The Christmas light displays are up, the holiday music is playing, and bakeries are taking cake orders.
All signs say Tokyo’s heading into the festive season with relish, says Annamarie Sasagawa. But what about the more traditional Japanese New Year holiday that’s also just around the corner?
Japan celebrates the imported holiday on the 25th with gusto, albeit with a few twists of its own; never mind Christmas turkey or ham, here the symbolic Christmas food is a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Christmas Eve is the year’s top date night. The enthusiasm with which Japan greets Christmas these days can make you feel a bit sorry for the following week’s holiday, on New Year’s Day, o-shogatsu.
New Year in Japan is a quiet time to spend at home with family. There’s no cake or presents or fried chicken with your sweetie involved, so it’s understandable that Christmas tends to hog the spotlight. Still, Japan has some great New Year traditions of its own. Here’s how to ring in the New Year, Japan-style:
First, stock up your fridge and get some cash from the ATM. Although Tokyo will still have plenty of restaurants and ATMs open between December 31 and January 2, quite a few grocery stores and ATMs do shut down over the holidays. If you live in a more rural area or are planning to travel over New Year, get your food and money before the 31st.
While you’re at the grocery store, pick up some decorative kagami mochi rice cakes and a shimekazari woven rice straw decoration. It’s a New Year tradition to eat grilled mochi and hang a shimekazari on your door for good luck in the New Year.
Next, pop by a stationery store and order some nengajo New Year cards. These are Japan’s version of the Christmas card, and contain basic information about your family (who’s done what in the past year) and a photo. Mail them to all your acquaintances, unless someone you know has had a death in the family this year. Families in mourning don’t get New Year Cards. All nengajo cards are delivered on January 1, a very busy day for Japanese postal workers.
Finally, place an order for some o-sechi ryori food. These New Year platters of traditional foods, which used to be put together by the women of the household before the old year closed, are now often ordered in advance and delivered for the holidays so that nobody has to cook.
Once you’ve got your fridge stocked, your wallet full, your nengajo cards in the mail, your mochi ready to grill and your o-sechi ryori on the table, turn on the TV to NHK.
It’s time for the Kouhaku Red and White Song Battle. This epic musical variety show, first telecast in 1953, pits female (red team) and male (white team) musicians against each other in a melodic and heartfelt battle of the sexes. It takes a very earnest four hours and fifteen minutes for the dust to settle, but once the judge and viewer votes are tallied up the champion team is announced.
You’re almost done your traditional Japanese New Year, but you’ve still got to usher in 2013 with a little religion. You can visit a Buddhist temple at midnight and listen to the temple bell ring 108 times, representing cleansing of the 108 Buddhist sins, and/or pop over to a Shinto shrine for hatsumode, the first visit of the New Year.
In Tokyo, there are no better places to go for hatsumode than the Meiji Shrine (pictured above) near Harajuku, or Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, where you can celebrate the arrival of 2013 with a couple of million other Tokyoites. Strike up a conversation about mochi or the lineup of singers on NHK this year—no one will know you’re not from around these parts!
by Annamarie Sasagawa
(Image: Jingu Shrine hatsumode by Yoshikazu Takada)