New Year’s Day (元日): A Time for Tradition

Many of us welcome the “bigger and brighter” beginnings that New Year’s Day brings, but there are also many wonderful traditions surrounding this important holiday in Japan. To commemorate this day, we explore a handful of some of the most popular.

Posted by on January 1, 2018 – Life in Japan
New Year’s Day

Japan have commemorated New Year’s Day (元日, ganjitsu) with a public holiday since 1948. It is widely considered to be the most significant holiday in Japan, and is on of the few times of the year that most people will take leave from work. With most businesses being closed between 29th/30th December and 3rd/4th January, it’s the best opportunity for families to reunite and enjoy Japanese traditions together!

In 2018, New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday so the public holiday is observed on Monday 2nd January instead. In Japan, the New Year’s period is referred to as “shogatsu”, and it was celebrated in accordance to the Chinese Lunar Calendar until 1873, when it became aligned with the Gregorian Calendar.

New Year’s Day Traditional Activities

Due to its long-running history, many of the traditions associated with this holiday are connected to Japan’s main religions: Buddhism, Shintoism and Christianity.

A popular way to welcome the New Year is for families to watch the first sunrise of the New Year (初日はつひ, hatsuhinode), or to make the first temple or shrine visit of the year (初詣はつもうで, hatsumode). In both cases, it is common to use this opportunity to pray for prosperity and good fortune. The practice of prayer at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines is slightly different though. When praying at Buddhist temple, you place the palms of your hands together in silent prayer. But at a Shinto shrine, you bow twice, clap your hands twice and then bow again.

Hatsumode is also used to obtain new lucky charms (おみくじ, omikuji), which are often associated with the Chinese zodiac sign for that year. The Chinese zodiac is comprised of 12 animal signs which rotate every; 2017 was the year of the rooster, whilst 2018 is the year of the dog and 2019 will be year of the pig.

These zodiac signs can also be found on the various New Year’s postcards which arrive at people’s doors in time for 1st January. The original intention of the greeting cards, known in Japanese as “nengajo”, was to send regards to distant family and friends, wishing them the best and informing them that you and your family were alive and well. More recently though, they are exchanged in a casual manner as a goodwill gesture. In addition to the zodiac signs, it’s easy to find nengajo with famous cartoon or anime characters like Hello Kitty, Pikachu and Mickey Mouse!

Traditional Food and Presents

In the West, it’s rare for children to receive presents from family at New Year’s, but in Japan children often receive money (otoshidama) from their relatives on New Year’s Day. The amount of money that a child receives is not fixed, it varies based upon how many siblings he/she has, how old he/she is and of course, how much the bestower can afford to give away!

As with all good holidays though, there are also various traditional foods that are shared. One of the most popular foods is “mochi”, a chewy rice cake which can be enjoyed by itself, or is also quite frequently eaten with vegetables in a soup called “zoni”. “Osechi ryori” is a famous traditional meal consisting of multiple tasty dishes presented in a “bento-style”- but much fancier!

What to do in/around Tokyo on New Year’s Day

  • View Hatsuhinode (first sunrise of the year) at Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, Mount Takao or Inubo Hatsuhinode-go (in Chiba).
  • Attend Hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year). The most popular places in Tokyo are probably Meiji-jinju and Senso-ji, but these can get extremely crowded. Visiting a smller local shrine/temple near you would probably be more peaceful!
  • Say “Akemashite omedetou degozaimasu!” (Happy New Year!) to friends and family with a traditional Japanese postcard.
  • Make mochi, or other traditional food.
  • Attend a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This famous piece has been played all over the country around December and January since the early 1900’s.

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