Japan officially goes into holiday mood soon! The year-end and New Year, similar to Christmas in the West, is the most important holiday in Japan. This is a time when families reunite over winter meals, and for many the holiday is spent catching up with loved ones. Many Japanese living in cities return to their hometown and cities like Tokyo become relatively quiet. This is the reason why many establishments remain closed!
Tourist attractions, stores, restaurants, banks and many other businesses are closed for one or more days between December 29 and January 3. This can be frustrating as it restricts your shopping and eating choices as well as sightseeing options. No matter which city or town you visit, make sure to triple check the homepage of the store or restaurant on your list.
To give you an idea of some closures:
Sightseeing spots in Tokyo:
Tokyo National Museum: closed from December 26-January 1
Imperial East Gardens : closed from December 28-January 4
Ueno Zoo: closed from December 29-January 1
Itoya in Ginza: closed on January 1-2
Sekaido & Tokyu Hands in Shinjuku: closed on January 1
Pigment in Tennozu Isle: closed from December 27-January 4
Department stores, convenience stores, chain stores like Don Quijote, electronic stores like Yodobashi Camera remain open; however, the opening hours might vary for each. The same applies to branches in major cities but if you go to smaller towns, you’re likely to find most establishments closed. Ryokan (Japanese-style inns) and onsen (hot springs) are open for visitors but again make sure to check the homepage for details. Some drop-by hot springs might limit entry to visitors during this period.
Since many New Year traditions in Japan are connected to Buddhism, temples and shrines are open.
If you already have made plans to visit Japan during the New Year holidays, you are probably second guessing your choice. But don’t worry! There’s plenty to do even if you don’t have friends or family in Japan. Here is how you can truly experience a Japanese New Year.
Joya-no-kane, ringing the temple bell at midnight
Joya-no-kane is a Japanese Buddhist tradition. Families flock to the closest temple and usually ring the bell once. According to Buddhist beliefs, it is customary to ring the bell 108 times as this number corresponds to the number of evil desires that we suffer from on earth. One of the most famous places remains Chion-in in Kyoto where 17 monks ring the bell on New Year’s Eve.
Amazake, a sweet fermented rice drink
Amazake is either provided for free or sold at temples on New Year’s eve. Usually low- or non-alcoholic, hot cups of this creamy, thick drink keep your hands & stomach warm!
Countdown parties & fireworks
If you aren’t the temple-going type, then you can join a countdown party or firework display at amusement parks & leisure facilities.
(The image above is of the countdown fireworks at Nagashima Spa Land in Mie prefecture)
Hatsumode, first shrine visit in the new year
Japanese believe in starting the new year on a positive note by visiting a shrine on Jan 1 which is known as hatsumode. Usually performed within the first three days of the year, several power spots like Meiji Jingu or Nishiarai Daishi Shrine are extremely crowded. You can experience a festive atmosphere with food stalls as well as shops selling good luck charms. Often trains run through the night on Dec 31 and Jan 1 to accommodate this rush. How about starting your new year with a whole lot of positive energy?
Fukubukuro, lucky bag
From January 1 or 2, the fukubukuro will be on sale in almost all stores. Literally lucky bag, each bag is filled with random goods that were left unsold from the previous year. These bags start from as low as 1000 yen. Sometimes bags that cost about 10,000 yen (about USD 100) are filled with goodies worth 50,000 yen or so. The higher the price of your fukubukuro, the more likely you will find expensive items. Popular department and electronic stores have people queuing overnight even to get their hands on more than one fukubukuro. Note that you cannot peak into your bag, so make sure to check sizes if mentioned on the bag. Sometimes, a general list is also provided. Even if the sizes are random, these make for great gifts and often you can see girls exchanging products with each other outside shops! How about a shopping bonanza before heading back home?
Want to do something truly unique for your New Year in Japan?
Visit the Hasedera temple in Nara where its noboriro (staircase corridor) will be beautifully lit up for the New Year. This event is called Kannon Mandoe, literally Kannon 10,000 light ceremony. A serene way to bring in the New Year, don’t you think?
Dates: Dec 31 – Jan 1 (From 19:00 to 5:00 am); Jan 1, 2, 3 (From 17:00 to 20:00)
Address: 731-1 Hase, Sakura-shi, Nara
Hope you’ve had a wonderful year and if you haven’t been to Japan yet hope to see you here in 2018!