the ancient Shinto belief that Toshigami, the god of the New Year, arrives at the first sunrise on the first day, and will grant the wishes of anyone who is there to make them.
This tradition is so popular that in some locations, such as the Tokyo Skytree and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, special viewing events are convened early in the morning on January 1st.
If you don't wish to pay for tickets or be in a large crowd for the viewing, then it is just as impressive to watch the first sunrise from the city streets or the beautiful countryside. In recent years, many people have opted for early morning hikes in Hakone, to see the sunrise over Mount Fuji.
New Year's Big Cleaning
One important belief of Japanese people is that their houses should be in a clean state when the New Year arrives. This is to ensure that families are able to put the previous year behind them, start fresh, and focus on the year ahead.
This leads to an event called osouji, important all across the country. It means ‘big cleaning’ and happens in practically every Japanese household in the weeks leading up to January 1st.
In order to make sure the family can start the year with a clean slate, Japanese people often clean every inch of the house, including behind heavy furniture that is difficult to move and in spaces that don't get cleaned during the rest of the year.
The Emperor's New Year Greetings
This New Year tradition takes place on January 2nd when the Emperor of Japan makes a public appearance in the Imperial Palace; one of only two times a year that the Imperial Palace is open to the public.
During this time, the emperor and his family stand facing the crowd on a glass-protected balcony while waving and speaking to onlookers. They usually make several appearances during the day.
This is regarded as a time for the emperor to wish his people well, and for the people to thank the emperor and his family for everything they have done.
New Year's Cards
One way Japanese people like to send good wishes to their close friends and family in the new year is by sending New Year's cards. These nengajo are guaranteed by post offices to arrive on January 1st, if they are given to the offices by a certain date.
Nengajo cards are similar to western Christmas cards, in that most Japanese people send several dozen to friends and family. One major difference is that all nengajo cards also have a lottery number on them.
After the cards are delivered, numbers are drawn and it is possible for the recipients to win prizes like electronic items or travel tickets.
Recently, as snail mail has been going out of fashion throughout the world, nengajo has received an electronic upgrade, and it is now possible and increasingly popular to send and receive electronic versions of nengajo via SMS or email.
Otoshidiama is a Japanese New Year’s custom whereby adults in a family give money in decorated envelopes to children of the family. This tradition is similar to the hongbao tradition in China or the handsel in Scotland.
The amount of money given depends on the age of the child, but if there are many children it should be the same amount for everyone. Amounts of around 5,000 yen ($50) are not uncommon, with relatively large amounts of money being passed on at this time.
If you are attending a family gathering during New Year in Japan, it would be a good idea to have some money and small pochibukuro envelopes just in case.
Other New Year's Activities
Japan is a country of many New Year's traditions, and of course, every Japanese family celebrates the arrival of New Year differently. Here are some other New Year's traditions, less popular or newer than the others.
A recent custom for Japanese New Year is to watch the extremely popular Japanese TV music show Kohaku Uta Gassen. This features two teams consisting of popular Japanese music artists competing against each other with spectacular performances.
Many families also play New Year's games, typically including traditional games such as kite flying, Japanese badminton (hanetsuki), or card games (karuta).
Lastly, because Japanese culture views different years as distinct, another popular tradition is to attend bonenkai parties, or year-forgetting-parties, which are meant to help participants put the worries and troubles of the previous year behind them.
Japanese New Year Food
Because the New Year’s holiday is such a symbolic time for Japan, the food eaten during this time of year often also involves symbolism and lucky meanings. Best of all, like all Japanese cuisine, Japanese New Year’s food is extremely delicious. Here are some of our favorite Japanese New Year dishes.
Eating toshikoshi-soba is a New Year's Eve tradition. Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour and are often referred to as year-crossing noodles. They are eaten at the start of the New Year, for they are easily cut and symbolize the idea of letting go of past hardships.
Soba noodles are also often said to represent longevity, because during the process of making the noodles the dough is stretched, and the noodles are cut into long, thin strips.
Osechi-ryori is often served in a multiple-layered and beautiful bento box containing a selection of traditional foods that Japanese people eat at the beginning of the New Year.
Osechi boxes differ from region to region but most contain dishes that are sweet, sour, or dried, so they don't need to be refrigerated. This keeps the family fed during the time of year when most restaurants and shops close.
Each dish in an osechi box has a particular meaning. Prawns usually symbolize longevity, while fish roe mean fertility, and so on. Osechi boxes are normally purchased for the whole family and then placed in the middle of the table and shared by everyone.
It is also traditional in Japan to eat rice cakes or mochi during New Year’s. Mochi is made when boiled sticky rice is flattened into a wooden container with a large wooden mallet.
The most popular New Year’s mochi dish is ozoni, a soup that includes rice cakes and other ingredients that differ from region to region.
Another important New Year's tradition is the drinking of otoso, spiced medicinal sake. Otoso was originally drunk to ward off evil spirits, in hope of a long healthy life.
When drinking otoso Japanese families share the same three cups and pass them from person to person. They normally start with the youngest and end with the oldest.
Japanese New Year Decorations
Now that we have discussed Japanese New Year traditions and food, we'll describe some of the decorations you can expect to see in Japan during the holiday. Recurring decorations will include kadomatsu, shimekazari, and kagami mochi.
Kadomatsu, also known as gateway pine, is a decoration you can see in front of shops, hotels, and homes and is usually placed near an entrance. It is a large vase that contains three bamboo shoots, pine, and plum branches.
The bamboo shoots represent prosperity, the pine represents longevity, and the plum branches represent steadfastness.
Shimekazari is a decoration hung over entrances and doors, looking similar to a wreath. The purpose of shimekazari is to invite the gods to enter while at the same time warding off evil spirits.
These decorations are made from straw rope, pine, bitter orange and some other items, depending on the family and region.
Kagami mochi is a decoration that is actually an offering to the gods, made from two stacked mochi (rice cakes) with an orange on top. This decoration is normally placed on the household altar and represents a wish for prosperity for all family descendants.
Visiting Japan during New Year
Visiting Japan during the New Year’s holiday can be an incredible and rewarding experience, especially if you are interested in Japanese culture. At this time of year, you'll have opportunity to see the country's most important holiday and some of its longstanding traditions.
It's good to keep in mind, however, that because New Year is such an important holiday in Japan, many Japanese businesses will close for the celebrations. This means that life can be difficult for tourists when attractions, shops, and restaurants all close for a few days.
Also, domestic travel in Japan and international travel to Japan are all much busier at this time of year, due to the great number of people who travel home to be with their families. You can expect trains, airports, and highways all to be very congested.
Visit Japan with Asia Highlights
Want to ring in the New Year by exploring Japan and its ancient culture and traditions? At Asia Highlights we specialize in planning tailor-made trips that fit the desires of any traveler. We can help you plan a smooth and enjoyable vacation. To get started, just send us an email here.