The Unique Way of Japanese New Year Celebrations

Japan - a country of humble people, spectacular Shinto shrines, lovely gardens, and many fascinating traditions. Having remained in isolation for a long period of time, Japan has always been mystical for the outside world. Step into this Land of The Rising Sun and you will be warmly greeted by a respectful bow from people all around. Explore Japan and it will showcase you a harmonious mixture of the Chinese and western culture. The Japanese New Year celebrations perfectly exemplify this beautiful amalgamation. Although Japan celebrates the New Year according to the Gregorian Calendar along with the western world, the festivities are marked by their old-gold traditions. Let us see how the new year celebrations distinguish Japan from their counterparts.

  • Does Japan Celebrate Two New Years?

Well, technically yes! Initially, Japan celebrated New Year according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar. However, during the Meiji Restoration, waves of westernization started making their way in Japan and in 1873, the country embraced the Gregorian Calendar. Since then, the Japanese welcome New Year on 1st of January each year, albeit the traditional way. 

Called as Shōgatsu, the Japanese have a high regard for New Year. Considered to be the most beloved season, the celebrations start from the New Year’s Eve and last up-to 4th January. While the official holiday is observed on the first day of January, most businesses remain shut throughout the period to thoroughly enjoy the New Year Celebrations. 

A couple of months down the line, Japan celebrates Little New Year around mid-February, on the 15th day of the first Lunar month. This is to mark the first full moon of the Lunar New Year. While the day is celebrated with much galore, it is around this time that the New Year decorations are taken down.

  • Does Japan "Ring" in The New Year, Quite Literally?

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Yup, not just once but 108 times! Called Joya-no-kane, the age-old bell-ringing ceremony on New Year’s Eve in Japan sees a lot of people visiting their nearby shrine or temple to ring the bell once. The bell is tolled 107 times on 31st until midnight strikes and once after 12 o’clock. According to the Buddhist belief, humans experience 108 materialistic desires and thus the ringing of bell to wash away those sins of the past year, expecting a fresh start.

Unlike other parts in the world where New Year celebrations are usually all about parties, parades, and fireworks, it is much of a cozy, homely affair in Japan. Like the ringing of bell, there are a few remarkable Japanese New Year traditions that will amuse you.

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  • Does Japan Have Something Called as "New Year Food"?

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Delicious food, without a doubt, rules the customary New Year celebrations in Japan. It is a tradition of eating osechi-ryōri - an array of food items, arranged in special boxes and are known as New Year food. Each of the food items has a deep meaning and are considered to bring good luck while ushering in the New Year. Another dish prepared without fail during the celebrations is Mochi, the traditional Japanese rice cake. You will not find one person in Japan who doesn’t love this food. While it is prepared on New Year’s Eve, people enjoy it on the first day of January. Since all the New Year traditions are focused on greeting good fortune in the upcoming year, the food items are also prepared with the same thought. People eat Toshikoshi Soba, that is long buckwheat noodles that stand for long life and good luck.

  • What is Kadomatsu, Shimekazari, and Kagami Mochi?

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Bamboos, pine, and plum branches adorn the entrances of Japanese shops, hotels, and houses to welcome the New Year. The ornament prepared using these elements is called Kadomatsu and is put at the doorway to gain prosperity, long life, and stability. Another Japanese New Year decoration is the Kagami Mochi which is made up of two round rice cakes that have a tangerine or daidai perched on top of them. This decoration is to seek blessings for the several upcoming generations. The Japanese seek the favor of Gods of good fortune by hanging the ornament Shimekazari above the entrance door. It is made using a sacred straw rope, bitter orange, and pine.

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  • Why do people Flock to Shrines during New Year Holidays?

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People line up at the holy places to seek blessings. Known as Hatsumode, this tradition sees people visiting their nearby shrine or temple in between 1st January to 3rd January. The shrines turn into a festive place with many stalls and shops selling lucky charms and mouth-watering food. This first visit to the temple during New Year is marked with many festive activities that are enjoyed by one and all. 

  • Why do Japanese Children Receive Money during New Year?

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Called Otoshidama, this tradition dates back to the Tokugawa period when a small bag of Mochi along with a mandarin orange were distributed to children. Keeping up with the custom, kids now receive money enclosed in lovely envelops. The tradition is also believed to be associated with the Japanese folklore. According to it, the money given to children is also offered to toshigami - the Shinto deities of the New Year who act as protectors of those kids.  

  • How do Japanese Convey Their New Year Wishes to Dear Ones?

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People in Japan send greetings for the New year to their loved ones through postcards. This is also a way of letting them know about their well being. The post office is flooded with a variety of hand-written and readymade postcards with printed messages. The postal services also go an extra mile to deliver these greeting cards until 1st January. Nowadays, however, this tradition is taking a backseat due to the emergence of digital greetings.

Besides these, Japan also has customs like poetry writing, business year-end parties called bonenkai parties, playing games like kite flying, Japanese badminton, and karuta - a card game, watching the first sunrise of new year called hatsuhinode, and viewing the TV show Kōhaku Uta Gassen that has been running since 1955 on NHK during New Year’s Eve. 

  • Does Japan Have No New Year Parties At All?

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Being an intimate affair, Japan celebrates New Year without much noise and splendor. However, the country hasn’t  totally escaped the influence of western culture. Tokyo, the bustling capital of Japan has been having some happening New Year’s Eve parties for the past few years. You can also head towards Shibuya Crossing in the city which is exclusively made accessible to pedestrians for the New Year countdown celebration in Japan. The fireworks held at the Tokyo Tower are also a feast for the eyes.

Celebrating New Year in their own unique way, Japan has stuck to their rich traditions and culture. Shall we follow a few of their customs and soak ourselves in the solemnity of the New Year’s celebrations?

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Usually lost in a reverie, Ketki is someone who absolutely refuses to live in the practical world. While she has a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering, she should be honored mastery in procrastination ...