Seriously, nothing much happens in Japan on New Years Eve. It is very much like Thanksgiving in the US. Most people enjoy a traditional meal with family, watch the song competition on TV, and go to the shrine to give alms to the gods, get blessed and get their fortune told for the new year.
When the Christmas decorations come down, which they do on December 26 if not sooner, they are replaced with traditional new yer
ars decorations made from bamboo and pine branches. They will only stay until offices open again on January 3, although since many offices do not open until January 7, they may stay until then.
In resudential areas temporary shacks selling new years decorations start appearing just before Christmas. They are usually affiliated with a nearby shrines and the decorations have religious significance. You are supposed to destroy them by burning them at the shrine the year after.
Renewal and reflection
In the old Buddhist tradition you would extinguish the fire in the hearth in the evening, and make a new one in the morning. New year in Japan is a time for renewal and reflection, and preparation is a big part of the celebration. Traditional households turn over the tatami mats, throw away everything old, and celebrate by eating a traditional meal. The reflection extends to companies and stores, which normally are closed over New Year. Everything is closed, including ATMs and convenience stores. Restaurants may be open, but most will be closed.
From Chinese year to calendar year
The Chinese new year used to be the same time of year, but when Japan adjusted the calendar and the calendar year became the official year instead of lunar year during the Meji revolution, the end of the year became the end of the calendar year.
People go visit the shrine at New Years Day, eat soba noodles, and special new years dishes. It is more like Thanksgiving in the US than New Year anywhere else. However, this year is a bit different: It is the last new year of the Heisei era, since the old emperor (and he is really old) steps down in April and hands the throne to his son. There will be several public holidays in May celebrating this. So products with the Japanese year written on them will be excellent souvenirs.
Theme park and shrine celebrations
That there are few to no public celebrations does not mean that there are no celebrations, of course. If you want to join the more than a million who do so at the Meji shrine, that is a special experience, although trains are more crowded than at regular rush hour. There is also a special train from Shinjuku to mt Takao to see the sunrise.
The big celebrations are happening at the theme parks in Japan. There are fireworks at Disneyland, New Years celebrations at Universal City Japan in Osaka, and at many other theme parks and discotheques in Japan.
So what does this mean for travelers with children? With museums closed, public gardens closed, attractions not open, and the most fun thing to do is visiting shrines. There are lots of them, not just the Meji shrine. Many are even more interesting, like the shrine to admiral Togo in Shibuya, the undisputed victor of the biggest fleet battle of the Russo-Japanese War and the only Japanese admiral who has had a Finnish beer named after him. There is also the Yasakuni shrine, which is fascinating whatever you think about its precepts. The Yushukan war museum is open on New Years Day, but there are several days during end of December when it will be closed, so check the website before you go. There is also the Kanda Myojin, one of the grandest shrines in Tokyo.
Japanese shrines are dedicated not to personified gods like the Greek temples, but forces of nature, sometimes personified as emperors. Or admirals. The hatsumode, the visit to the shrine at the first day of the new year, is a great time to see Japanese traditions. And the shrines are not as crowded as you might think.
I have written about holidays in Japan on my blog before, about coping with the Japanese winter, celebrating Christmas in Japan and about the Golden Week holiday. And I covered the Japanese travel year as well as the Japanese travel day. Please check it out if you are planning a trip to Japan with your kids, especially Tokyo or Osaka.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.