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5 Japanese New Year Traditions You Should Follow

Here's how and why you should apply these Japanese New Year rituals to your own goals for a mindful start.

By 5 min read

If you usually start the year partying and stuffing your face with food, spending the holiday in Japan could strike you as oddly quiet and devoid of glitter. Despite what it may appear on the surface, New Year’s is a major holiday in Japan, and December is spent bubbling with preparations for it.

The first days of the year are for relaxing. Many opt to spend the chilly evenings sharing meals with their family under the warmth of a kotatsu (a table with a heat source).

But that breezy start is only possible thanks to meticulous planning diligently carried out the days before. People in Japan declutter their bodies, minds and houses before unwinding and rekindling connection.

Are you also looking for mindful ways to kick off the year? Here are five Japanese New Year’s traditions and why you should follow suit.

Drink something healthy

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The monk’s secret weapon: umeboshi.

In 951, a monk in an epidemic-rippled Kyoto gave the sick umeboshi (pickled plum) tea. Miraculously, it made them feel better. Thus, the emperor began drinking umeboshi tea every New Year’s Day for luck.

It later became a tradition known as obukucha. Nowadays, kelp has also been added to this intense infusion, giving it a salty kick. The drink remained popular, especially in Kyoto, despite its sourness, perhaps because of it. You can find it in Kaldi and other stores nationwide.

Instead, hopes are channeled in deep introspection and prayer.

If you’re looking for a more natural alternative to champagne, toso, known as “medicinal sake,” is a popular pick. This fragrant spiced drink is made of ginger, Japanese pepper, cinnamon and other herbs mixed with two types of sake and mirin. It’s sold in many liquor stores.

Of course, not everyone likes sake or tea. However, the New Year is an excellent opportunity to make drinking something healthy a daily habit. So replace that ginger, pepper and cinnamon obukucha with a kale, blueberries and chia seed smoothie every morning.

Housecleaning the year away

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You don’t want to leave this for the new year.

On the days leading up to the New Year, you’ll notice your neighbors sweeping the pavement, wiping the windows or leaving their cushion covers out to dry. It’s like spring cleaning, only in winter.

According to Shinto tradition, a deity called Toshigami visits people’s homes on the first day of the year. Families spend the last days of December welcoming this distinguished guest with New Year’s ornaments and decorations and cleaning their homes thoroughly.

As tiring as it is to deep-clean a house, it’s incredibly satisfying to relax in a clean home with no chores to do afterward. Have you experienced the pleasure of snuggling in fresh sheets with no dishes in the sink? It feels even better on Jan. 1. Going full-on Marie Kondo before the clock strikes twelve will set you up for a neat start and perhaps break any procrastination habits.

Try a healthy bento

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Traditional Japanese new years food.

Because the first few days of the year have always been for resting in Japan, someone had to do plenty of meal prep. Thus, this marked the start of osechi, a traditional meal that starts the new chapter with a striking mosaic of colors and textures.

Osechi started as the ultimate homemade food. Nowadays, many people order osechi from convenience stores or supermarkets, making orders as early as mid-autumn. This traditional packed meal is a mix of foods that each represent an individual wish: boiled shrimp for longevity, sweet egg rolls for learning, and renkon (lotus root) for luck, among many others.

But, suppose you’re feeling like putting your culinary skills to the test. In that case, trying your hand at making this balanced bento could be a nice challenge to tackle during the break. Either way, you’ll be indulging in a wholesome dish, starting early with your healthy eating resolutions and tasting some of the best seasonal Japanese food out there.

The Hatsumode mindset

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A family making their first shrine visit of the new year.

There’s little to no talk about New Year’s resolutions in Japan, although people wish for many things. Instead, hopes are channeled in deep introspection and prayer.

In the first three days of January, Japanese people usually make time for hatsumode—the first visit to a shrine or temple in the new year. This visit is to thank the gods for the previous year and pray for the new one.

This is a beautiful mindset. Instead of overworking yourself with resolutions, try feeling grateful and manifesting what you’d like to happen in the new year. Hopefully, it can help you discover (and achieve) your hopes and desires positively.

Reach out to loved ones

Sometimes, just reaching out goes a long way.

New Year is an intimate family celebration, but many foreigners don’t have family here. Closed shops and empty streets can make you feel lonely. And the pandemic isn’t going anywhere, which is even more alienating.

But all of this doesn’t mean you can’t reach out to friends and loved ones, no matter how far they may be. Japanese people do it through nengajo, customary greeting cards mailed mid-December to arrive precisely on the first day of the new year. Once used to check in with family, today, they’re sent to friends and acquaintances to wish a happy new year.

New Year is the perfect occasion to part with old habits…

Is there a friend you’d love to reconnect with? Do you miss someone back home? Consider getting in touch with them this season in one way or another. Dropping a few heartfelt lines or seeing their smiles through the screen could make them (and you) feel closer.

New Year is the perfect occasion to part with old habits that don’t do us any good. So welcome the year your way but keep your mind open to new ideas. If something nurtures your spirit and makes you feel you’re taking care of yourself, it could be a tradition worth adopting.

Do you celebrate New Year’s in Japan? What traditions did you bring from home? Let us know in the comments!

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