Spending New Year in Japan is a great way of understanding the traditions associated with one of the country’s most important celebrations.
While Christmas Day is a normal working day in Japan (albeit one where it has become a custom to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken of all things – there’s a really interesting programme on the BBC World Service about this tradition), many businesses tend to close down for the new year period, usually from around the 28th December to the 4th January. Certainly most will be closed on the 1st to the 3rd January but some businesses may close for longer in order that proprietors and employees can spend time with their families. This means that if you are sightseeing, some ryokan may not be receiving guests and some museums and attractions will be closed.
We were in Japan around new year 2019-2020, our last trip before the world changed so dramatically.
See the Lights in Shibuya
Shibuya is a vibrant, bustling district in Tokyo which has loads of shops and restaurants. Its most famous features are found close to the station.
Its road crossing is possibly one of the best known in the world as it has featured in numerous films and adverts.
Apparently its nickname is ‘scramble’ because at its busiest time over 2,500 people can cross the road in the two minutes that the pedestrian lights allow.
As new year approaches, the crossing is the place to join the celebrations if you want a party. We visited in the afternoon as preparations were underway and also got to see some of the lights in the surrounding area.
The statue of Hachiko is a famous Shibuya landmark. Hachiko was an Akito dog owned by a professor in the 1920s. The professor used to go to work and each day his dog would wait for him to return at the station in the evening. The professor died in 1925 but Hachiko would still wait for him every evening for a decade until his own death. It’s a very moving story of canine loyalty and a statue was erected to the dog outside the station in 1934. Of course, he is dressed for the occasion at this time of year.
Noodles in Shinjuku
One of the traditional things to do on New Year’s Eve is to eat Toshikoshi Soba – year-end noodles. The principle is that long noodles equate to a long life, so they represent longevity and good luck. This is a popular tradition and soba shops are likely to be busy on New Year’s Eve. We had a wonderful meal with a dear friend at lunchtime at the food hall in Takashimaya Times Square, the vast department store just south of Shinjuku station, which has a variety of wonderful restaurants located on the top two floors. We chose the soba restaurant there. We had to queue for around 40 minutes which wasn’t a problem – it had such a nice atmosphere.
Once seated you are not rushed to finish your meal, even though there will be people waiting outside. If you want to dine on noodles in the evening your wait may be much longer – we saw very long queues in Shinjuku later that night.
We ordered the set menu which came with tempura and other treats. It wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t bank-breakingly expensive and the entire meal was simply divine.
The noodles are presented on a traditional platter and appear to arrive in the most enormous mound but, on closer inspection, actually have been cleverly placed on a conical tray.
Soba are buckwheat noodles that can be served hot or cold – on a winter’s day, hot was definitely the best way to enjoy them.
You are provided with a broth which you can season to your liking and then you dip the noodles in the broth. It is polite to slurp in Japan! (Which, when you’ve been brought up not to slurp your soup, is surprisingly difficult!)
As we were finishing the restaurant staff came around with a small teapot filled with a hot, white opaque broth. This was sobayu, the water that that the noodles had been boiled in. We mixed it with our leftover sauce, added any further condiments and drank it – it’s a very satisfying way to finish off the meal.
Back To The Hotel to Watch TV
New year is traditionally a family time in Japan and many families stay home to see the new year in together. Kōhaku Uta Gassen is the NHK (the national broadcaster) TV channel’s new year show which has been running since the 1950s. It is a national custom to watch Kōhaku on New Year’s Eve. The format of the show is that popular singers, musicians and bands are invited to join and each are assigned to one of two teams – red and white. They each perform throughout the evening and the audience and judges decide which team was the best. Quite often western performers will take part as well. At the end of the show, just before midnight, everyone sings Hotaru no Hikari, a song similar to Auld Lang Syne. We spent some time in the early evening at our business hotel to catch some of the songs before heading out to see in the new year.
Seeing in the New Year
There are several choices depending on how you are feeling. Shibuya is the place to go for a party atmosphere. The famous road crossing is usually filled with people waiting to see the new year in (pre-Covid) and the atmosphere is guaranteed to be lively. Other possible places include Tokyo Tower, which has a countdown to the New Year, and Tokyo Disney and Disney Sea which have fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve. There will also be celebratory countdown events in hotels and izakaya across the city.
We chose to visit the Meiji Jingū. It’s one of Japan’s most important shrines, a Shinto shrine, just a couple of stops from Shinjuku, where we were staying. Meiji Jingū is a lovely place to visit at any time. It is set in a large, forested park which is very pleasant to wander through and is a completely serene contrast to the hustle and bustle of neon urban Tokyo. There are several JR stops that you can use to reach the shrine. We disembarked at Harajuku, the district where the cool kids hang out, and followed the crowds heading towards the shrine. We arrived at around 11:30 pm and were by no means the first people there. It’s a pleasant stroll from the beautiful wooden Torii at the entrance.
You need to bear in mind that it’s a one-way system as you walk through. You will see traditional lanterns and rows of sake barrels along the way.
Then we stopped at the barrier which had TV screens showing pictures of the crowd as it assembled and the shrine itself. We weren’t too far from the front but were still some way from the shrine. Even though the area was very crowded, everything was typically well-organised and there was a quiet buzz of excitement.
