New Year traditions in Japan

Japan celebrates the transition to the new year on January 1st since late 19th century. But Japanese culture traditions differs from Westerners on several points.

"New year" is called お正月 / Oshogatsu. In Japanese, there are two ways to wish a happy new year:

  • until December 31st: 良いお年を / yoi otoshi o
  • from January 1st: (新年) あけましておめでとう (ございます) / (shin-nen) akemashite omedetô (gozaimasu)

The tradition is to send greetings by mail via cards called 年 贺 状 / Nengajo. In Japan, according to the tradition, they must arrive on the morning of January 1st (Japan Post ensures that this is the case). Japanese people send and receive dozens of them.

During the last days of December, houses are thoroughly cleaned, a large cleaning called 大扫除 / ôsôji which is a rite of purification. The week before New year's eve is devoted to 忘年会 / Bonenkai, parties with friends or colleagues to "forget the year." At this time, izakaya pubs are sometimes difficult to book.

New Year's Eve on December 31st (大晦日 / Omisoka) is a pretty traditional event with the family, except for young people who go partying with friends. Everybody eats soba or udon (noodle soup) called 年越し / toshikoshi, and watches variety shows on TV that broadcast sketches and songs from traditional or modern idols and groups...

Around midnight, Japanese people go to the (Buddhist) temple or (Shinto) shrine for 初诣 / hatsumode, the first visit to the temple. They pray by ringing bells. Temples and shrines are crowded and you have to queue, sometimes for several hours.

Some temples and shrines are extremely popular and receive more than a million visitors during the early days of the year, such as:

Then everybody goes back home to eat the first meal of the year, called お節料理 / osechiryôri. Children receive decorated envelopes, お年玉 / Otoshidama, filled with some money.

On January 1st, the Japanese get up early to watch the first sunrise of the year, called 初日の出 / hatsuhinode. They drink the first 酒 / sake of the year (屠苏 / Toso) at 9am, with a very generous breakfast. Then they return to the temple to get predictions of good fortune (お神籤 / omikuji). According to tradition, they can also fly kites.

The day of January 1st (元日 / ganjitsu) is a holiday and some stores and companies are closing for one to three days. It's like a mini "golden week", during which the Japanese can relax or go on a trip to see their family or go abroad. Train stations and airports in Japan are really crowded at this time of the year.

On January 2nd, the Emperor of Japan presents his greetings to visitors of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. This is one of the only two days of the year when it is possible to enter the palace, along with the anniversary of the Emperor on December 23rd. The crowd is very dense and the imperial family welcomes the public several times during the day, from a balcony protected by glass.

As for me, I wish you all a happy new year!

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Posted by Gael
Editor in chief
Gael is founder and responsible for Kanpai's publication. In love with Japanese culture, he travels to Japan regularly since 2003 and shares his information and tips.
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