In Japan, celebrating the New Year, known as Shōgatsu (正月), is generally considered to be the most important holiday of the year. Many of the traditional Japanese new year celebrations span as far back as ancient times, when the holiday was still celebrated on the lunar new year, following the Chinese/ Vietnamese/ Korean Lunar calendar. However, in 1873, Japan switched to the more Westernized Gregorian calendar, thus New Year’s Day was moved to January 1st instead of sometime in early Spring.
January 1st, New Year's Day, is considered to be incredibly auspicious in Japanese culture and is intended to be full of relaxation, thankfulness, and anticipation for the year to come. In Japan, each year is thought to be completely separate from the last. Because of this, it is important to have all crucial matters settled by New Year's Day.
Each December, many Japanese citizens participate in a cleaning ritual known as oosouji (大掃除). This tradition is intended to symbolically (and literally) wash away the previous year in order to start anew in the coming year.
In larger cities, like Tokyo, there are grand countdown events, like the famous annual Times Square ball drop in New York City, although many citizens opt to spend the holiday at home with loved ones.
There are many different ways to celebrate the New Year in Japan. For most of the month of December, large cities and some homes are decorated extensively with Christmas lights. However, come December 26th, those decorations are quickly swapped for their New Year’s counterparts.
It is quite common to see entrances of homes decorated with plum blossoms (ume; 梅). These flowering trees (not to be confused with cherry blossom) are a symbol of fortune in Japan and start to grow buds around the time of the new year. In a few months, these will be some of the first flowers to blossom during the time of the spring equinox in Japan.
As for cuisine, it is customary for specific celebratory foods to be eaten for both New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. On New Year's Eve, it is customary to eat toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles). On the other hand, on New Year's Day, one traditionally enjoys ozoni (Japanese New Year mochi soup) and osechi-ryōri, an assortment of celebratory dishes served in bento box style trays. These specific dishes are supposed to bring you good health and fortune in the coming year, as the Japanese believe that eating long skinny noodles will help you live a long and healthy life.
On New Year’s morning, one of the first celebratory traditions is watching the first sunrise in a tradition known as Hatsuhinode (初日の出), which is meant to greet the year that has just begun. After welcoming the sunrise, many people choose to pay a visit to their local shrine in a tradition known as Hatsumode (初詣). In Tokyo, the Meiji temple sees millions of people visit from January 1st to January 3rd. In the western regions of Japan, it is routine to celebrate the morning with medicinal sake, also called toso (屠蘇). This sake is loaded with herbs and spices, which are believed to wash away any ill will from the past year.
Another fun New Year’s tradition in Japan are the Fukubukuro bags (福袋), also known as “lucky bags” or “bargain bags”. These treats can be found all over Japanese markets on New Year’s Day, as it is one of the best times of the year for holiday savings. Fukubukuro are bags filled with fun mystery items and are always sold at very low prices.
For children in Japan, Otoshidama (お年玉) may be the best part of the New Year's celebrations. During this tradition, it is customary for adults to give children small envelopes filled with money. The envelopes, traditionally called pochi-bukuro, are usually decorated with fun and whimsical imagery, such as a maneki neko or other meaningful symbols of Japan.
Finally, one of the most iconic New Year’s traditions is the making of mochi (もち; rice cakes). Mochi is one of the most easily identifiable foods from Japan that can even be found in Western food stores, where they are typically filled with ice cream. Making mochi is an extremely laborious process, thus most of these special treats are now made by machines. But, during New Year’s, it is a common tradition to make these special treats by hand. On the days leading up to the celebrations, it is customary to see large batches of mochi being made in homes and businesses alike.
Ringing in the New Year with traditional foods, decorations, and celebrations brings joy to the Japanese people, much like other cultures around the world who celebrate the New Year in a similarly exciting fashion.