As the new year dawned 108 bells rang out. This is actually a Buddhist (Japan’s other main religion) custom, the number represents 108 temptations and the bell ringing is to reject 108 worldly desires. The bell is actually rung 107 times on the last day of the old year and just once after midnight. The bell rings aren’t uniform in length – some of the bells are rung in quicker succession than others.
We were reasonably close to the front at the Meiji shrine but it still took us around 45 minutes to reach the Naien, the inner area, which contains the shrine buildings. Marshalls were present wielding signs in both Japanese and English and beckoned visitors either to approach, or to ‘wait a short while, please’ before coming forward. This means that smaller groups of visitors were able to visit the shrine and offer prayers without it becoming over-crowded. It was an excellent system, especially as everyone co-operated beautifully.
When it was our turn, it wasn’t really possible to undertake the full Hatsumōde but we threw our coins, bowed, clapped and made our wishes and prayers for the new year. The Meiji shrine is the most famous shrine to visit and apparently attracts over three million visitors in the first three days of each year. A lot of people don’t quite make it to the very front of the queue.
Outside the main temple area there are stalls with refreshments and it’s possible to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere. We then walked back to Yoyogi station, where we knew the platforms were likely to be less crowded than Harajuku, and we hopped onto a very full, but joyous, train on the Yamanote line, just one stop back to Shinjuku. As we arrived back at our hotel, a barrel of sake had been opened in the lobby and we were invited to partake of a cup. We greeted the hotel staff, ‘Akemashita, omedetou gozaimasu!’ – meaning: the new year has dawned, congratulations!
Hatsumōde – Visiting a Temple
Another Japanese new year tradition is visiting a temple within the first three days of the year. Although we had been amongst the first to undertake Hatsumōde at the Meiji shrine the night before, we met up with our friend in Kichijoji. (Also, because we were out at the shrine to see in the new year, we hadn’t found out whether the red or the white team had won Kōhaku, so she was able to update us with this important information.)
Hatsumōde is considered to be a very important part of welcoming the new year and there will be queues at temples. We met quite early and had to queue for around 30 minutes. It was all very organised and the atmosphere lively.
There is a certain ritual that one undertakes when visiting a Shinto shrine. It is absolutely fine for anyone from any religion, or none, to visit a shrine and make an offering. First of all, it is important to purify oneself before entering the shrine. This is called ‘temizu’.
Approach the chozuya, which is a small pavilion which contains a purification font filled with water. There are multiple ladles laid next to the basin. Holding the ladle in your right hand, pour water over your left. Change hands and repeat. Change hands and then pour a little water into your left hand and take it into your mouth. You aren’t supposed to swallow the water but to spit it delicately into the drain.
Then walk up to the shrine itself and make an offering by throwing a coin. The monetary value isn’t important but 5 yen and 50 yen coins are considered to be lucky. Go-en (5 yen) sounds like ‘goen’ which means ‘good luck’ in Japanese.
Then you should bow deeply, from the waist, twice, then clap your hands twice, to show reverence to the kami-sama (the god; kami can also be interpreted as a spirit). Keep your hands together for a silent prayer.
We were delighted to be invited to our friend’s family home to enjoy osechi-ryōri, traditional new year foods.
Traditional New Year Food
New year is a time for feasting and there are some dishes that are particularly associated with celebrations. Much of the food in osechi-ryōri is prepared in advance so that the whole family can eat together rather than spending loads of time in the kitchen.
The quintessential new year food is mochi. These are rice balls made by pounding steamed sticky rice with a big mallet in a large wooden container to achieve a stretchy and slightly sticky consistency. This is then formed into little rice dumplings. They have an unusual texture – very soft and delightfully squidgy. They may be flavoured and/or filled with all sorts of ingredients. Matcha green tea, milk flavouring and azuki bean paste are popular fillings. Sometimes the mochi will have a sesame coating.
Matcha mochi with azuki bean filling is delicious:
Kazunoko is another popular new year dish. It is marinated seasoned herring roe. The roe is yellow in colour and comprises hundreds of eggs all bound together. The texture is surprisingly crunchy and the flavour slightly salty. It is usually marinated overnight in ingredients such as dashi (Japanese stock), soy sauce and sake. We were lucky to enjoy home-made kazunoko marinated in sake lees and it was delicious. The multiple eggs in the roe are symbolic of a large family. The kuzunoko can be served on its own or with other delicious ingredients, in this case, with prawns and a scallop on top of cucumber.
Kobumaki is a piece of kelp seaweed. It will have been simmered for a while to soften and is often presented in the shape of a bow. An alternative serving is a roll of kombu tied with a strip of dried daikon (a white radish); this is called hoshi daikon. Further variations include wrapping the kombu around a piece of meat or fish. The word ‘kombu’ also means ‘joy’ in celebration of a joyous day.
Sushi is not usually part of osechi-ryōri but it is a celebratory food and is often eaten on special occasions. It would be unusual for Japanese families to make their own sushi – they would leave it to the experts and buy some in.
Another Japanese new year tradition is Fukubukuro. When the shops reopen many will offer lucky bags – sealed bags or boxes – containing random merchandise. The value of the goods inside are greater than the price you would normally pay and sometimes you may – by sheer luck – end up with some very cool products. We met up with a dear friend in Nakano Broadway the following day and found a Lucky Box stall. At just 300 Yen we didn’t have high expectations but it was fun seeing what was in the box.