Japan celebrates the transition to the new year on January 1st since late 19th century. But Japanese culture traditions differs from Westerners on several points.
New Year (shogatsu or oshogatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan. Most businesses shut down from January 1 to January 3, and families typically gather to spend the days together.
The tradition is to send greetings by mail via cards. In Japan, according to the tradition, they must arrive on the morning of January 1st (Japan Post ensures that this is the case). Japanese people send and receive dozens of them.
Homes and entrance gates are decorated with ornaments made of pine, bamboo and plum trees, and clothes and houses are cleaned.
On New Year’s eve, toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles), symbolizing longevity, are served. A more recent custom is watching the music show “kohaku uta gassen”, a highly popular television program featuring many of Japan’s most famous J-pop and enka singers in spectacular performances.
Around midnight, Japanese people go to the (Buddhist) temple or (Shinto) shrine for hatsumode, the first visit to the temple. They pray by ringing bells. Temples and shrines are crowded and you have to queue, sometimes for several hours.
On January 1st, the Japanese get up early to watch the first sunrise of the year, called hatsuhinode. They drink the first sake of the year at 9am, with a very generous breakfast. Then they return to the temple to get predictions of good fortune ( omikuji). According to tradition, they can also fly kites.
Various kinds of special dishes are served during shogatsu. They include osechi ryori, otoso (sweetened rice wine) and ozoni (a soup with mochi).
On January 2nd, the Emperor of Japan presents his greetings to visitors of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. This is one of the only two days of the year when it is possible to enter the palace, along with the anniversary of the Emperor on December 23rd. The crowd is very dense and the imperial family welcomes the public several times during the day, from a balcony protected by glass.
Happy New Year everyone!