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 6 min read

While Japan is usually the overwork capital of the world, the New Year’s holidays here do offer chance for everyone to just relax.

The cost, however, is that because New Year’s is overwhelmingly a quiet time spent with family (as opposed to the wild parties of the West), most of the nation shuts down to take a break. This means that for several days nothing is open including shops, restaurants and even doctor’s offices.

Avoid the shutdowns though, and you’ll find that Japan is overflowing with awesome, Instagram-worthy traditional decorations, incredible food and unique cultural ceremonies during the holidays.

To enjoy your start of the new year to the fullest, read on to learn more about how Japanese people usher it in with style.

1. Sing along with Kohaku Uta Gassen

Sing like no one is watching!

Around New Year’s, most people celebrate by gathering with the family and watching a lot of television.  Kohaku Uta Gassen, commonly just called Kohaku, is an annual holiday special produced by NHK. Kohaku (紅白) is a Japanese word comprised of the kanji for red and white. During the special, the most popular musical artists from the year split into two teams: men (white team) versus women (red team) and face off in a singing contest.

At the end of the show, the judges and audience vote to decide on the winning team. While it may sound like it’s just good fun, being invited to perform on Kohaku is a huge deal. A lot of Japanese singers believe it to be the highlight of their career. For everyone else, it’s a great way to sit back and wind down for the new year.

The 70th Kohaku Uta Gassen will air on NHK, Radio 1, BS4K and BS8K from 7:15 p.m. on Dec. 31

2. Watch the New Year Ekiden

Get motivated!

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. It’s the biggest marathon event on Japanese television, and the high viewer count is considered a big motivator for professional runners.

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. What better way to motivate yourself to get in shape for next year?

The 2021 New Year Ekiden will air on TBS on Jan. 1 from 8:30 a.m.

3. Gorge yourself on osechi

Who’s hungry?

Osechi ryori is 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 not to 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. Try oshiruko

Treat yourself!

Oshiruko is a sweet porridge of azuki beans boiled, crushed and served in a bowl with mochi (sticky pounded rice).  It’s also a sweet red bean drink that you can find in some vending machines in Japan. Some people like to eat it it with chestnuts or dumplings. However, sweet azuki beans aren’t for everyone, so consider eating it with something sour like the locals do, such as umeboshi (pickled plum).

5. Eat long soba noodles

It’s been a long year, so eat some long noodles.

Toshikoshi soba, or year-crossing noodle, is a traditional bowl of plain noodles eaten by friends and family celebrating New Year’s Eve. The idea comes from the phrase “crossing over from one year to the next,” which is what toshi-koshi means in Japanese.

Families will almost always have a bowl of toshikoshi soba during osechi and friends will typically go out to celebrate and share a few bowls just one hour before the new year.

6. Pray at a shrine

People lining up at Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku.

One of the most well-known ways to celebrate the New Year in Japan is to visit a shrine. During the visit, people will pray for health, wealth, divine protection or even just 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. However, if you’re not a fan of crowds, try visiting local shrines outside the major cities. The lines can get seriously long, and some people will wait for hours. 

7. Find your fortune

Don’t let bad luck follow you around.

After your prayers at the shrine, you can purchase an omikuji (fortune slip), usually for ¥100. The small pieces of paper are random and tell you your luck in the new year. There are several tiers of luck, but it might look like this:

  • Daikichi (大吉): Excellent luck, Great blessing
  • Kichi (吉): Good luck, blessing
  • Daikyo (大凶): Terrible luck, certain disaster, great curse

They can also 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! You can tie up the bad omikuji to a wooden post in the shrine to undo the bad luck. You can also pick up good luck charms called omamori to help you overcome whatever bad luck the fortunes predict for you. 

8. Interpret your dreams

Did I dream of an eagle or a hawk? Shoot!

In Japan, the first dream of the new year is another way to predict your luck in the upcoming year. The dream you have falling asleep on Jan. 1 and waking up on the second is called hatsuyume, or first dream, and to correctly interpret it, you have to watch out for the main symbols of hatsuyume.

The luckiest symbols are Mount Fuji, a hawk and an eggplant. While no one knows for sure why these three symbols are the best, the prevalent theory goes that it’s because Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain, hawks are clever and strong and the word for eggplant, nasu, is the same word for “achieving something great” in Japanese.

9. Try kagami mochi

It’s cute, edible and full of good luck!

Around early December, supermarkets start selling kagami mochi in front of the shopping aisles. The eye-catching treat is made with two plump mochi cakes stacked on top of each and ornamented with decorative paper and ferns. While traditional kagami mochi uses bitter orange, modern ones are topped with Japanese mikan.

There is a lot of history with kagami mochi, but the two mochi cakes are thought to represent multiple things such as the coming and going of years, yin and yang or the sun and the moon. Kagami mochi ar plces around the house to ward off fires and bring fortune. They can be placed anywhere, but typically they’ll be placed in the family altar toom.

It’s also believed that kami (god) power resides in the mochi, so eating it is good for you too! You can even combine it with oshiruku.

10. Pick up a lucky bag

Well do ya, punk?

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.

Drop by almost any store or cafe during the holiday season and you can buy a fukubukuro, or lucky bag. Sometimes called “happy bags,” they’ll have the kanji 福袋 written on them. It’s packed with mysterious goodies inside. Well, as mysterious as unsold gadgets, clothes and other knickknacks can get for around 50 percent off. If you’re truly lucky, you’ll end up with something that actually is actually a bargain.

On the other hand, you could waste money on something completely worthless. This is called fukobukuro (misfortune bags) or utsubukuro (depressing bags). You might be better off having an idea of what you’re buying. However, they’re not all bad. Especially if you like donuts, coffee and tacoyaki.

These are just a few ways to celebrate the holidays in Japan. We hope it gives you some ideas and we wish you the very best start to the new year!

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