New Year was always a time for celebration when I was growing up in Scotland. We would invite not just family members, but also neighbours and friends round to our house for a big party with food and drinks a plenty and perhaps even the odd song or two once the whiskey had kicked in!
Yet in Japan, until recently I always found New Years here to be sedate, sometimes somber and frankly boring! However, as time goes on and I assimilate myself more and more into the culture and people of this great nation, I have come to discover that New Year here is anything but boring. It's a fun, cultural, and exciting time of the year.
So as we move through the early stages of 2017 and reflect on the utter car crash of a year that was 2017, here are some suggestions of what you can do to celebrate your next New Year in Japan.
1. Watch a Japanese TV Marathon (But Try Not to Laugh!)
A few years ago an American friend of mine–whose level of Japanese was far higher than mine–introduced me to one of the strangest New Year TV events I have ever seen. Every year, the comedy troupe known as “Downtown” performed the same show, with hilarious results.
The basic premise, like most Japanese comedy, is very simple and with a strong emphasis on visual humour.
Basically, our heroes are put through a series of increasingly ridiculous challenges, with the sole objective being not to laugh. Any laughter, and a masked figure will emerge from the background and proceed to beat the hapless victim with some kind of oversized comedy foam baton.
If you’ve never really tried to get into Japanese comedy before, then this annual extravaganza, which lasts more than 5 hours, is a pretty good acid test as to whether or not Japanese comedy is for you. Either way, it’s definitely a uniquely Japanese way to spend New Year’s Eve.
2. Enjoy the First Sunrise of the New Year
This is something of a tradition here in Japan that many of my friends follow almost religiously. It’s known as Hatsuhinode. Wherever you are in Japan, try to find a high vantage point and then sit back and enjoy as the first sunrise of the new year makes its way gently over the mountains in the east.
In Osaka, there is a bridge called the Namihama Ohashi, which connects Taisho Ward and Minato Ward, where I live. This bridge goes about 100 meters or so about sea level and offers stunning panoramic views of the entire city. More importantly, it also offers sweeping views of the mountains and rolling hills of Wakayama off to the east. For a short, glorious moment, those peaks appear to be on fire as the first rays of the morning sun crack through the sky and over the city. A truly stunning sight to behold.
Other parts of Japan also have famously designated areas from which to view the first sunrise of the year.
In Tokyo, the Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku, the tallest building in the city prior to the opening of the Tokyo Sky Tree in 2013, usually has some kind of special event on the early morning of January 1st from which to view the sunrise. It is probably best to check the listings in your local area to see which locations are having such events.
Of course if you live in a rural area then perhaps simply heading up into the hills nearby would also be an equally viable idea.
3. Visit a Temple
If you are married to a Japanese or if you have some really close Japanese friends, then you will probably be invited to go to a temple with their extended family shortly after the beginning of the new year. Some people go directly after midnight, hence the reason why the trains run throughout the night in the early hours of January 1st, others opt to go the next morning.
Another important point to remember when visiting these temples is that there are different areas within the temple where one can pray for specific wishes. For example, couples who are hoping to marry, go to a specific place to offer a prayer and seek a blessing. The same goes for those who are ill, have suffered a recent bereavement or are planning on having kids someday.
It’s also a good idea to buy some “osenko” (insense) which you can burn in one of the large burners outside the main temple. The smoke produced from these burners is said to have healing properties. So for example if you have an injured hand, be sure to draw the smoke towards that injury, to promote healing (of course, try not to burn yourself in the process).
At the temple shop, you can also buy charms and fortune readings. Again these can be tailored to your specific needs, i.e. to promote fertility, help with relationships, health or work and financial success.
Also, remember to donate a few coins to the main “kami” (idol) in the temple. I don’t think the Gods are looking for bribes, but as they say, every little helps!
4. Enjoy New Year Food and Drinks, Japanese Style!
Traditional Japanese New Year cuisine is known as Osechi Ryori. Typically it consists of soba noodles, which can be prepared in a variety of ways. Accompanying this you will find traditional Japanese sake which, depending on the region of Japan you are in, may or may not be served hot. Overall, a heartwarming meal to welcome in the New Year and dispel the winter cold.
As you can see, there’s no shortage of things to see and do in Japan at New Year. So the next time somebody tells you that New Year in Japan is boring, why not send them over here for a read!