Learn Japanese Traditions: New Year in Japan

Published January 1st, 2015

New Year in Japan

New Year in Japan (正月 Shōgatsu) is by far the most important holiday in Japan. Let’s learn Japanese Shōgatsu traditions. The beginning of a new year symbolizes a fresh start and the ability to leave everything behind. This is sometimes celebrated with a Bonenkai (忘年会) party in December to “forget the year,” and put the troubles from the past year behind you. While they are fun parties with lots of drinking, they are not part of the official Shōgatsu celebration, which lasts from the 31st of December until the 2nd or 3rd of January. As New Year in Japan is such an important holiday, there is a lot of preparation to be done leading up to it.

Food plays a large part in the traditional New Year celebration, and each of the different foods hold a different symbolic meaning. On the evening of the 31st, 年越しそば (crossing over buckwheat noodles) are eaten to let go of your hardships, as the noodles are very easily cut. In addition, the length of the noodle represents longevity. But make sure you finish your toshikosi soba before midnight; it’s bad luck to have leftovers once the New Year has begun!

And it’s not just your noodles that need to be finished before midnight. The New Year represents a clean slate for everything. Businesses, homes, and schools, will all be scrubbed from top to bottom. Debts will be paid, and everything will be prepared for the coming of 年神 (Toshigami). The Toshigami are deities that will visit your house over Shōgatsu and ensure an abundant harvest for the coming year. In order to welcome the Toshigami, the house must be cleaned and some traditional decorations called 門松 (kodomatsu) are hung outside. The kodomatsu are traditionally made of pine and bamboo and act as a home for the Toshigami during their visit.

What Happens After Midnight?

New Year in Japan OsetiOnce the clock has struck midnight, no more cooking is to be done for three days or it will bring bad luck to the house. Because of this, families prepare 御節料理 (osechi ryori) which is a collection of preserved foods in stackable boxes called 重箱 (jubako). Each different food represents a different wish for what is to come in the New Year. There are many different variations of osechi and some foods considered lucky in one region may be very unlucky in another! Though some families still make these at home, it is more and more common to buy your jubako already prepared from a local store.

Also starting at midnight on the 1st, millions of people across Japan will visit a shrine or temple for 初詣 (hatsumōde). The temple bells will ring 108 times as the old year fades out and the new one begins. One of the most popular places to do this is at the Okera festival in Kyoto. In Tokyo, the Meiji Shrine is easily the most popular. You can even warm up with a cup of hot, sweet sake called 甘酒 (amazake).But be prepared to wait in line if you’re visiting over the holiday.

Another popular way to ring in the New Year is to watch the first sunrise over the Pacific Ocean. This sunrise in particular is thought to have mythical powers. Crowds will gather on beaches and mountaintops with the best views in order to pray for the health and wellness of their family in the coming year. It’s no wonder Japan is known as the Land of the Rising Sun!

Once you’re home from the shrine or sunrise on January 1st, you can expect to receive postcards from almost everyone you know. Similar to Christmas cards that are sent in Western countries, the New Year’s card (年賀状 nengajo) is meant to let friends, family, and colleagues know how you are doing and to wish them well in the coming year. Some common greetings you will find on cards include 本年どうぞよろしくお願いします(I hope for your continued favor this year), and 皆様のご健康お祈り申し上げます (wishing everyone good health). It’s also customary to say 良いを (have a good new year) the last time you see someone in December, and then to wish them 明けましておめでとう (happiness on the opening of the year) the first time you see them in January.

One last important Shōgatsu tradition is the お年玉(otoshidama). The otoshidama is a tiny envelope given to children by parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents on New Year’s Day. Can you guess what is in these envelopes? That’s right, money! Gift giving for Christmas may not be very widespread across Japan, but children everywhere can expect a lot of yen when Shōgatsu rolls around. After you’ve seen the sunrise, been stuffed full of delicious food, and been blessed by the Toshigami, you can sit back and count the cash from all your relatives. What a great holiday!