New Year (shogatsu or oshgatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan, with New Year celebrations being not so much about partying and fireworks but instead about spending time with one’s family and inviting good fortune for the year ahead. There are numerous customs and traditions that are celebrated over the New Year, all unique to Japanese culture.
Eating soba (Japanese noodles) before midnight on New Years Eve is one of Japan’s most popular New Year’s customs. When soba is made, the dough is stretched out and cut into long thin strips which is believed to promote a long and healthy life. Also, since soba is cut easily, it represents a wish to cut away from the misfortunes of the previous year in order to start a new year afresh.
Mochi (Japanese rice cakes) is made into a special New Year’s decoration called kagami-mochi, formed from two round mochi cakes with a tangerine placed on top. The two rice cakes represent the year being left behind and the new year ahead, and the tangerine represents the continuation of family from one generation to the next. On 11 January, a special ritual takes place called kagami-baraki which literally translates to “opening the mirror” or “breaking the mochi” where the kagami-mochi is pulled apart by hand or hammer then typically cooked and eaten. This same tradition extends to sake, with casks being opened with a hammer and shared to celebrate the New Year.
New Years is a time of symbolic re-birth in Japan, and the viewing the first sunrise of the year, Hatsuhinode, is believed to have special supernatural powers. Crowds often gather on mountaintops or beaches to enjoy good views and pray for health and family well-being in the new year.
The first shrine visit of the year, Hatsumode, is a particularly important New Year custom in Japan where family and relatives pray together for a fortunate year ahead. It can be made at any time during the first few days of January, but it’s also common to make the pilgrimage on New Year’s Eve when the temple’s grand bell is rung repeatedly 108 times to signify the end of the old year and the coming of the new. Some of the most popular shrines and temples organise festivities featuring food vendors, omikuji (fortune telling paper strips) and omamori (lucky charms) to wish for safety, good exam results, love and wealth. In Niseko, there is even a special shrine that only opens on New Years Eve.
New Years is a wonderful time to visit Japan and get involved in the celebrations and experience the local culture of the people.
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