How the Japanese Celebrate the New Year

We’ve shared how the Japanese celebrate Christmas in another blog post, and, now that 2017 is just around the corner, we’d like to give you a peek at how the Japanese celebrate the first day of every new year.

The Traditional Japanese New Year’s Timeline

To give you a better idea of what goes on during the New Year’s event in Japan, here’s a simple timeline of the basic customs:

December 31st: Just like December 25th is a major holiday for most Westerners, December 31st is a prominent date in Japan. This date symbolizes the end of the old year and the prequel to the new year. One of the most popular traditions on this day is to eat toshikoshi soba, a Japanese buckwheat noodle bowl that literally translates to ‘year-crossing soba.’ It’s believed that eating this soba noodle dish will bring good luck to those who eat it. The long, thin noodles represent the wish to live a long, healthy life. This soba noodle bowl is typically eaten before 12 a.m. on New Year’s Eve as it’s also believed that, if you eat toshikoshi soba after midnight, it’s considered bad luck.

Another Japanese tradition is related to a spiritual ritual that temples across Japan have: ring the temple bell 107-108 times at midnight to welcome the new year. This ritual is called ‘joyokane.’ The specific 107-108 rings is said to represent the 108 desires that humans have, and the bell ringing helps conquer these in the upcoming year. Another belief associated with the bell ringing tradition is that it will help wipe off any ‘sins’ committed in the previous year so that you can start anew.

January 1st: It’s New Year’s Day, and this is when one of the biggest events in Japan begins! January 1st is a huge family event and traditional Japanese dishes that are only served on this day. Osechi or osechi ryori, an extravagant layout of food in an elegant bento-box-like container called juubako is served only on this day, and it features various foods that have been carefully made and represent something for the new year. Foods in osechi typically represents prosperity, good health, wealth, and other common desires. For instance, kuromame (‘black soybeans’) is a common dish found in osechi, and it means a wish of good health in the new year; ‘mame’ in kuromame means ‘health.’ Sweet omelette egg rolls (datemaki), daikon and carrot salad (namasu), and simmered meat (like chicken) and vegetables are other popular osechi additions. You can also find side dishes to complement the osechi, making this New Year’s Day traditional cuisine a true feast. Ozoni (Japanese New Year Mochi Soup) is one of the much-loved osechi side dishes that can be made in various styles (Kansai or Kanto are the most common variations). Sushi and mochi also make regular appearances during the osechi dining experience.

Families visit shrines on this day for prayer and fortune telling for the new year. You’ll see many Japanese people dressed in elegant kimonos during this time. The first shrine visit of the year is called hatsumode in Japanese. At shrines, you’ll find places where you can find your fortune for the new year, discover various talismans and charms that you can buy for you or your family and friends, and more New Year’s festivities. Sweet sake, also known as amazake, is often served at this time to help shrine visitors stay warm.

January 1st is also the time where adults gift children money in fancy envelopes dedicated for this purpose. This practice is called otoshidama, and this is a common trend in Asian countries that stems from history. In Japan, the typical amount to give to children is ¥10,000.

Other Activities to Do in Japan on New Year’s

If you’re visiting Japan during New Year’s and you’re looking for different activities to do during the season besides shrine visiting and other typical Japanese activities, add the following to your travel itinerary:

  1. Shop the New Year’s sale and get a fukubukuro. A fukubukuro is a lucky gift bag that many stores in Japan sell during the New Year’s time. This mystery bag contains an assortment of random gifts worth more than the actual price of the gift bag, which is a fantastic deal especially if you’re buying a fukubukuro from Apple, designer stores, and other high-end companies. If you want great deals on Japanese fashion and other products, you can shop the New Year’s sale!
  1. Stay at a ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that provides you with a true Japanese hotel experience; some are even located near hot springs and have onsen or Japanese hot spring baths. Many ryokan serve osechi during the New Year, so you can have a completely traditional Japanese New Year and culture experience. Make sure to book ahead of time, though, or reservations will be gone before you know it!
  1. Get up early to see the first sunrise of the year. This Japanese custom is called hatsuhinode, and it’s one of the many firsts that the Japanese people do on New Year’s Day. The ideal spot for viewing the sunrise is near a mountain and water area; the views are well worth you waking up early!
  1. Make homemade mochi the old-fashioned way. You can find locations, such as the farms in Shiga and Kyoto, in Japan where you can make your own mochi by pounding rice cake dough with a wooden mallet in a mortar. Mochi is one of the staples in Japanese cuisine, and you’ll see it often in cuisine during major holidays like New Year’s Day.

Not traveling to Japan during the holidays? You can still celebrate 2017 with a bottle of high-quality Japanese whisky! For many people around the world, you can warm up with a sweet sherry Japanese dram or a bolder, smokier peat Japanese liquor. Find more whiskies at our Dekanta store.