Japan is a country that is rich in culture and traditions, and no doubt that is a big part of what drives so many people to visit.
New Year’s in Japan is no different, with its own traditional food (such as Osechi and Mochi), culture, and great shopping and sales (Lucky Bags!).
This is a family-centered holiday with many people returning to their parents’ homes for several days. As a result, things such as traveling, finding open restaurants and stores, and knowing when stores will re-open can be a bit tricky.
To make sure that you ring in 2020 in Japan in the most spectacular way possible we have compiled this guide so that you know the background of this holiday as well as the culture and traditions that make it so special.
Don’t just spectate, celebrate Japanese New Year like a native by slurping on Soba, visiting Temples and Shrines, and joining in on the best New Year’s countdown parties.
How to Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Japan: Traditions, Soba, and Shopping
The first and most important thing to be aware of to enjoy New Year’s in Japan is that you need to beat the holiday rush.
At the end of the year almost everyone is heading back to their hometowns, and bullet trains are often completely booked up to one month in advance.
Our advice? Pick a city in advance and stay there until things settle down.
Beat the Holiday Rush
Similarly, stores and restaurants will be closing early on New Year’s Eve and may have limited hours throughout the season so make sure to finish shopping early.
Finish Shopping early
Japan has a number of foods eaten on holidays but for New Year’s Eve that dish is definitely Toshikoshi Soba （年越しそば）.
Soba are buckwheat noodles that can be eaten hot or cold, and they are easy to prepare and enjoy. Their long thin shape is meant to symbolize a long and happy life.
Luckily you can get ready-to-eat Soba at convenience stores, so you don’t have to worry about restaurant hours.
Finally make sure to exchange New Year’s greetings like a native by saying “Yoi Otoshi Wo (良いお年を) ”, and wishing everyone happiness for this coming year.
Traditional Japanese New Year’s Eve Experience
If you are looking for a traditional Japanese New Year’s Eve experience, we recommend participating in Joya no Kane （除夜の鐘） which is the act of striking a Temple bell at midnight New Year’s Eve 108 times.
This is done to rid yourself of 108 evil passions – according to Buddhism.
Some Temples will actually let you strike the bell, and here are our recommendations.
But be aware, it will be very crowded and depending on where you are possibly quite cold.
Here are some popular options：
【Azabusan Zenpukuji (麻布山 善福寺)】
One of Japan’s oldest Temples, conveniently located in central Tokyo.
The bell ringing starts at 23:45.
This beautiful Zen temple, which will be illuminated at night with thousands of lights and lamps, is a bit off the beaten path.
You can go to Shin-Yokohama station and then take a taxi.
Located in charming Kamakura, this is another ancient Zen Temple with a stunning garden.
Joya no Kane
Another aspect of Japanese New Year’s culture is going to see the first sunrise of the New Year .
This Japanese tradition is believed to bring good luck and fortune in the coming year.
The First Sunrise of the New Year
Here are some popular options :
On January 1 this Tokyo icon will open early, from 5:30.
However just a few limited tickets for entry will be on sale from 4:00 so be sure to get there early!
【Osanbashi Yokohama (横浜大さん橋)】
No entry fee, just a beautiful sunrise over the water that is easy to access.
【Motosu Lake (本栖湖)】
From this site of natural beauty you can witness a unique phenomenon, Diamond Fuji.
The sun will be cradled at the top of the mountain for just a moment, so have your camera ready!
【Mt. Takao (高尾山)】
If you would like to see a beautiful sunrise from a convenient natural place that would be Mr. Takao.
It’s just a short train ride away from central Tokyo.
The First Sunrise of Mt. Fuji
After midnight the traditional New Year’s greeting will change to Akemashite Omedetou (あけましておめでとう) so be sure to wish everyone a Happy New Year in Japanese!
Learn about Japanese ‘O-Shogatsu’ Culture and Celebrate at a Temple or Shrine
Happy New Year! If your Champagne hangover isn’t too bad, we recommend participating in the Japanese tradition of Hatsumode (初詣) , or saying your first prayers of the New Year at a Temple or Shrine.
