Safe ways to ring in the New Year in Japan

It’s time to say goodbye to another year and welcome a new one. 2022 is almost here and with it the chance to celebrate a new beginning – another journey around the sun to make a fresh start.

The past year saw a muted New Year’s celebration in Japan and across the world. It was right in the middle of the battle against COVID-19, with vaccination programs still in their infancy. Even the Emperor’s annual New Year’s greetings were canceled last year due to the pandemic, appearing via video message instead.

This year things are a little different. Japan’s vaccination rates rank in the top three of all Group of Seven countries, and the COVID-19 numbers appear to be relatively under control. The Emperor and members of the Imperial Family must again appear on a balcony protected by glass for his salvation. The rise of the omicron variant may have cast a shadow over some plans, but there’s a lot to look forward to in the New Year; there is much to celebrate and much to contemplate.

The “new” new year

The New Year in Japan has only been celebrated around midnight on January 1 for about 150 years. In 1873, five years after the start of the Meiji era (1868-1912), the nation switched to the Gregorian calendar. Before that, the date of the Japanese New Year was decided by the lunisolar calendar and, before that, by the lunar calendar (like the Chinese New Year). The lunisolar koshōgatsu (“Little new year”) is still celebrated to some extent.

But January 1 became the official New Year’s Day, and with it most of the cultural events surrounding the New Year also moved, with celebrations lasting three days. Before shogatsu (Japanese New Year) officially begins, the last day of the year is marked with misoka (New Year’s Eve).

On December 31, major errands are made and details are settled, unpaid debts are paid, homes are cleaned and baths taken. The town of Oji, in the Kita district of Tokyo, generally holds its kitsune no gyōretsu (fox procession) that day, but it’s one of many in-person events canceled due to the pandemic.

The first day of the New Year is the time for many important firsts: hatsudayori (the first letter exchanged), kakizome (first calligraphy) and hatsuyume (first dream). Whether it’s your first or 50th year in Japan, there are plenty of ways to say goodbye to 2021 and welcome you early in 2022.

Watch the events from home

The New Year doesn’t have to be about nightlife and dancing until dawn. In fact, most people spend the holidays at home: Japanese New Year is a more family-friendly event, similar to Christmas by Western standards.

Since 1951, NHK has been providing home entertainment for New Years Eve in the form of “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (“Red and White Singing Battle”). The four-hour live singing competition airs simultaneously on TV and radio between 7 p.m. and 11:45 p.m. and features the year’s most popular singers divided into teams – red (male) and white (female) – who compete to win the votes of the judges. and the public. The theme for this year’s 72nd edition is “Colorful,” with the aim of adding a much-needed splash of color to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

For something a little more sophisticated, surf the channels for the Tokyu Silvester concert. This classic performance by the Tokyo Philharmonic counts down to the New Year with a selection of memorable pieces – this year including the “Star Wars” theme by Liszt, Rachmaninoff and John Williams – and is broadcast live on all six channels of the Bunkamura concert hall in Shibuya. . The public can attend the concert and subsequent performances during the first days of January.

A bowl of soba noodles is traditionally eaten before midnight on New Years Eve. GETTY IMAGES

Taste traditional treats

What kind of celebration would it be without good food and a drink (or two) of something festive? New Years in Japan has a long list of culinary traditions attached to it, which means if you haven’t stocked up on Christmas goodies, there are plenty of traditional delicacies you have the chance to try. The holiday is marked by a selection of dishes collectively called osechi-ryōri, many of which are homophonically or visually attributed to good fortune.

First, there is the bowl of toshi koshi soba (passing of the year noodles), an extra long noodle eaten before midnight on New Years Eve for long life and good health for the coming year. The noodles are eaten with tsuyu (broth) and a dispersion of spring onions; accompanying tempura, especially large ebi (shrimp), is also popular. You can make this delight yourself, but the supermarkets on New Years Eve will be filled with variety – and filled with shoppers stocking up as well.

