New Year’s Eve (正月) is Japan’s (日本) most important holiday. It’s one of the only two occasions where the inner area of Tokyo’s (東京) Imperial Palace is open to the public and the emperor and his family make an official appearance before the crowd.
The other time is the emperor’s birthday, the 23rd of December.
Most sites, shops and restaurants in Japan are open all year around, even during this time. Some however, especially museums and castles, are closed from around December 29th to January 4th.
It's all about the shrines and temples
Maybe you’ve heard about the importance of the midnight visits to a nearby shrine or temple and the prayer that goes with it. I find it amazing that the Japanese follow this practice in pure honor of tradition. Normally, you associate prayers with religion but very few Japanese people are actually religious.
These practices have been followed for many generations and that’s why they place such high importance in them.
Now, you don’t necessarily have to participate in the midnight visits. Instead, enjoy some of the popular music programs on television if your accommodation has one. Alternatively, you can attend countdown parties in many bars or clubs, especially in larger cities like Tokyo or Osaka (大阪).
The most important bit takes place on January 1st. This event is called Hatsumode and describes the first visit to a shrine or temple in the New Year.
Here, you’ll have to think about which place to visit. Almost every shrine or temple offers the New Year’s prayer activity, but some are obviously more popular than others. At these, food stands and small shops open up and you can get a festival vibe for the occasion.
The downside is of course, that these ones get swarmed with people. Very important shrines like the Meiji Shrine in Harajuku (原宿), Tokyo, or the Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto (京都) can get over a million visitors during the first days of the year.
So, it’s really up to you what you want to experience. Do you want to be amongst a lot of people, get a look at a popular Hatsumode location but have to possibly stand in line for quite some time? Or do you want to have a quieter time, check out a more secluded shrine or temple and get to do your prayer quicker?
I think both versions have their charm, it also depends on where you are really. If you’re in Tokyo or Kyoto, just about any place might get quite crowded, that’s just the nature of these cities.
Plan ahead during New Year's in Japan
Whatever you go with, you’re sure to have a great time. During New Year’s, bigger cities like Tokyo or Osaka get to their emptiest because many people leave for the countryside to visit their families.
This can be observed in any major city which is why you should plan your trips outside the bigger cities carefully. Hotel prices might rise, and train tickets might get fully booked.
If you think ahead and create a plan, you’re going to be fine.
Anyway, New Year’s in Japan is awesome, and you will enjoy it no matter what.
Takeaway on New Year's in Japan
New Year’s Eve in Japan is an exciting time just like anywhere else. As the country’s most important holiday however, it gets more attention than Christmas, which is the opposite of what most Christian oriented countries focus on.
It’s one of the best times to actively experience and participate in Japanese tradition and culture, and everyone is open to share it with you!
Be sure to always stay respectful and quiet as many Japanese, especially the older generations, care deeply about this annual ritual.
That’s it for this article, thank you very much for reading!
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See you there!