Japan’s New Year Festivities

The arrival of the New Year always brings about a time of reflection on the past year’s events and achievements as well as a renewed sense of hope and commitment to making the next year even better than the last. This year’s arrival also brought the opportunity for me to experience Japanese New Year traditions.

The Japanese New Year (正月, shogatsu) is perhaps the largest holiday observed in Japan. It is more a time to spend with family than a time to party with friends and many people travel back to their hometowns to spend the holiday with their families. Many businesses also close for several days between December 29th and January 3rd so if you are not one of those packing into trains to travel to another city but are instead staying home (as my husband and I did), most of the New Year week can be rather quiet. But if you know where to go, there is still plenty going on.

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Before we left home on New Year’s Eve to join festivities elsewhere, we started our celebration in front of the TV. Many people around the world watch various celebrations counting down to midnight. In Japan, if you are staying home then you are probably watching the Kohaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦), which literally means ‘red and white song battle’ and is called the Kohaku, for short. For this annual music program broadcast by NHK, the most popular music artists are invited to join one of two competing teams, the white team and the red team. Through the night, these artists perform and try to gain votes from the audience at home. Of course it’s not just about the musical performance itself but also the costumes, dance, lighting…whatever it takes to put on an impressive show. By the end of the night, either the red or white team will be announced the victor. We only caught the beginning this year since we had to hurry out to take part in another Japanese New Year custom.


The custom we rushed off to join this year was hatsumode (初詣), the year’s first visit to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple. Since many people are off from work, they make this visit during the first three days of the year. This year we decided to join in the fun on New Year’s Eve at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, where thousands gathered to welcome the new year.


This is a view of the crowd just before midnight. It looks like quite a few people showed up this year, doesn’t it? What’s even more amazing is that the small screen you can see in the distance is actually a huge screen the size of a truck that is sitting at a turn in the path to the shrine. That’s right, there are hundreds more visitors on the other side of the curve that you can’t even see in this picture!


As the clock struck midnight, the shrine gates opened and the sound of drums marked the start of the New Year. Even from our spot back in the crowd, we could hear the drums and the crowd suddenly pushed forward, eager to get closer to the shrine.


This photo shows the view once we made it past that corner and could see the shrine gate in the distance.


Once we finally reached the shrine gate, we could get a glimpse of the shrine inside. Notice the arrow and target hung toward the top of the gate and the two large wooden plaques with horses painted on them? These aren’t usually here but are decorations for the New Year festivities. Smaller versions are sold by the shrine for the New Year occasion. The ‘demon-breaking’ arrow (hamaya) is meant to destroy evil spirits and and is placed in the home as a good luck charm for the year. The wooden plaques bearing horses are huge ema. Shrine worshipers write their prayers or wishes on the back of the ema and then hang them at the shrine for the gods or spirits to receive them. These ema have pictures of horses because 2014 is the Year of the Horse.


This is the actual shrine where worshipers throw coin offerings and pray. Usually worshipers would be able to walk up to the shrine building and throw their coins in a small offerings box but it seemed that for New Year, the crowd was kept back from the building and coins were thrown onto a large cloth covering the space in front of the shrine.


After visiting the shrine, we walked through the stalls selling good luck charms and I purchased a couple souvenirs (hayama and ema). This was followed by a visit to many, many food stalls which I unfortunately did not photograph. I think our hands were just too full of goodies!

There are many more customs surrounding the New Year holiday here in Japan and of course not everyone celebrates the same way but we really had a great time enjoying these Japanese New Year traditions. We also observed some of the traditions involving foods eaten on and around New Year’s Day but I will have more on that later. For now, wherever you are and however you celebrate, I wish you a Happy New Year!


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