How Do the Japanese Celebrate New Year's?

Published December 23rd, 2022

New Year’s is Japan's biggest holiday. Celebrations officially occur from January 1st to 3rd, but festivities run all the way to mid-January. Japanese New Year originally did not have a set date since it followed the Lunar calendar. Because of this, the Japanese used to celebrate Lunar New Year, but that changed in 1873. This was when Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar and the official dates for New Year's were set. Even so, small Japanese Lunar New Year celebrations still occur throughout the country. The first three days of the new year, however, are the largest celebrations in Japan. To celebrate, we are going to look at 12 Japanese New Year traditions!

1. Kadomatsu (Entryway Decorations)

Kadomatsu ( 門松(かどまつ) ) are New Year’s decorations put on display after Christmas. They are placed, usually in pairs, at the entrances of homes and businesses until January 7th. They are meant to welcome kami and the spirits of ancestors. These types of objects are known as yorishiro ( 依代(よりしろ) ). Kadomatsu are made of three upright bamboo stalks that are bound with straw at their base. They are decorated with straw rope, ribbon, ume (plum) tree branches, and other small decorations. Kadomatsu, and other good luck charms from the previous year, are burned mid-January in a ceremonial bonfire known as Dondo-Yaki (どんど () き).

2. Osechi and Toshikoshi Soba (New Year's Dishes)

Osechi ( 御節(おせち) ) is a traditional dish eaten on New Year’s Day. It is served in a special type of bento box known as jūbako ( 重箱(じゅうばこ) ), which feature boxes that can be stacked. The term Osechi originally referred to a period of celebration or significance. Traditionally, Osechi were made close to the end of the year as it was considered bad luck to cook for the first three days of the new year. The foods included in Osechi have symbolic meanings. Some of these foods include: prawns for longevity; black soybeans for health; rolled sweet omelets for knowledge; herring roe and daidai ( (だいだい)) , a Japanese bitter orange) for children/a family; fish cakes for happiness, protection, and celebration; and dried sardines for a good harvest. Other foods included are mochi, ozōni (お 雑煮(ぞうに) ), a soup made of mochi in a clear broth, namasu ( (なます) ), a pickled daikon and carrot salad, sweet potatoes, and seaweed.

Soba (そば) is eaten on New Year’s Eve. This traditional New Year’s Eve soba is known as Toshikoshi soba ( 年越(としこ) しそば). Soba noodles represent longevity, so eating them on New Year’s ensures a long life and a prosperous new year. Toshikoshi soba is served in a hot dashi broth with only scallions as a garnish. However, any desired toppings can also be added.

3. Otoso (Spiced Sake)

Otoso (お 屠蘇(とそ) ), or toso, is a medicinal sake spiced with herbs that is drunk during New Year's celebrations. Typical ingredients include cinnamon, Japanese pepper, ginger, rhubarb, and other assorted spices. The drink is supposed to wash away the past year's bad spirits or maladies and bring about longevity and prosperity in the new year. Otoso is served in special sake cups known as sakazuki ( (さかずき) ). The cups are passed around, first to the head of the household, then from youngest to oldest. The drink is served out of a special teapot known as a tosoki ( 屠蘇器(とそき) ).

4. Kagami Mochi (New Year's Mochi)

Kagami mochi ( 鏡餅(かがみもち) ) is the traditional New Year’s mochi made a few days before the holiday. It consists of two white mochi stacked on top of each other with a daidai orange on top. Ribbons decorate the stack. The mochi represent fortune, so stacking two on top of each other symbolizes doubling one's fortune. The orange represents prosperity. In modern times, decorative plastic kagami mochi are available. They can be opened and have individually wrapped pieces inside.

Kagami mochi also represent mirrors. The mirror’s significance comes from the ancient Japanese myth of the sun goddess Amaterasu. As the myth goes, the world was plunged into darkness when she fled into a cave. When she later emerged, her light reflected off a mirror and brought light back to the world. The mochi mirrors represent the end of darkness (winter’s end) and the renewal of light (spring’s beginning).

Kagami mochi is kept on display throughout the holiday celebrations before it is broken and eaten in a tradition known as Kagami Biraki ( 鏡開(かがみびら) き). Kagami Biraki originally took place on the 20th of January. It is now more common on January 11th since 11 is a lucky number in Japan. By the time Kagami Biraki occurs, the mochi has become brittle and breakable. The mochi should be broken with a hammer or with one’s hands. It should never be cut with a knife as that is a symbol of severed ties and can be bad luck. After breaking, the mochi is shared and eaten. Many people cook the mochi into ozōni.

5. Ōsōji (House Cleaning)

Ōsōji ( 大掃除(おおそうじ) ) translates to “big cleaning,” and that is literally what it is; a deep cleaning of one’s house before the new year. Many Japanese citizens deep clean their homes to have a fresh start to the new year, and to welcome the gods who are thought to visit during New Year's. It usually occurs on New Year’s Eve, but can begin within the last week or so of December. The entire family joins in to vacuum, dust, mop, organize, and throw away or donate unwanted items. Dusting is one of the most important tasks of Ōsōji. This act, known as susuharai ( 煤払(すすはら) い), was meant for cleaning soot out of homes. During the Edo period, hearths were common for heating homes, so cleaning them out was an important task. Now, special care is taken to dust every part of the house, especially the more unused areas.

6. Joya no Kane (Ringing of the Bells)

Joya no Kane ( 除夜(じょや)(かね) ) is the ringing of kane bells in Buddhist temples. Kane bells are massive, traditional Japanese bells that are hit with a mallet. The ringing starts shortly before midnight on December 31st. The bells are hit 108 times, representing the 108 worldly desires of humans. 107 hits should ring out during New Year’s Eve, with the 108th hit ringing out as the clock strikes midnight. It is believed that once the bell has been rung, the problems and transgressions of the previous year will be gone. The ringing of temple bells can be heard all throughout Japan.

