Translated by Lester Somera
From Lucky Bags To Shrine Visits - Enjoy New Year The Japanese Way!
New Year in Japan is celebrated through various events. This article introduces the Japanese customs regarding the New Year, such as performing a shrine visit, eating special dishes, giving gifts, buying lucky bags and more!
Written by Sawada Tomomi
What Is Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year)?
Oshogatsu is the New Year in Japan. It can also refer to the act of welcoming the god of the new year (*1), who provides abundant harvests and protection for families, in January. Thought of as the nation’s oldest national holiday, many time-honored New Year’s traditions still remain in Japan. In Japanese, it’s typical to refer to the first three days of the New Year as “san-ga-ichi,” the first week of the New Year as “matsu-no-uchi,” and to refer to the entire New Year period as “shogatsu” or “oshogatsu.”
*1: The god of the new year, Toshigami-sama, is thought to descend from high mountains to bless each family with a year of fruitful crops and happiness.
How the Japanese Traditionally Spend the New Year
December 31st is called omisoka in Japan. Families spend this day cleaning the house, cooking special food for the New Year, and preparing decorations. The time from New Year’s Eve until the early hours of New Year’s Day is called “toshikoshi,” and it’s traditional for families to eat toshikoshi soba noodles which are auspicious and thought to bring long life.
Oshogatsu is a time for families and relatives to be together. People eat feasts of osechi ryori, visit shrines to wish for luck in the new year and buy department store “lucky bags” stuffed with random assortments of bargain-priced goods. These are only a few of the activities that make oshogatsu enjoyable.
Children look forward to the New Year as well. As a New Year greeting, they receive a present called “otoshidama” (pocket money). Other traditional New Year’s games and activities include kite-flying, battledore and karuta games.
Recommended Activities for Tourists to Japan
Go Visit a Shrine
The first visit to a shrine or temple after the coming of the New Year is called “hatsumode.” While visiting either a shrine or temple is fine, the ways to pay homage to the gods are a little different at each place, so you should prepare before you go.
Your specific prayer doesn’t matter so much, but many people offer thanks for the past year or wish for a successful coming year. Some people also declare goals for the year, and pray for to be able to meet them. After finishing with their prayers, shrine visitors will often write their prayers on little wooden plates called “ema,” and buy “omikuji” paper slips that tell their fortunes. If this piques your interest, you should definitely visit.
Buy a Lucky Bag
Lucky bags ("fukubukuro") are only sold during the New Year’s holiday, and are filled with assortments of bargain-priced items. A bag will contain several items from the store selling them, but the contents are a mystery. If you hit on several items you want, the cost of the lucky bag is cheaper than if you had bought the items all separately, as some lucky bags can be priced at half, an eighth or even a ninth of the original value.
You can buy lucky bags at department stores, fashion outlets and brand boutiques, among others. If you want to get a lucky bag from a popular shop, then you’ll need to line up in front of the store from the early morning. Check the homepages of the specific brands or shops you want to target in order to get their schedules. Recently, even drug stores and home appliance stores have begun to sell various kinds of lucky bags, and at some places you can reserve lucky bags online.
Eat New Year's Food - Osechi Ryori
Prepared at the end of the year, osechi ryori is the special feast which people eat on New Year’s Day. Each individual item packed into the osechi has its own meaning, and the osechi contains a great variety of dishes in an assortment of colors. Originally, Japanese families made osechi at home, but in this day and age, you can buy osechi from plenty of places. There will be rows of osechi ryori dishes at convenient places like supermarket deli corners and department store gourmet sections.
With New Year’s plans at hotels and traditional Japanese inns, you can enjoy genuine osechi ryori. High-class Japanese restaurants prepare osechi ryori menus as well. Many of these meals are served in limited quantities, so you might have to line up. You can also order osechi ryori online to have it delivered to your hotel, and it’s slowly becoming a recent trend for tourists to eat osechi ryori. We recommend this method for people who definitely want to try osechi ryori.
Japan feels completely different during the New Year, with an even more impressive and brilliant vibe. By all means, try to sample everything that the festive Japanese New Year has to offer!