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Japanese new year traditions – Things you should know.

Each country has its own unique and distinct way to celebrate such a special moment like New Year’s Eve. Japan is obviously no exception. In fact, as recognized among top countries with the richest culture and traditions in the world, Japan has many traditions associated with the New Year celebration. If you are curious about how Japanese people celebrate the end of a year and the beginning of another year, this blog is for you. Here are 11 Japanese new year traditions – all things you should know.

Japanese New Year Traditions – Things You Should Know.

1.  Cleaning

Before the end of the year, Japanese people take part in an activity called “Osouji” – which means deep cleaning. It is the time of the year to clean every inch of the house, even in areas that have never been touched for a whole year such as the ceiling and the storage spaces. People also check and throw away broken or unnecessary stuff. This activity sounds pretty simple and easy but actually it is very time-consuming. Therefore, normally it might take a few days to finish cleaning.

Japanese new year traditions

Before the end of the year, Japanese people take part in an activity called “Osouji” – which means deep cleaning

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This Japan new year tradition has been around for centuries. Japanese people believe that starting a new year in a fresh and clean state will bring good luck for the whole year. While their houses are being cleaned thoroughly, all of the bad things from the old year will also be swept away. In addition, usually, household items are often associated with memories. Therefore, cleaning things is also an opportunity to review all good and bad memories.

Osouji activity applies for houses, temples, shrines. In the past, Japanese people used to start cleaning on December 13, also known as the Susuharai day. However, nowadays many families wait until December 31 to start cleaning.  Meanwhile, the temples and pagodas still hold sacred Susuharai ceremonies on December 13.

Japanese new year traditions

The temples and pagodas still hold sacred Susuharai ceremonies on December 13

2. Japan New Year Decoration

When everything is clean, people will start Japanese new year decorations. Each family will hang a Shimenawa which is a twisted rope made from straw in front of the house. In Shinto religion, Shimenawa will help to ward off the devil and welcome the god of the New year. Shimenawa can be made in many different styles but in general, they all have warm and vibrant colors such as red, yellow, orange,… These colors represent luck and peaceful things which are expected to come in the new year.

Japanese new year traditions

In Shinto religion, Shimenawa will help to ward off the devil and welcome the god of the new year.

Japanese new year traditions

Shimenawa can be made in many different styles but in general, they all have warm and vibrant colors such as red, yellow, orange,…

Japanese new year traditions

Huge Shimenawa in front of a Shinto shrine.

Another Japanese new year decoration tradition is Kadomatsu (Pine gate). Basically, Kadomatsu consists of 3 bamboo pieces and pine branches. The pine tree symbolizes immortal vitality. No matter how severe the weather is, it still grows well. Meanwhile, bamboo is a symbol of strength, integrity, and virtue, like the Japanese Samurai spirit from ancient times. Japanese people also believe that bamboo tree can eliminate demons. Therefore, putting Kadomatsu in front of houses on New Year’s Day will bring luck and health for the homeowner.

Japanese new year tradtions

Putting Kadomatsu in front of houses on New Year’s Day to bring luck and healthy for the homeowner

3. Eating Traditional Food

Traditional food in Japanese New Year is extremely meticulously prepared in both cooking and presentation. Japanese people also use ingredients that have warm colors. They believe that these colors will bring luck to them on the first day of the year. After cooking, Japanese people store their food in a multi-layered box called Osechi – similar to Bento but more sophisticated and put the whole big box in the fridge. Normally, they will cook enough food to eat for 3 consecutive days of the New Year.

Japanese new year traditions

After cooking, Japanese people store their food in a multi-layered box called Osechi

In addition, eating Toshikoshi Soba is also one of the most significant Japanese new year traditions.  Toshikoshi Soba consists of buckwheat noodles and various kinds of toppings. Japanese people eat Soba to wish for health in the new year as it is a symbol of longevity. Another reason is that noodles cut off easily when bitten, which symbolizes strong determination and belief to overcome any upcoming hardship and obstacle.

Japanese new year traditions

In addition, eating Toshikoshi Soba is also one of the most significant Japanese new year traditions

4. Kohaku – Traditional TV Show

Kohaku Uta Gassen is an annual New Year’s Eve song contest, aired on NHK. It is considered the “National Music Festival” and used to be the most-watching TV show in Japan. In the show, only top stars in Japan entertainment industry are invited. So even for Japanese artists, it truly is an honor to be apart of Kohaku Uta Gassen. Meanwhile, for a J-pop fan, it is a fantastic opportunity to be able to watch many performances from top stars in Japan such as Utada Hikaru, Exile, Arashi, X Japan, AKB48…. in just 1 show. Besides, many famous actors and actresses also join the program.

