Unlike the rest of Asia, where the lunar New Year is the most important holiday, in Japan New Year’s Day on the Gregorian calendar reigns supreme. While the New Year in Japan is celebrated on the same day as in Western countries, the traditions are completely different.
In the lead up to New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, Japanese families send end-of-the-year gifts and postcards, similar to Western Christmas cards, to family and friends. It is believed to be auspicious to welcome in the new year with a clean house, so December is typically when families do their version of spring cleaning before New Years decorations go up.
New Year’s Eve, called Omisoka in Japanese, serves as a preparatory day for the main event. Bamboo, pine, straw, paper, and rope decorations are hung throughout the home to bring good luck in the coming year. In the late evening, families gather together to eat soba noodles, as they’re thought to represent longevity. At midnight, everyone flocks to their family shrine or temple for the first shrine visit of the new year. At Buddhist temples, worshipers gather to ring the bell 108 times, thought to purify the body and spirit of the 108 worldly desires.
Throughout the New Year holiday, it is customary for older members of the family to give money to children in small decorated envelopes, and everyone snacks on mochi, a sticky rice cake.
If you’re in Japan this New Year:
- Sample some mochi.
- Have a bowl of soba (buckwheat) noodles, but remember that the noodle stands and restaurants will all be busy on New Year’s Eve.
- Join in the festivities at a shrine or temple, nearly all of them will be hosting special New Year’s events.
- Catch a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Dozens are staged throughout the country during December and January.
- Don’t worry: If you like your New Year’s Eve Western-style, complete with booze and a party, you will find it at the big bars and nightclubs in Japan’s larger cities, especially in Tokyo and Osaka.
-updated by Cyndi Waite