If you are planning or considering a trip to Japan for New Year’s, it’s important to know that New Year’s in Japan is very different from what we expect. While Japan is often seen as a country close to Western customs, it still retains its own Asian customs and traditions for year-end celebrations.
Although Japan now follows the Gregorian calendar like Western countries and the new year begins on January 1st, the similarities with our winter holidays end there. In Japan, the new year is celebrated quietly, with families gathering to eat soba, visiting temples to listen to the 108 tolls of the Joya no Kane bell, or going to natural places to witness the first sunrise of the year. It creates a unique atmosphere quite different from what we are accustomed to, with no countdowns, New Year’s Eve parties, or fireworks.
The New Year period in Japan is akin to our Christmas period, with many Japanese people returning home to spend it with their families and shops and businesses generally closed.
New Year’s in Japan – Oshogatsu traditions
However, the difference between New Year’s in Japan and our Western-style New Year’s extends beyond the celebration on the night of December 31st. It also encompasses the customs and traditions observed in Japanese homes and streets during the last days of the old year and the first days of the new year.
Preparations begin a few days earlier with Osoji, a thorough house cleaning to start the new year fresh, and the display of Shinto ropes and Kadomatsu, cute baskets made of bamboo and pine branches that can be seen throughout the streets of Japan.
Supermarkets are filled with traditional Oshogatsu foods, such as toshikoshi soba (longer soba noodles to be eaten on the night of December 31st), mochi, and various elements for osechi ryori, a series of foods that symbolize good omens for the new year.
The first three days of the year are dedicated to Hatsumode, the first visit to temples and shrines, where people pray for a positive year, purchase omamori (protective amulets), and draw omikuji to discover their fortune for the new year. For those seeking extra luck, there is the Shichifukujin Meguri, the pilgrimage of the 7 gods of fortune: visiting the 7 temples and shrines of the local circuit dedicated to these deities and collecting their respective “stamps”. These pilgrimages usually take a couple of hours as the temples are close to each other and can be reached on foot. It is a special souvenir and a memorable experience of your trip to Japan.
Traveling to Japan for New Year’s
If you are planning a trip to Japan during the New Year period, it is important to consider that the usual “tourist business” undergoes changes. Many shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions may be closed or have limited hours. However, temples will be bustling with people, as well as trains and flights, as the Japanese take advantage of these holidays to return to their hometowns or travel abroad.
I recommend purchasing Shinkansen train tickets in advance, especially because starting from 2023, there will no longer be unreserved seat cars during the New Year period, only assigned seats. Tickets can be purchased up to 30 days before the travel date. The easiest way to buy them from abroad is by using Klook.
New Year Closures
Closures generally occur from December 28th/29th to January 3rd, with most shops and restaurants closed on January 1st.
Museums are usually closed both in late December and early January. The situation is more flexible for gardens and castles, so it is advisable to check the official websites of the various attractions. For example, the various gardens in Tokyo are generally closed from December 28th/29th to January 2nd/3rd, while for example, the Kenrokuen garden in Kanazawa remains open during regular hours.
Regarding shops and restaurants, most of them are closed on January 1st. However, convenience stores and fast-food chains remain open, although they may have reduced hours in some cases.
On the other hand, all temples and shrines remain open, ready to welcome thousands of visitors for the hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year). The atmosphere during the first three days of the year is truly unique, offering a special way to experience Japan and a reason to travel to Japan for New Year’s despite the inconvenience caused by the closures!
What to Do on New Year’s Eve in Japan
While the first few days of the year are filled with activities at temples and shrines, with swarms of Japanese people throwing coins, praying at altars, purchasing protective amulets, and drawing lucky omikuji, New Year’s Eve is typically very quiet and peaceful. It is generally spent at home with family, or one can go to a temple to witness the Joya no Kane bell-ringing ceremony. This ceremony consists of 108 tolls representing the purification of the 108 earthly desires in Buddhist tradition, starting from midnight.
There are numerous temples where you can witness this Japanese New Year ritual. Many are small local temples, but among the most famous in Tokyo, I recommend:
- Sensoji in Asakusa
- Zojoji, a short walk from the Tokyo Tower
- Higashi Honganji in Tsukiji
In Kyoto, the most important bell is undoubtedly at Chion-in in the Higashiyama area, or also at Todaiji in nearby Nara.
For an unusual New Year’s celebration in Tokyo, you could also consider going to the Oji neighborhood in the north of the city, where on December 31st, the Kitsuno no Gyoretsu, or Fox Parade, takes place!
If you are looking for a Western-style New Year’s countdown, there used to be one at the Shibuya crossing, although most of the attendees were foreigners. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event has been canceled, and the current mayor of Shibuya does not seem inclined to resume it for reasons of safety, order, and cleanliness. If you really can’t do without a countdown party, you could try checking if any of the clubs in Shibuya and Roppongi organize one… but I warn you, Japanese clubs are definitely less cool and much smaller than the nightclubs we are used to.
Fireworks are not a big part of Japanese New Year’s: hanabi (fireworks) are mostly a summer tradition when incredible fireworks displays, often lasting over an hour, take place. The main reason is the extremely dry winter climate in Japan and the tradition of building wooden buildings… it is easy to understand how a small spark can turn into a terrible fire. Therefore, it is best to avoid the risk and leave fireworks for the humid summer!
An important note: usually, Tokyo’s trains and subway lines stop running at midnight and reopen around 4:30/5 am. However, on New Year’s Eve, they tend to operate all night, although with reduced frequency. If you plan to wait for the New Year in the city, I still recommend overnight in a convenient and nearby area in Tokyo where you intend to wait until midnight, so as not to waste too much time waiting for trains.
New Year’s is not the best time to visit Japan due to closures and resulting inconveniences, but it is definitely a time to fully experience the traditions and culture of this country.
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