To Make an offering of Money
The basic etiquette for offering prayers at a shrine is to offer money, then bow twice, clap twice, and then pray. When you finish, bow once more.
There are often long lines, but some Temples have some food stalls serving hot tea or Amazake (甘酒） (a type of Sake) and Mochi as well as other goods.
It’s also a nice chance to people watch.
Here are some beautiful Temples and Shrines for your consideration.
・Meiji Jingu (明治神宮)
・Nikko Toshogu (日光東照宮)
・Fushimi Inari (伏見稲荷)
The Food Stalls
While there, it’s an excellent chance to get your fortune told by grabbing some Omikuji.
You shake the wooden container and pull out a stick, then show it to the priest or priestess at the counter to get your fortune.
Tell the New Year's Fortune
Good Fortune !
We hope you get Daikichi 大吉 (Best Luck) but even if you get Kyo 凶 (Bad Luck) – don’t take it home with you – tie it up at the Temple!
If you get bad luck...
Although most Shrines only have Omikuji in Japanese if you head to Sensoji Temple in Asakusa they also have them available in English.
Have you ever heard of the Japanese concept of Yakudoshi (厄年）?
It is an ancient belief that every person has certain years or ages in their life that are simply unlucky. The years vary, but 42 is a pretty common one for men.
During the new year season, you may see someone at a Temple or Shrine joining a purifying ritual to better protect themselves and their family in the coming year.
Joining a Purifying Ritual
Our last cultural note is about Otoshidama (お年玉）, the practice of adults giving cute envelopes filled with money to children of friends and family on New Year’s Day.
The envelope selections at department stores are quite varied and feature anything from traditional designs to cuter Anime-inspired ones.
So, if you’re traveling with small children, why not participate?
What do Japanese People eat during the New Year? Osechi and Mochi
If you were to be a fly on the wall at a Japanese family’s New Year’s Day you would see everyone gathered around beautifully decorated lacquered boxes brimming with a variety of Washoku classics such as Kuromame (black beans), Ebi (shrimp), and Renkon (lotus root).
This is known as Osechi. Every single dish has a different meaning such as good health, or a future with no obstacles.
While Osechi can be quite expensive you can make it on your own by heading to a Convenience Store.
Some stores, such as Lawson, will have small packages of a variety of Osechi classics available for a low price.
Your friendly neighborhood 100 Yen Store such as Seria or Daiso will have cute boxes available for purchase so you can make charming Osechi on a budget.
Along with Osechi, Japanese families also often enjoy Ozoni (お雑煮) , which is a Japanese Soup with Mochi and is said to give you a long life.
But if you are a newcomer to eating Mochi, be careful!
It is a very sticky food, and definitely a choking hazard for younger children.
Get out your Wallet for Fabulous New Year’s Sales at Japan’s Biggest Shopping Malls
Whether you’re a shopaholic or a casual shopper you are in luck to be in Japan during the New Year season.
Starting from January 1st or 2nd Japan will become the land of ultimate deals and sales.
With so many malls, all with unique features and architecture, you can enjoy the atmosphere while saving big bucks.
These are some of the stores we recommend browsing for some good shopping.
New Year’s Sales
One aspect of Japanese shopping culture you simply cannot miss are Lucky Bags, known in Japanese as Fukubukuro (福袋).
People line up, sometime for hours, to get these mystery-item-filled-bags for set prices.
Historically this New Year’s tradition is believed to be derived from Daikokuten’s (the god of lucks) bag. The contents of the bag are generally a higher value then the price of the bag, but the real joy of it is the surprise of seeing what you got. It’s like a second Christmas!
They come in many categories such as fashion, accessories, appliances, and so on.
If you are looking for fashion, head to any of the big malls, but if you want something a little more miscellaneous our recommendations are as follows.
Japan 2020: The Ultimate Sale Guide
2020 Lucky Bags of KALDI