Once Christmas is over and the presents unwrapped, many people like to take a break away from it all and see in the new year in a new setting. Known as the “Land of the Rising Sun” Japan makes a great choice of destination to see the first sun rise on a new year, not least because this is a country that takes New Year celebrations seriously.

New Years Eve at a small temple in Japan
New Years Eve at a small temple in Japan

For the Japanese, the New Year, or shogatsu, is the most important time of year, with a large amount of tradition and ritual attached to its celebration. With this in mind we have put together a pocket guide to celebrating the New Year in Japan to help travellers understand the unique opportunities and challenges a trip to the country over this period can present.

Japanese New Year Philosophy

The Japanese see the ending of one year and the beginning of the next as representing the end of one era and commencement of another. In the Japanese philosophy the two periods are completely separate and, because of this, no loose ends should be carried over from one to the other. For this reason Japanese put great stock in finishing work and chores in advance of the celebration in order to allow themselves to start the new year afresh without any encumbrances from a time that has past. Japanese people see the New Year as a time to spend with friends and family, and also an important time in their religious calendar.

Japanese New Year Rituals

In Japan the New Year holiday runs from December 25 to January 3rd and many shops, businesses and tourist attractions will remain closed throughout this period. (Editor’s note: convenience stores, hotels and many department stores and restaurants will remain open, so you’re not going to go hungry!).

Buddhist monk at a temple in Kyoto.
Buddhist monk at a temple in Kyoto. These guys get pretty busy around New Year.

In the run up to the New Year, people across Japan will be travelling back to their homes to be with their families, meaning that public transport can be busy and crowded. For this reason visitors heading for Japan over the new year period may wish to consider private car hire to ensure ease of movement and comfort for their party.

Most Japanese will take a trip to a temple in the first few days of January, with the biggest temples attracting large crowds and offering a real party atmosphere. Other traditional activities done with family include kite flying and card games. Cards are sent to mark the New Year.

Japanese New Year Parties

In Japan New Year parties take two forms: the bonenkai parties which are held at the end of the December in order to forget the year and the shinnenkai parties which come in January to celebrate the arrival of the New Year. These parties are formal occasions for acquaintances and colleagues and are usually held at establishments outside the home families hold their own parties in the home.

Japanese New Year Foods

There is a number of traditional foods, which are consumed in Japan over the shogatsu period. Before the night itself most people will eat a dish of buckwheat noodles called toshikoshi soba, which symbolise a long life, while festivities will usually include a sweet sake called otoso and sticky rice soup called ozoni.

This article was contributed by a guest author. The contribue an article, photo or travel, please contact Dean at Japan Travel Mate.