All guests sare divided into two teams. The red team consists of female artists while the white team gathers all male artists. Based on the performances that the artists and groups bring to Kohaku, the audience will vote to find the winning team at the end of the show.

At the end of the year, family members sit around to watch Kohaku. It has become one of many unique Japan new year traditions for 70 years.

Japanese new year traditions

Kohaku Uta Gassen is an annual New Year’s Eve song contest, aired on NHK. It is considered the “National Music Festival”.

5. Joya No Kane Ceremony

Joya no Kane ceremony (除 夜 の 鐘) is a custom to ring temple bells at midnight to celebrate the new year. Local temples and shrines will ring 107 bells before New Year’s Eve and 1 bell when the New Year has arrived. According to Buddhism, the ringing of 108 bells will help people to shake off all bad desires and purify their souls in the new year.

Please note that you will have to wait in cold weather for a very long time. So make sure to wear proper warm clothes and hot water bottles with you.

During this ceremony, many temples allow visitors to watch or even take part in ringing the bells. Make sure to arrive early if you want to have this unique experience.

The largest bells are now in Nara’s Todaiji Temple and Chion-in, the headquarters of the Buddhist Jodo (Pure Land) Sect in Kyoto. You can have a closer look at this Japanese new year tradition at the link below.

6. Otoshidama (Lucky Money)

Next is one of the most exciting Japanese new year traditions – Otoshidama. This is a custom where adults give lucky money to kids. The amount of Otoshidama children receive will depend on the age of the child and the relationship with the family member. Nowadays, young people also give money to their parents and grandparents to express their love and gratitude.

The meaning of giving Otoshidama is to wish children good luck and health in the new year. Besides, it is also an opportunity for children to learn how to make a plan in saving and spending money reasonably.

Japanese new year traditions

The meaning of giving Otoshidama is to wish children good luck and health in the new year

Otoshidama is often put in small cute envelopes with many patterns and cartoon characters. These envelopes are called Pochibukuro.

7. Fukubukuro (Lucky Bags)

Fukubukuros are red bags, which are sold at stores at extremely discounted prices to customers on the New Year. Items inside these bags could be anything, such as food or clothes. At first, selling Fukubukuro was just a way for stores in Japan to get rid of old goods. However, now it has become one of the most unique Japanese new year traditions.

Fukubukuro bags are on sale on the first day and are usually sold during the first week of the new year or until they are out of stock. The best part of Fukubukuro bags is that buyers do not know what is inside. The feeling of opening the bag slowly, not knowing what you will get always brings an exciting feeling. With Fukubukaro, people can get high-quality items for an unbelievably cheap price. This is also a way to celebrate good luck in the new year. That’s why thousands of Japanese people line up every year to buy this “lucky” bag.

Japanese new year traditions

Fukubukuro is a way to wish for good luck. Every year, thousands of Japanese people line up in front of stores to buy this “lucky” bag.

8. Hatsumode – The First Shrine Visit

Hatsumode is the first shrine visit of the year. On the first 3 days of the year, Japanese people pay their visit to Shinto shrines and temples to thank for all good things they have received in the old year. They also offer money to Gods to pray for luck, love, and health in the new year. There is no rule on how much money should be spent. But Japanese people usually do not use 65 yen, 75 yen, 85 yen, 95 yen and 500 yen since all of these numbers have negative meanings.

During Hatsumode, many Japanese people prefer to wear  Japanese new year clothing. You can buy or hire a Kimono in a nearby shop. This is definitely an interesting experience for any foreigner!

Japanese new year traditions

Hatsumode is the first shrine visit of the year.

Below are some of the most popular temples and shrines in Japan:

  • Meiji Jingu – 明治神宮 (Tokyo) – Location: 1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya City, Tokyo 151-8557
  • Narita-san Shinshoji – 成田山新勝寺 (Chiba) – Location: 1 Narita, Chiba 286-0023,
  • Sensouji – 浅草寺 (Asakusa, Tokyo) – Location: 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0032,
  • Sumiyoshi Taisha – 住吉大社 (Osaka) – Location: 2 Chome-9-89 Sumiyoshi, Sumiyoshi Ward, Osaka, 558-0045, Japan
  • Atsuta Jingu – 熱田神宮 (Nagoya) – Location: 1 Chome-1-1 Jingu, Atsuta Ward, Nagoya, Aichi 456-8585, Japan
Japanese new year traditions

Meiji Jingu – 明治神宮 (Tokyo) – The most popular ritual place in Japan

9. Hatsuhinode – First Sunrise Of The Year

Hatsuhinode is a custom to watch the sunrise on the first day of the new year. On the 1st of January, People will gather on top of the mountain, observation decks, beaches, and wait for the sun to rise. It is believed that welcoming the light on the first day of the new year will bring positive energy. While watching the sunrise, Japanese people pray health and happiness for their loved ones.

