TOKYO, Japan – Japan is definitely one of the most interesting countries a person can visit in a lifetime. A whole lot of culture, mixed in with several cups of technological advancement, a teaspoon of mystique, and a dash of weird – there really is something for any type of visitor. If you’re looking to experiencing something really unique and traditionally Japanese, you should definitely plan to visit during New Year’s.
The Japanese ring in the New Year quite differently compared to most celebrations that happen around the world. Instead of booming sounds and fireworks, Japan welcomes the new year in a solemn manner with bells and families opting to spend time with each other and go to temples to pray and wish for a great year ahead.
Wait for Midnight at the Zōjō-ji Temple, Minato-ku
Nearby the Tokyo Tower is the Zōjō-ji Temple. Founded in the 1300s then moved to its current location during the Edo period, it became the temple of Tokugawa Ieyasu, first shogun of Japan’s last shogunate (feudal military government), and his family. It was heavily damaged during World War II due to air raids. It was later on rebuilt and continues to be a cultural and religious icon in the city.
It is a popular place to go to, especially on New Year’s eve where people can gather, eat street food and traditional Japanese delicacies, watch and join in the rituals being done as the year comes to a close, and stock up on omamori (amulets) while they wait for midnight.
As the huge crowd waits, the bells are rung 108 times to get rid of what Buddhism calls the 108 worldly desires. Once the clock strikes 12, balloons are released by the Tokyo Tower and hoards of people will start making their way slowly towards the main temple.
Lots of Japanese people make it a point to do hatsumōde – the first visit of the year to a Shinto shrine or a temple. Although it is a shinto practice, a lot of Japanese visit Buddhist temples like Zōjō-ji as well.
It can seem quite scary with the gradual uphill climb and stairs making it a perfect recipe for a deadly stampede. However, there is no need to worry. This is Japan, and people are too polite to run or push.
Get Your Fortune Told at The Sensō-ji Temple, Asakusa
Another popular temple in Tokyo is Sensō-ji which can be found in the Asakusa district. It’s also known for being an area where tourists can shop for souvenirs and have some food as well.
People are often drawn to Sensō-ji’s Japanese fortune telling paper strips called omikuji, despite the high probability of getting a bad reading in this particular temple. Be warned – 30 out of the 100 sticks inside the omikuji boxes contain bad fortune. Other temples are said to have a lower bad fortune ratio but people still flock to Sensō-ji since getting a good reading here tends to mean so much more to the people.
Did you get bad news? Don’t worry. You can always use the knowledge you get from Sensō-ji to make informed decisions that will alter your luck!
Make a Wish on New Year’s Day at The Meiji Shrine, Shibuya
The Meiji Shrine is the most popular Shinto shrine in Tokyo and gets about three million visitors doing the hatsumōde on the first few days of the New Year. Dedicated to the dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.
Wash your hands and mouth using water from a small, traditional reservoir. This ritual makes sure that your hands as well as the words that you speak in prayer are clean. Then, make your way towards the main temple. Again, this process will be slow as there will be a huge crowd. There will also be police helping in crowd control.
Once you get in front of the main temple, toss some yen towards the offering box and make your wish. Since there will be a lot of people throwing coins towards the box, the temple usually puts a humongous piece of cloth to catch all stray coins.
After making your wish, bow down twice, clap twice, and bow your head one last time.
‘Meet’ and Greet the Emperor and his Family a Happy New Year
Every 2nd of January, the Imperial Palace is opened to the general public so that they can greet the Emperor and his family.
The royal family will be appearing several times on a veranda at the East Plaza of the Palace and the Emperor would also greet and wish the people a great year ahead.
The Imperial household usually makes five appearances throughout the day at these times: 10:10 am, 11:00 am, 11:50 am, 1:30 pm, and 2:20 pm. Be sure to get to the palace early as the lines are long. The process of getting in is definitely orderly but will take some time due to security checks and the sheer size of the crowd.
Go Crazy While Shopping for Fukubukuros
During the New Year is one of the best times to shop in Japan as it is the season of the famed Fukubukuro or ‘lucky bag’.
Shop owners would often fill bags with random merchandise and sell them off for less than half of its actual value. The catch? You don’t know the actual contents! A lot of tourists and locals hoard fukubukuros not just in clothing and makeup stores but in gadget and appliance shops as well.
For bazaars and fukubukuro hunting, better drop by Shibuya 109 and it’s neighbouring shopping centres as well as the Ameyoko shopping street in Ueno.
If your taste is more on the luxurious side, Ginza is definitely the place to go to. However, like in all the other shopping areas, it is better that you do your shopping before the 31st of December or after the 1st of January as there are a lot of shop closures.
Binge on Traditional New Year Food
The Japanese would usually eat a series of dishes called Osechi-ryōri that are made days prior since cooking used to be taboo during New Year’s. It’s quite hard to find a restaurant that will serve you this particular set on New Year’s day.
However, the traditional Japanese dessert called mochi (sweet, sticky rice cake) is easily available. It is also an ingredient to the popular New Year soup called o-zōni.
A variation of the mochi called the dango (dumpling) is also popular, especially among children. Three, sweet, coloured dumplings are skewered and eaten as a dessert or a snack.
Through the years, sushi and sashimi have also made it to the list of food being served during the start of the year. Even Western food is now considered a fine addition in some households as well.
Are you travelling to Japan for the New Year? Let us know your must-sees in Tokyo in the comments section below!