New Year's traditions you need to know
Keeping with Japan's little-known reputation for the analogue (hello, fax machines), sending New Year's cards (known as nengajo, 年賀状) is still a thing here – a three billion cards a year kind of thing. Like Christmas or holiday cards in many Western countries, nengajo are postcards sent to friends, family and even businesses to welcome in the new year and ask for everyone’s continued support for the next 365 days. Cards go on sale in mid-October and are available until the first week or so of January, which gives people plenty of time to compile a list of everyone they’ll be sending a card to that year (or who they won’t!).
Although the popularity of ‘digital nengajo’ has risen among the younger generations, families still look forward to the morning of January 1 when that year’s nengajo arrive, neatly bundled, in the mailbox. Whether you just happen to be passing through Japan or are a long-time resident, sending a nengajo or two is an easy and fun way to participate in a piece of Japanese New Year’s culture and express your gratitude to the important people in your life.
Known as toshikoshi soba ('year-crossing soba'), slurping up a bowl of long buckwheat noodles is considered both auspicious and a way of letting go of the past year. Due to soba being easy to chew/cut through while eating, it's seen as symbolic for cutting away the hardships of the past year, while the length of the noodles signify longevity. You better finish your bowl though, as leaving some behind could mean the continuation of bad luck.
As the name implies, you should eat these on December 31, before the old year ends. Many local soba joints sell bowls labelled toshikoshi soba – try some at our soba faves Honmura An or Kanda Matsuya.
Looking to get some luck or energy for the upcoming year? Do as the Japanese do and visit a shrine at midnight (or a temple, if you so please), a practice known as hatsumode. The countdown will come in the form of the joya no kane bell-ringing (see next slide), and you'll see people lining up around the block for hours just to send their first respects or prayers of the year and get their fortune told by buying an omikuji fortune slip.
Larger shrines and famed 'power spots' such as Meiji Jingu see staggering amounts of visitors. If you want to understand how many, go the day before New Year's to see the size of the osaisenbako (offering boxes) placed there for the occasion. Pro tips for those getting in the night queue: wear warm clothes, bring friends and preferably some food and drink to stay warm and merry while you wait, although there will generally be stalls near the queue.
If you don't want to brave the night cold, you can also head to your local shrine a day or two after January 1 – it's still considered hatsumode as long as you go during the first half of January (or the holiday season, depending on how strict you are).
Joya no kane is the traditional bell-ringing ceremony held across Japan on New Year’s Eve. Celebrating the passing of the old year and the beginning of a new one, it sees temple bells rung 108 times, once for each of the worldly desires or anxieties central to Buddhism, starting in the old year and finishing right as the clock strikes midnight. Some temples invite everyone to participate in the ringing, but you’ll usually need to queue up for the pleasure. If you'd like to try swinging the beam to start the year fresh, read on for our picks of ten Tokyo temples where you can be part of the purifying action.
Pulling out an omikuji (a slip of paper with a random fortune written on it) is part of the custom when visiting a temple or shrine in Japan. Said to originate in the practice of drawing lots and used in ancient times to gain divine guidance for decisions like choosing an heir or deciding on government policy, these fortune slips became part of everyday religion in the early days of the Kamakura period (1185-1333).
A standard omikuji contains a poem and short details on what to expect in the near future, but some places of worship have gone far beyond the simple slip, creating small pieces of art that make great collectibles or souvenirs.
Osechi ryori (おせち料理 / 御節料理) is either the stuff of dreams or nightmares, depending on your culinary preferences. A multi-layered bento box filled with exquisite foods, all with their own meaning and function, a full-blown osechi meal takes days to prepare. Unsurprisingly, many have decided to outsource the work to department stores or even convenience stores, where you can reserve your boxes in advance.
The downside of all this lavishness is that you'll never find anything warm in the box: as everything traditionally had to be made before the fact, it needed to be preserved for multiple days as well. Therefore, you'll find lots of pickled, stewed, candied or otherwise pre-cooked items inside the fancy box. More modern touches may include meat dishes or sashimi, but hot food is pretty much absent here. The warming touch may come from a glass of sake, traditionally served with the osechi. In fact, one of our co-workers here in the office sees the contents of the box as a very elaborate selection of drinking snacks.
Getting your hands on a box on the day itself may be difficult, so it's worth scouring fancy department stores before NYE to see if you can find any. Otherwise you can rest easy with the thought that there is a substantial number of young Japanese who actually don't love osechi – it can be a bit of an acquired taste.
Another auspicious food but one that is almost universally loved, mochi (rice cake) in all its forms is a supremely popular dish during the New Year's period. You'll see people with massive hammers pounding mochi – in tune with a helper flipping it over – in shops (such as Arakawa ward's Gekko) and at festivals, while supermarkets, department stores and other outlets will always stock copious amounts of the gooey stuff. Although considered lucky, it ain't lucky for everyone: every year a few (older) people die on New Year's after choking on their mochi. Stay safe, folks. For a festive touch, try zouni, a soup with rice cakes in it, which is often served together with osechi ryori.
Once you've survived eating your fill of osechi and perhaps braving the crush of people at a temple in the middle of the night on January 1, it's time to get into that other important Japanese start-of-year tradition: getting your hands on a fukubukuro, or lucky bag.
What the hell is a lucky bag, you ask? Well, fukubukuro (福袋, fuku means luck, fukuro – conjugated into bukuro – means bag) are sealed bags sold for a set price at shops across the country, from Starbucks to Isetan and Kinokuniya, around New Year's. They contain a variety of goodies from the store's lineup, and usually the contents of the bag would be anywhere from slightly to significantly more expensive if you were to buy each item separately. Be warned, it's a veritable craze, with some stores now opting for online sales – only to alleviate the crush of people.