Life in Japan

How Japanese People Spend the New Year Holidays: And How You Too Can Participate

In Japan, the new year isn’t just celebrated at the stroke of midnight or the day of. The celebration lasts for days. Government offices, banks, and businesses usually take about a week off (from about December 28th to January 3rd) for the end-of-the-year and new year holidays, with many people adding on personal vacation time to stretch the vacation all the way through January 6th or 7th. See this article for a list of new year holiday closures.

Greet Your Friends and Colleagues

The first time you see a business colleague or friend in the new year, it’s customary to say:

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu.  明けましておめでとうございます。

This literally means, “Congratulations on the start of the New Year!”

It’s ok to use this phrase all the way through January (not just on January 1st), if it happens to take the whole month before you first see whoever it is you’re greeting.

In a business setting, you can also add:

Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.   今年もよろしくお願いいたします。

This means something like: “I ask for your continued goodwill and support this year.”

Ring Bells at Midnight (Joyanokane)

Shuzenji (Temple), Shizuoka prefecture. Image: shuzenji-temple.com

At midnight on December 31st, Buddhist temples all over Japan will ring their bells a total of 108 times to symbolize the 108 human sins in Buddhism and to get rid of the 108 worldly desires. This is called joya-no-kane (除夜の鐘 ).

You can join in this tradition at many major temples throughout Japan, but be sure to go well before midnight because some temples limit the number of people who can participate in the actual bell ringing. At most temples, the ringing of bells usually starts around 11PM.

One of the most popular temples in Tokyo to join in joya-no-kane is Tsukiji Honganji, near Tsukiji Station on the Hibiya line. Participation is limited to the first 350 people. After the actual prayer service, you’ll get a chance to ring the bell if you have lined up early enough to get a ticket.

At other temples, like Tenryuji (Temple) in Shinjuku San-Chome the number of participants is not limited, but there is usually a long line, so come as early as you can.

Other popular temples in Tokyo include: Ikegami Honmoji (Ikegami, Ota Ward), Nishiarai Daishi (Nishi Arai Station, Tobu Skytree line in Adachi Ward), and Horinouchi Myohoji (Koenji, Suginami Ward).

If you happen to be in Kyoto, you have even more temples to choose from, including: Chion-in (Higashiyama Ward), where it takes a a team of 17 monks to ring the city’s largest temple bell.

In Osaka: Namba Betsuin (Minamimido) Temple (near Shinsaibashi and Sakisuji Honmachi stations) is a popular place for joya-no-kane.

Eat Soba Noodles (Toshikoshi soba)

Soba noodles.

Toshikoshi soba (年越しそば) is eaten on new year’s eve, which is called omisoka 大晦日. This is basically a hot bowl of buckwheat soba noodles served in a broth of dashi, mirin, and soy sauce. Because these noodles are easy to bite and chew, by eating them, you can symbolically let go of all the hard things you went through last year. The shape of the noodles (long and thin) is also meant to bring you a long, fine life.

Not to mention that a hot bowl of noodles will warm you up on a cold new year’s eve. However, it’s considered bad luck to eat them in the new year, so remember to finish your noodles before midnight.

This is a very easy dish to cook and there are many recipes online in English. However, if you would like to participate in this custom and are particularly unmotivated to fire up your stove, you can also hop into your local conbini and buy ready-made cold soba noodles and slurp those down instead. Just remember they’ll be cold. Yes, zaru soba, is a summer noodle dish, but some convenience stores sell them in the winter, too.

Zaru (cold) soba noodles available at your local conbini.

Observing the First Sunrise of the Year – Hatsuhinode

Watching the sun rise on Mt. Takao. Image: Mt. Takao magazine

Hatsuhinode (初日の出) refers to the first sunrise of the year. In Japan, new year’s day is the time to welcome toshigamisama (年神さま), Shinto deities who also represent ancestors’ spirits. They appear when the sun rises on the first day of the new year. So the first sunrise is the most special sunrise of the year.

The sun is set to rise at about 6:51AM on new year’s day 2019. Popular places to see the sunrise in Tokyo include: Mt. Takao or any tall building. However, you had to have planned ahead if you are thinking of seeing the sun rise from structures like Tokyo Tower, Roppongi Hills, or SkyTree. These buildings usually hold a lottery for admission in the early part of December (but you can always plan ahead for 2020).

Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to observe the first sunrise from your local neighborhood park or in the comfort of your pajamas from your balcony.

Visit a Shrine or Temple – Hatsumode

Narita-san (Temple) in Chiba. Hatsumode, 2013.

Hatsumōde (初詣 ) is the first Shinto shrine visit of the new year. You can also visit a Buddhist temple, instead. In either case, the point is to go pray for good health, luck, and prosperity in the new year. However, you don’t have to go on new year’s day or even the first few days, unless you want to be part of the crowds and experience the phenomenon of standing in line to actually reach the shrine or temple itself.

Eat a traditional new year meal with your family

Traditional new year foods (osechi). Image: Wikimedia

But if there is one takeaway about new year’s in Japan, it is that the new year holidays are all about family. A lot of this involves going to your parents or extended family’s home, cooking, and enjoying traditional new year foods, hanging out, and catching up after a long year.

Some families prepare traditional foods, called osechi ryouri (おせち料理), entirely from scratch. Others order some osechi dishes and cook other dishes themselves. It is too late this year to order a ready-made osechi meal from a restaurant, but you can find many osechi recipes online in English if you’d like to give it a try.

You may also be interested in: Japan New Year Holiday Schedule

Lead photo: Wikimedia, First sunrise and Jyougashima bridge (January 1, 2009)