Hatsuhinode has been popular and became a vital new year tradition since the Meiji period (1868 – 1912).

Please take a look at our suggestions for the best places for Hatsuhinode:

  • Mount Tsukuba(Ibaraki)
  • Tokyo Tower
  • Enoshima, Kanagawa
  • Lake Kawaguchi, Yamanashi
  • Hebara Beach, Chiba
Japanese new year traditions

Watching the first sunrise is believed to bring positive energy and happinese.

10. Traditional Games

Japanese new year traditions can be fun too. There are so many traditional new year games in Japan. In today’s blog, we will give you a brief introduction about 2 games that are widely popular in Japan. They are Karuta and Takoage.

If you are a big fan of Japanese shoujo manga, you may have heard about Chihayafuru. The manga is a story about young people who have passionate about Karuta. It does not provide detailed instructions to play Karuta but it describes clearly how Japanese people love this game. There are 3 main types of Karuta which are Uta Garuta, Iroha Garura and Hanafuda. To play this game, you must remember 100 poems which are taken from the “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu”. These poems are written on a set of 100 cards (called Yomifuda). There is another set of 100 cards called Torifuda. Each Torifuda card has 2 last lines corresponding to each of the poems from Yomifuda. A third person will read the poems and 2 players must try to grab the correct Torifuda card as fast as possible.

Takoage is a kite flying game. It was originated from China and introduced to Japan during the Heian period (794 – 1185). On the 1st of January, Japanese people usually take their kids to the park or the beach to fly kites. They believe that the higher their kite flies, the better luck will come to them in the new year.

11. Emperor’s New Year Greeting

If you come to Japan during New year’s eve, you may get the opportunity to meet the Japanese royal members. Every year, a large number of visitors come to Imperial Palace grounds for Emperor’s new year greeting. There will be baggage inspection at the entry gate so do not bring anything dangerous. Also please remember that pets are strictly not allowed. You would better keep your belongings to a minimum while joining this event. And if it is possible, avoid using high heels as you may easily hurt other people in such a crowded area.

Japanese New year traditions

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

12. Recommendation: Visit Japan During New Year

12.1. Kyoto – Okera festival

It is a traditional New Year’s ritual in Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto to pray for health and happiness. People will get fragrant herbs burned in the fire. They believe by doing that, negative energies are swept away and new good fortune will come to them in the new year.

During the new year, public transportation is quite limited so if you want to join Okera festival, you should book a hotel near Yasaka Shrine or have local people take you there.

12.2. Fireworks Show & Count Down Party

Fireworks show is a vital part of the New year celebration in any country in the world. Of course, Japan is not an exception. The land of the rising sun is known to have incredibly beautiful firework shows. Make your way to some count down parties, immerse yourself in great music, and enjoy the fantastic firework show. You definitely would not want to miss this opportunity while spending your vacation in Japan during this time of the year.

Below are 5 best places to watch New year’s firework shows:

  • Yokohama Hakkeijima Sea Paradise (Kanagawa) 
  • Tokyo Disneyland & Tokyo Disney Sea (Chiba) 
  • Nagashima Spa Land (Mie) 
  • Huis Ten Bosch (Nagasaki) 
  • Universal Studios Japan 
Japanese new year traditions

Beautiful firework show for New year celebration in Japan. It is definitely unforgettable scene!

12.3. Shopping

You may see thousands of people lining up in many stores for the first sale of the year. Infamous shopping areas such as Shinjuku and Shibuya, sales are held everywhere. You can find some of the finest items at incredibly low prices. So do not worry too much about the long time queuing and waiting for your turn. Believe us, everything is worth it! Take advantage of this time!

Japanese new year traditions

If you want to have more information about how Japanese people celebrate new year, check out the link below.

Conclusion

So we have introduced to you 11 Japanese new year traditions. What do you think about these activities? Which one makes you curious the most? Are you excited to plan your trip to Japan during new year’s eve? If you have any concern and queries about location guides in Japan, please share with us in the comment section below.

About Yuu Sato

Yuu Hiasa has been working in hospitality industry since 2003. In the past, he used to work as a tour guide and now he is running his business of supplying comfortable accommodations in Japan. Thanks to this experience and his passion for writing blog, the articles by him provides awesome tips and things to do when you are traveling in the country of cherry blossoms.