10 things to do during the New Year holidays in Japan
You are staying in Tokyo for the holidays? Lucky you, you will enjoy the rare quietness of the city because most Tokyoites leave to visit their relatives in the countryside.
This being said, you should know that many museums, restaurants and shops are closed on one or more days between December 29 and January 4, limiting your sightseeing, shopping and dining options, especially on the 1st of January. However, Temples and shrines remain open and you will understand why when reading this article.
While many places are closed, you should take the advantage to enjoy the Japanese traditions like locals. Don’t worry there are still plenty of things to do, and we have listed 10 of them here for you!
1. Enjoy the winter illuminations
Even though the days are shorter and colder, you should definitely head outside to have a look at the millions of winter lights which are displayed in many cities like Tokyo during the holidays. Here is our selection of the best spots in town:
- Caretta Shiodome Illumination (Nov 17 to Feb 14): one of our favorite spots with about 250,000 LEDs and festive music, a show takes place every 20 minutes (from 17:00 to 23:00)
- Marunouchi/Ginza (Nov 10 to Feb 19): a nice “European feeling” with the 200 roadside trees and the Moët Christmas Marché where you can buy a glass of champagne while enjoying the illuminations (from 17:00 until 23:00). It is not too far from the Caretta illuminations so you can combine both with a nice walk.
- Yebisu Garden Place Christmas Illumination (Nov 5 to Jan 9): the Baccarat chandelier of 5m tall and 3m wide is still impressive and its Christmas Market adds some magic to it!
2. Create a festive environment with auspicious decorations
Decoration is very important for the Japanese. You might have seen at the entrance of some establishments “Shimenawa" and “Kadomatsu” during that time of the year. The first one is an ornament made of rope and the second one is an arrangement of 3 bamboo shoots and pine to ward off evil spirits. They symbolize prosperity, longevity and steadfastness. Often you will also find the zodiac animal of the coming year. In 2017, it is the Rooster. There is also the “Shimekazari” which is similar but it is hung above doors.
Another “good fortune” decoration is “Kagami mochi” which is displayed inside the house this time. It is made from two round rice cakes (mochi): the smaller one over the larger one, and a “Daidai" (Japanese type of bitter orange) placed on top. It symbolizes the continuity of the family over the years.
3. Make Mochi the old-fashioned way!
Another Japanese custom to enjoy during the holidays is to prepare Mochi (“mochi-tsuki”). Traditionally, new year’s day is a holiday for the housewives. Therefore, they used to prepare food for the celebration well in advance and would eat it between January 1-3. Since rice can not be kept fresh for days, they would eat Mochi instead which you can keep for weeks if dried.
So what is Mochi? Mochi are rice cakes made from glutinous rice and it is a lot of work to prepare it yourself: the rice has to be soaked overnight, steamed and pounded repeatedly with a big wooden mallet until it becomes sticky as desired. Then, it is shaped for comsumption into round pieces or squares. Mochi is then eaten in different ways: with “anko” (bean paste), with sugar, with soy sauce, etc.
4. Eat a traditional Japanese New Year’s dish
There are several traditional dishes for this occasion in Japan but the most famous of all is “Osechi-ryori”. It is a box containing a large variety of Japanese delicacies usually made of seafood and vegetables. Each dish is a symbolic wish such as wealth, fertility, and happiness for the coming year.
Another popular dish is “Toshi-Koshi soba” which are buckwheat noodles. Served hot on January 31, its length symbolises longevity and good health.
Also the “Ozoni” is a savory miso-based soup served in the morning of the first day of the year. It usually includes mochi (rice cake).
5. Countdown in Shibuya crossing
Shibuya never sleeps, especially on New Year’s Eve! In recent years, thousands of people have gathered at this iconic crossing to countdown together to the new year.
If you are not afraid of the crowd, this is definitely an experience to try! For the occasion, the busiest crossing of the world goes vehicle-free and nearby roads will be closed off to vehicles from 10 pm on December 31 to 2 am on January 1. And good news! Trains and subways run all night until the following morning on New Year’s Eve.
6. Visit a Shinto temple to make your first prayer of the year!
In Japan, it is traditional to go to a temple to pray in the first 5 days of the year. This tradition is called “Hatsumode". You will see people of all ages and all conditions who queue (sometimes for hours!) to enter the temple. They come to pray and to hope for good health, education, work, relationships, and so on for the coming year.
This tradition is still very present in Japan and the earlier you do it, the better it is according to the omen you should go on the 1st of January. In Tokyo, we recommend the Meji Shrine in Harajuku and the Senso-ji Shrine in Asakusa, but be prepared for the crowd!
7. ...and ring in the New Year!
Going to temple is one important activity for Japanese even is they are not very religious or spiritual. They sometimes have to queue for a very long time in the most popular temples to make an offering (five yen is the luckiest), pray and buy lucky charms for the new year.
But one of the major acts when going to the temple is "joya no kane” which is a purification rite in Buddhist temples on January 31. In fact a few minutes before the clock ticks midnight, the bells are struck 108 times to purge people so that they start the year ahead fresh and clean. In some temples, visitors are allowed to ring bell after the ritual has been completed. Doing so will bring fortune according to Buddhism. In Tokyo, the temples which are famous for this ceremony are Zojo-ji and Senso-ji.
8. Assist to the Emperor’ New Year greeting
On January 2, the Emperor makes several appearances on the balcony of his courtyard at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
The palace is usually forbidden to the public but it opens exceptionally twice a year: January 2 for the wishes of the Emperor and December 23 for his birthday. The public can enjoy the inner grounds of this prestigious residence.
The Emperor and the Imperial family appear 5 times on the balcony during the day, at 10:10, 11:00, 11:50, 13:30 and 14:20. The Emperor then makes a speech and greets the crowd with a Japanese flag.
Beware, this event is very popular in Japan. This means that if you want to attend this event, you will have to arrive very early and be patient.
9. Enjoy the New Year's sale and buy a lucky bag!
Our favorite Japanese New Year’s tradition is “Fukubukuro”. The term comes from the Japanese word “fuku" (福, meaning "good fortune" or "luck") and “bukuro" (袋, meaning "bag"). This custom consists in buying a bag (usually red) with a mysterious content between January 1 and 5.
The stores try to get rid of the unsold products from the previous year which are then packed into bags and sold with a significant reduction (at least 50%). Each bag usually contains 5 products. One piece of advice: go early! “Fukubukuro” is a big event in Japan so they sell out quickly.
The best place to buy a lucky bag is probably Ginza because in this district there are a lot of luxury brands. Therefore it can be very interesting to buy products with big discounts. For example last year, we bought 2 lucky bags in a wine shop and we got bottles of French wines at one quarter of their real value. Great deal!
In addition to “Fukubukuro”, many shops have New Year's sales, which start at noon on January 1st. There are many interesting discounts. So happy new year and happy shopping!
10. Send New Year’s postcards
While in other countries it is quite old fashion, in Japan it is still usual to send New Year’s postcards (Nengajo) to your family, friends and even co-workers. These cards are sold with domestic postage included and you can buy them in the kombini, post offices and other stationary stores such as Loft. They usually have cute designs and include the upcoming Chinese zodiac sign. You can also find plain ones if you wish to decorate them yourself.
They are the equivalent of the western New Year's cards and are normally sent until the second week of January. Traditionally, they must be mailed before December 25 so that the post can deliver them on January 1st. The cost is about 50 yens per card.
Happy Holidays everyone!