Culture

Japanese New Year Traditions: 10 Ways to Celebrate Like a Local

Put those pajamas on and settle in for a proper o-shogatsu—Japanese style.

By 7 min read

While Japan is usually the overworking capital of the world—complete with their own word for “death by overworking,” 過労死 or karoshi—the New Year it’s time for everyone to just chillax and laze around in front of the TV.

The cost, however, is that because New Year’s is overwhelmingly celebrated as time spent relaxing with family (as opposed to the wild parties of western cultures), most of the nation shuts down to take a break for several days, including shops, restaurants, and even doctor’s offices.

It goes so far as some bank ATMs not even running during the New Year, and they don’t even have families or a reason to rest!

Still, Japan is overflowing with awesome-looking traditional decorations, incredible food, and unique cultural ceremonies during the holidays.

To enjoy your start to 2020 to the fullest, read on to learn more about how Japanese people usher in the New Year in style. Expect lots of lounging in front of a TV, tasty (and sometimes dangerous) food, and plenty of luck-generating activities!

1. Sing along to the Kohaku

Kohaku (紅白) is a Japanese word comprised of the kanji for red and white and is also the title of a New Year’s Eve television tradition where popular musical artists split into two teams: men (the White Team) versus women (the Red Team) who face off in a singing contest.

This year will mark the show’s 70th anniversary and its first installment in the new Reiwa Era, with top musical artists such as Radwimps, Perfume, and AKB48 in the lineup. Presenting will be Naomi Watanabe and Terrace House‘s Yama-chan. At the end of the show, the judges and audience vote to decide the winning team. It’s good and thoughtless fun—the perfect thing to mindlessly watch and start shutting off your busy brain for the holidays.

2. Watch the New Year Ekiden

The New Year Ekiden is an annual collegiate relay race from Tokyo to Hakone that people from all over Japan tune in to during the New Year. The two-day, round-trip, 218-kilometer-race is another staple of New Year’s TV shows and usually causes some buzz and conversation points for the holidays. The course is split into 10 different stages that are about half a marathon each. It’s held on the second and third of January and is organized by the Inter-University Athletic Union of Kanto. What better way to motivate yourself to get in shape for the new year?

3. Gorge yourself on osechi

Osechi Ryori (お節料理) is actually comprised of many foods, all under the general blanket term of “traditional Japanese New Year foods” that come in square, usually lacquerware, boxes. Some families make their own osechi while others dish out exorbitant amounts of money for them. Either way, the goal is to not have to cook on New Year’s. Yay for being lazy!

Highlights of osechi include a mochi rice soup called zoni, red and white vegetables called kohaku-namasu (there’s that red-white theme again!), and everyday side dishes like konbu (seaweed) and kuro-mame (black soybeans). Yum.

4. Don’t choke on mochi

Oshiruko is a kind of sweet red bean soup that you can add mochi to.

Mochi (sticky pounded rice) is a staple of osechi and many other holiday treats, including the delectable warm treat oshiruko, which is a sweet red bean drink that you can find in some vending machines in Japan. When adding mochi to this sweet treat, it really elevates the dish and gives it a special New Year flair.

However, beware when munching on mochi that this delicious delicacy is also a dangerous choking hazard. In fact, just last year several people were hospitalized and two even died over the holidays succumbing to the mochi fate, according to a report by CBS published on January 2. While mochi-related death most often tragically affects children and the elderly, you can never be too careful!

5. Eat long soba noodles

Another common treat just before the turn of the New Years is soba – specifically toshikoshi or “passing into the New Year” soba.

Why soba? Supposedly it’s because long noodles represent a long life, so if you eat long noodles you’ll also… live long? Maybe it’s not the most practical reasoning, but Japan does have one of the longest life expectancies in the world, so maybe they’re onto something here.

6. Pray at a shrine

The queue into the Meiji Jingu for hatsumode on Jan 1.

One of the more common and well-known ways to celebrate the New Year is to visit a Japanese shrine and pray for good luck in a tradition called hatsumode. The major shrines that attract the most visitors are Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu and Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine. But if you’re not a fan of crowds, then we recommend visiting local shrines outside the major cities, because those lines get seriously long with waiting times of several hours.

7. Find your fortune

Leave that bad juju behind ju.

After your prayers at the shrine, head on over to the kiosks nearby to pick up omikuji, small pieces of paper that you pick out randomly and which tell you your luck in the new year. Your luck is categorized into different tiers, from “great blessing” (大吉, daikichi) to “great curse” (大凶, daikyo). There are also different categories on omikuji that tell you your yearly forecast for everything from romance to work. If you don’t draw the best luck in omikuji, not all is lost! Shrines also conveniently have good luck charms called omamori to help you overcome whatever bad luck the fortunes predict for you. Don’t forget that if you get a curseful omikuji fortune slip you can tie it to one of the stands in the shrine so that the bad luck doesn’t follow you around.

8. Interpret your dreams

Your first dream of the New Year is yet another way to predict your luck in the upcoming year. The dream you have falling asleep on January 1st and waking up on the 2nd is called hatsuyume, or “first dream,” and to correctly interpret it, you have to watch out for the main symbols of hatsuyume. Of particularly good luck are the symbols of Mt. Fuji, a hawk, and an eggplant. So I guess we wish you all sweet eggplant-themed dreams in the New Year.

9. Decorate auspiciously

Kagami mochi. Yes, it’s edible!

While the holiday season is packed with traditional Western-style Christmas decorations, you’ll also find some unique, traditional Japanese New Year decorations as well. Around early December, supermarkets start stacking up kagami mochi (there’s that pesky, deadly mochi again!) in front of the shopping aisles. You’ll also see lots of bamboo and pine decorations to draw in lucky spirits because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in Japan, it’s that you can never have too many good-luck symbols.

10. Pick up some lucky bags

Keeping with the theme of luck, this is also the time of year when many stores are on a mission to get rid of extra stock left over after the busy holiday season. Drop by almost any store or cafe to pick up a “lucky bag” (福袋 or fukubukuro), a bag that’s packed with mysterious goodies inside. Sometimes called “happy bags,” they’ll have the kanji 福袋 written on the front of them somewhere. If you’re truly lucky, you’ll end up with something that actually fits your taste for a low price!

And whatever you do, don’t get sick

This comes from personal experience, but whatever you do, do not get sick during the New Year holidays. What I mentioned at the top about the country shutting down to relax is no joke—most hospitals and clinics are completely shut down too. And with the flu and cold at their height around this time, maybe it’s in everyone’s best interest to embrace taking it slow during this season.

These are just some of the ways to get the most out of the New Year in Japan. We hope it gives you some ideas and we wish you the very best, and laziest, start to 2020!

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