There is a long list of other osechi dishes which vary from region to region. These usually include dates – rolled omelet with hanpen (fish cakes) – tazukuri (dried sardines cooked in soy sauce) for a bountiful harvest and kuromame (simmered black beans) for the health of the coming year.

And then there is ozoni. Thought to date back to the Muromachi period (1392-1573), it is one of the most ubiquitous components of New Year’s celebrations across the country. The cloudy dashi the soup contains a combination depending on the location of mochi (rice cake), chicken and a variety of vegetables.

Remember to wash it off with a sip of Also: spicy sake of a mixture comprising dried ginger, sanshō (Japanese pepper) and cinnamon. It symbolically relieves any sickness of the previous year and grants long life to come.

Visit a local monument

In cities across Japan, local landmarks are focal points for celebrating the New Year. Shibuya’s race to get through the New Year’s countdown has drawn more than 100,000 crowds since 2016, but was called off last year due to the pandemic. It remains to be seen how many of those big celebrations have been put on hold again this year, but there are still places to go out and see a glow of New Year’s celebrations where you live.

In Kasai Rinkai Park in Tokyo’s Edogawa district, the city’s second largest park is open all night for New Year’s Eve celebrations. Events center around the 117-meter-high Diamond and Flowers Ferris Wheel, which offers views of awe-inspiring Tokyo landmarks such as the Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Tower, and the Tokyo Skytree. Expect live musical performances as the clock strikes 12.

Aside from the specific New Year’s events, there are also the seasonal illuminations which always brighten up urban areas and are a more private and secure way to see the lights coming in the New Year. Yokohama Milalight, for example, saw around 500,000 LEDs light up the city until February 13.

Visitors Offer Prayers on the First Day of the New Year at Kanda Myojin Shrine in Tokyo in 2021. |  REUTERS
Visitors Offer Prayers on the First Day of the New Year at Kanda Myojin Shrine in Tokyo in 2021. | REUTERS

Visit a local temple or shrine

At midnight, many people in Japan go to a shrine or temple to pray hatsumōde, the first such visit of the year. Buddhist temples start the year with joya no kane – ring the bonshō (large Buddhist temple bell) 108 times to symbolize the 108 sins of the world.

Sacred spaces see queues of visitors waiting to pray, so it may be a good idea to avoid making a trip to particularly popular hatsumōde hot spots. Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in Chiba, Meiji Jingu and Senso-ji Shrine in Tokyo, Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka, and Zeko-ji in Nagano all see millions walk through their doors throughout the three-day New Years period. .

One of the best ways to experience this tradition is to keep it local and visit a neighborhood shrine or temple. Many of these small venues are busy but not overcrowded, hosting groups of families, friends, and couples alongside a handful of food stalls. Last year, even in the smallest sanctuaries, coronavirus measures were in place, such as disinfection stations at sanctuary entrances and social distancing.

During the visit, take a moment to pray for the good fortune of the coming year (read: pray that there is no more COVID-19, please).

People watch the first sunrise of the year from the Odaiba district of Tokyo.  |  GETTY IMAGES
People watch the first sunrise of the year from the Odaiba district of Tokyo. | GETTY IMAGES

Watch the first sunrise of the year

Just like the first sanctuary visit of the year, hatsuhinode (first sunrise) is also part of the traditional New Year celebrations. Japan’s relationship with the rising sun is woven into its identity; The name of the nation itself, Nihon (or Nippon), means “origin of the sun” and it was once believed that the emperor himself was related to the Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu.

Watching the sun rise in a New Year is a particularly poetic way to start 2022, whether you’ve been partying the night away or you’re an early riser keen to see the dawn. Spots for sunrise events can be found all over the country, but it should be noted that Mount Takao, Choshi Hill Observatory in Chiba, and Osanbashi in Yokohama are all popular destinations. Special viewing sites are also opening for the event, including the Sunshine 60 and Tokyo Tower observation decks.

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