In Japan, New Year’s is an important holiday and the Japanese believe that the New Year should begin with a clean slate. In Japanese culture, a lot of customs are observed around this time of year, many of which aren’t observed anywhere else in the world. Curious to know more? Here are some unique New Year’s Traditions in Japan.
Japanese New Year’s Traditions
1. People go home to their families
Shōgatsu (正月), or New Year, is Japan’s most important holiday. From January 1st to 3rd, almost all businesses close and people head home to their families to spend the days together.
2. Bonenkai or ‘forget-the-year’ parties
The Japanese believe that each new year should start with a clean slate, a fresh start. As a result, all work duties and tasks are supposed to be finished by the end of the year. Each year is separate. They do not run into each other. At the end of the year, many people attend bonenkai or ‘forget-the-year’ parties. At these gatherings, partygoers look back on the past year and bid farewell to worries and troubles as a way of whipping the slate clean and entering the new year with a fresh start.
3. Serve some toshikoshi soba
Serving up some toshikoshi soba, or year-end buckwheat noodles is a tradition in Japan on New Year’s Eve or Ōmisoka (大晦日). Toshikoshi Soba translates as ‘year crossing buckwheat noodle’. The dish symbolises moving from one year to the next. The buckwheat soba noodles are served in a hot dashi broth and garnished with chopped scallions. However, many people choose to elevate this dish by adding tempura, fish cakes or raw egg. It is a delicious way to start the New Year.
4. Hatsuhinode (first sunrise of the year)
Another unique New Year tradition in Japan is hatsuhinode. This means the first sunrise of the year. All across the country, on New Year’s Day, Japanese families rise before dawn and head to a shrine, beach or mountaintop to watch the sunrise in the sky for the first time that year. Japanese people consider watching the sunrise good luck for the year ahead and believe that Toshigami, the god of the New Year, rises with the sun.
5. Hatsumode or the first visit to a shrine or temple
Hatsumode or the first visit to a shrine or temple is a very popular New Year’s tradition in Japan. During the first three days of January, the best temples see several million people visit. The crowds make their way to the main halls to pay but along the way, they buy good luck charms and enjoy the festival vibe with all the street food stalls and revelry. A lot of people head to the temples on New Year’s Eve and stay there until after midnight to listen to the bells which ring out the old year.
6. Joya no Kane or ‘ring out the old year’
Just before midnight, in Buddhist temples all across the country, a large bell is rung 108 times as part of the Joya no Kane ritual. In Buddhism, the number 108 represents the bonno – the desires that cause humans suffering. The ritual purifies the mind and soul and cleanses people (wipes the slate clean) in readiness for the year ahead. One of the best places to observe this New Year custom is in Nara’s Todaiji Temple which has a gigantic bell with a very long ring.
7. Nengajo, New Year’s Postcards
One of the most popular, and enduring new year’s traditions is the sending of new year’s postcards called nengajo (年賀状). Writing new year’s greetings date back to at least the Heian period, which lasted from 794 to 1185. The Japanese send nengajo to almost everybody they know. However, you don’t send nengajo to people who have had a death in the family during the year. If you receive a mourning postcard or mochuu hagaki (喪中はがき) this means there has been a death and the family will not be celebrating at the end of the year.