[Updated for 2020]
Happy New Year!
How did you spend your new year’s holidays?
I mostly stayed in Tokyo, so this post will share some tips and recommendations of what to do if you find yourself in the city over the new year’s holiday period!
Make sure to visit a Shinto Shrine!
New Year’s is widely regarded as Japan’s most important holiday. During this time, there are a wide range of Japanese customs and activities to welcome the new year. Hatsumōde (初詣 hatsumōde), the first Shinto shrine visit of the Japanese New Year, is one of these customs. Sometimes, people may visit a Buddhist temple instead, but traditionally, it is the first visit and prayer at a Shinto shrine. There are many shrines and temples around Japan, and almost all of them get crowded in the first few days of the year.
As a foreigner, the fact that the Japanese alternate between Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies can be confusing.
Did you know that Japanese weddings are often held at a Shinto Shrine, whereas funerals are held at Buddhist temples?
(Click here to read more about attending a “Japanese Wedding” in my previous post!)
Zozoji Temple (増上寺）on New Years Day. Almost all shrines and temples will be crowded in the first few days of the new year.
Some shrines even have special midnight cerenonies and events!
Zojoji Temple is one of the temples around Tokyo that celebrates ringing in the new year with a special bell ceremony!
From midnight, a ritual called joya no kane is performed where a large bell is rung 108 times to cleanse us of the 108 earthly desires that cause human suffering. The joya no kane reoresents a purification of the human mind and soul for for the year ahead.
Zojoji Temple starts to get very crowded after 10pm.
There are various food stalls and performances around the temple grouds open until the early hours in the morning.
During the first Shinto shrine visit, wishes for the new year are made, and new omamori (お守り、protective charms or amulets) are bought. Often, the old ones from the year before are returned to the shrine so they can be burned (and be renewed). There are many different types of omamori for visitors to choose from – each protecting against something unique! For example, there are multiple amulets for purposes such as “safe transportation,” “safe childbirth,” “good health” and for “passing exams.” For success with work, I purchased a charm for “勝運” (shou-un; for “winning”). Many charms also have pretty embroidered patterns and cute accessories such as bells. One such omamori I bought was to provide good relationships called “縁結び” (en musubi; to “tie fate together”).
My omamori for "Winning" =D
Cute omamori for having a good relationship or marriage (literally, "tying fate together")!
Enjoy a quiet, peaceful Tokyo City
I really enjoy Tokyo during the End of Year and New Year’s period. During this time, the city gets rather empty and very quiet, as most people take the opportunity to visit home or travel elsewhere. Whereas some people may find it boring that there are not too many major countdown events and many shops and restaurants are closed in Tokyo, I actually appreciate the peacefulness. To me, it is a good time to wind down and relax at home, refreshing oneself for the new year ahead.
View of Tokyo Tower on January 1st, 2019. What a beautiful day and wonderful start to the year!
Make a day trip to a ski resort!
I also made plans to visit Gala Yuzawa and ski in Japan for the first time! I am very new to skiing, so was quite nervous at first, but it was great to experience so much soft powder snow! I had a lot of fun.
Gala Yuzawa ski resort is super convenient and easy to get to from Tokyo. If you purchase the JR Tokyo Wide Pass available to foreigners at a price of 10,000 yen for 3 days of unlimited travel within the Tokyo area, it is very reasonable to access the Gala Yuzawa resort directly via the shinkansen bullet trains! You also get a number of discounts, including for ski rentals and the onsen facilities at Gala Yuzawa resort. Highly recommend it for an easy one-day or multiple day trips!
Wearing all my ski gear and mask, you can hardly recognize me, right? ;)
Final Thoughts: Japanese New Years Food
If you do find yourself in Tokyo over the new year’s holiday, be sure to get involved in the local customs and activities to welcome the new year and take the chance to appreciate the city during one of its quieter seasons! If you happen to get bored of the city with all the shops and restaurants being closed, most ski resorts (and onsen resorts) nearby such as at Gala Yuzawa will certainly be operating and make a fun day trip~
Some other traditional Japanese new years customs include eating Toshikoshi Soba on New Years Eve, and on New Years Day.
"Toshikoshi Soba" (年越しそば）is a unique Japanese tradition where the buckwheat noodles are slurped on New Year's Eve. It is said that this tradition dates back to the Kamakura period over 800 years ago, when a Buddhist temple gave out soba to the poor on New Year's. Nowadays, the Japanese believe that eating soba on New Years Eve will bring good fortune with a long and healthy life. The act of eating soba and biting into the noodles also symbolizes "breaking off the old year"! (Be careful though, as it is also belived that eating soba exactly at midnight or when New Year's bells are ringing is bad luck as you are unable to break away from the previous year properly!)
My first experience having "Toshikoshi Soba" with my family on New Years Eve in Tokyo!
TIP: Try soba from different regions!
Did you know that there are many different ways to make and eat Japanese soba depending on the region it originates from?
In the above photo, I am trying some Shirakawa Soba for the first time!
Shirakawa in Fukushima Prefecture is one of the four most famous soba places in Japan (alongside Shinshu, Izumo, and Morioka).
It is said that the feudal lord Sadanobu Matsudaira encouraged locals to cultivate buckwheat that could withstand the region’s cold weather.
As a result, handmade fresh Shirakawa Soba is firmer to the bite than other sobas. It also features a unique eating method where portions of soba are split into layers of round boxes, and you pair each bite with assorted condiments such as salmon roe, tempura, pickles, or grated radish.
Perfect for "breaking off the old year" and ushering in the new with good fortune and a flavorful range of pleasant surprises!
Example of "Osechi Ryōri" in lacquer boxes. Notice how well packed and colorful the arrangement is!
Personally, I have not yet tried osechi before, and did not have the chance to experience this custom this year. Hopefully next year!!
Wishing everyone a wonderful year ahead full of happiness, fun adventures, good health, and great success.