7. Kōhaku Uta Gassen (Music Competition)

Kōhaku Uta Gassen (NHK 紅白歌合戦(こうはくうたがっせん) ), or Kōhaku, is a music show broadcasted by NHK every New Year’s Eve. The show features popular Japanese singers and bands, who are split into two teams. Women are on the red team ( 紅組(あかぐみ) , akagami), while men are on the white team ( 白組(しろぐみ) , shirogami). Singers are brought onto the show by invitation only, and it is considered a major career accomplishment to be invited. The teams perform in a singing competition with elaborate costumes and choreographed dances. The audience and judges then decide which team won. The program runs until shortly before midnight. It first aired in 1951, and 2022 will be its 73rd show.

8. Hatsuhinode (Watching the Sunrise)

Watching the first sunrise of the year is a popular New Year’s activity. This tradition is known as hatsuhinode ( 初日(はつひ)() ). Many people across Japan wake up before dawn to watch the sun rise. As it rises, they pray for good fortune, health, and happiness going forward. Some use this time to set their New Year’s resolutions. Certain landmarks, such as the Tokyo Tower, stay open off-hours so people can view the sunrise from a unique vantage point.

9. Hatsumōde (First Shrine Visit of the New Year)

Hatsumōde ( 初詣(はつもうで) ) refers to the first shrine visit of the new year. Every year, millions of people visit shrines during the first three days of January. They pay respects and pray for health and happiness in the new year.

Some people choose to wear formal kimonos to the shrine. It is one of the few times during the year that men will dress in a kimono. Others dress in formal clothes to make a good impression on the gods, but there is no actual dress code for hatsumōde. Warm clothes, however, are a must. Comfortable shoes are also essential as there is a lot of walking and standing.

There are many types of charms and fortunes offered at the shrines. Omamori (お (まも) り) are charms meant to bring good luck in the new year. They are generally found near the wash basin at the shrine’s entrance. There are omamori available for a variety of things, including academic success, love, and health. It is best to bring 500 to 1,000 yen for an omamori. Many people hold on to their omamori from the previous year and will return the charm to a bucket at the shrine before getting a new one. The old charms are then burned as an offering during Dondo-Yaki.

Omikuji ( 御神籤(おみくじ) ) are also available for purchase. Omikuji are slips of paper with a fortune written on them. Buyers do not know the fortune before purchasing the omikuji. If the fortune is good, people will keep the paper. If it is bad, there are designated spots where people can tie their omikuji so they can leave their bad fortune at the shrine.

Ema ( 絵馬(えま) ) can also be purchased. These are thin wooden plaques on which people write their biggest wish for the new year. Ema are decorated with Shinto symbols, scenery, the new year's zodiac, and sometimes horses, which were given as an offering to gods. Ema are hung in a designated area at the shrine to be received by the gods.

Most shrines have food stalls and other stands with festival-type games set up around the site, so visitors can make a day of their visit. After visiting the shrine, many people have a celebratory drink of otoso, and eat osechi or ozōni.

An Instance Of New Year Card In Japan by Halowand | | CC BY-SA 3.0

10. Nengajō (New Year's Greeting Cards)

It is a tradition in Japan to send nengajō ( 年賀状(ねんがじょ) ), New Year’s greeting cards, to loved ones. Nengajō often feature iconic Japanese imagery and animals, usually the zodiac for the upcoming year. Blank cards are also available for people to decorate themselves. These typically aren’t bi-fold cards, but postcards. They are meant to be sent to everyone a person knows, but few people go to that extent. These cards are meant to show appreciation to loved ones and keep in touch with distant friends or relatives. This practice began during the Heian period, around the 12th century, when people would visit each other during the first few days of the new year in a tradition known as nenga. Nengajō made it possible to wish a happy new year to those who live farther away. Post offices work overtime to ensure cards are all delivered by January 1st. If a card is received at the post office before New Year’s Day, the post office holds onto it until then.

11. Otoshidama (Money Gift)

Children receive otoshidama (お 年玉(としだま) ) from older relatives. Otoshidama are decorative envelopes filled with money. The envelopes are known as pochibukuro (ポチ (ぶくろ) ). They are decorated with the new year’s zodiac, Japanese icons like maneki neko, pop culture characters, and scenery. The amount of money given depends on the age of the recipient and their relationship with the giver. On average, it is from 1,000 to 10,000 yen, increasing as the child gets older. Children too young to understand money may be given a small toy instead. Most relatives stop sending otoshidama when the child reaches the age of 20.

12. Fukubukuro (Lucky Bags)

Fukubukuro ( 福袋(ふくぶくろ) ) are mystery bags that stores in Japan sell once they reopen after the New Year’s holiday. These “grab bags” are filled with merchandise from the store and are sold at a discounted rate of up to 50%. Many stores do this to sell excess merchandise and make room for new items. Anything can be found in a fukubukuro, depending on the shop. Buyers do not know what they have received until they buy the bag and open it. Most contain common goods such as tea, books, clothes and trinkets. Some include vouchers for vacations, appliances, electronics, and other luxury goods. If a bag has cheap or disappointing items not worth the price, they are referred to as utsubukuro ( 欝袋(うつぶくろ) ), meaning "depression bags." Some stores embrace this and sell these bags for as little as 500 yen.

The tradition of these bags dates all the way back to the turn of the century, during the late Meiji period. The term fukubukuro comes from (ふく) (fuku) meaning "luck" and (ふくろ) (fukuro), meaning "bag." Fukubukuro are a popular tradition, so bags sell out fast. Popular stores sometimes have lines all the way around the block!

Which Japanese New Year's tradition would you most like to participate in?