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Japan prepares for unique New Year tradition

December 29, 2021

After another difficult year overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, people across Japan are looking forward to the familiarity of traditional "shogatsu" celebrations.

Fukubukuro lucky bags are displayed at a shopping mall in Higashikurume, Tokyo
Most Japanese are looking forward to welcoming 2022 after the pandemic-marred 2021Image: Yosuke Kihira/Yomiuri Shimbun/AP/picture alliance

Just as it has been for millions of Japanese people, 2021 has been an extremely testing year for Kanako Hosomura. Hopes earlier in the year that the coronavirus pandemic would soon be over have been dashed. Her plans for an overseas summer holiday were put on hold, and there has been concern over her husband's income and job security. Now they must ensure that the entire family remains vigilant against COVID's omicron variant.

But Hosomura is still looking forward to welcoming 2022.

"I want to take long walks in the parks near my parents' home, go to restaurants, play with my son and catch up with my parents," she told DW.

"We are luckier than most people as I will be able to take a week off, but I really do need to recharge my batteries after a difficult 2021," she said. "Not having to worry about things for a few days will, I hope, prepare me for what is coming next year."

Important holidays

Along with Obon in August, New Year is the most important holiday period on the Japanese calendar.

Typically, people who have moved to the cities for work or their studies travel back to their hometowns to spend the vacation with their families and catch up with old friends. Companies have already started winding down their operations, and most will not reopen until the middle of next week.

For most Japanese, the holidays will follow a familiar pattern of traditional meals, visits to the local temple to pray for health and good fortune in the year ahead, and long-running television shows.

New Year celebrations in Japan are incomplete without people enjoying locally made wines
New Year celebrations in Japan are incomplete without locally made winesImage: Julian Ryall/DW

The final trip to the supermarket typically takes place on the morning of New Year's Eve, as many shops will be closed over the holidays, before many families settle down to The Red and White Song Battle aired by national broadcaster NHK.

This New Year's Eve staple has been running since 1945 and pits the nation's top female singers — the red team — against their male counterparts, in white.

As the clocks tick toward midnight, residents of villages and towns across Japan will brave the cold to head to their local shrine, where they will stand in line to approach the steps leading up to the community's place of worship, pull on a rope to sound a gong — a necessary move, to ensure the gods are awake and listening — and bow their heads to make a short prayer for the year to come.

In a tradition that has largely been lost amid the tower blocks of the cities, neighbors keep warm around blazing braziers and share mugs of steaming "amazake" rice wine.

Bronze bells echo

At midnight, the huge bronze bells of countless temples can be heard echoing across the nation's darkened countryside.

Another tradition for many Japanese is to get up early to see the first sunrise of the New Year, with beaches or locations overlooking the iconic Mount Fuji always being popular spots.

Lunch on New Year's Day is often "osechi-ryori," a selection of small dishes that are sweet or dried and can be kept without refrigeration. Typically prepared in advance of the holiday or, more commonly now, purchased in advance, they mean that housewives do not have to prepare meals on the day and can also have time off.

The most popular "osechi-ryori" dishes include "kuromame" simmered black soybeans, herring roe, dried sardines in a sweet soy sauce, burdock, "kamaboko" pink-and-white seafood paste and mashed chestnut and sweet potatoes.

New Year cards will be delivered at some point during the day, most this year bearing designs featuring a tiger, as 2022 is the year of the tiger, according to the traditional Chinese zodiac.

Families will return to nearby temples over the coming days, with long lines forming at some of the most auspicious temples. Stalls will line the roads and paths close to the temple, selling food such as "yaki soba" noodles or "yakitori" chicken on skewers.

Within the grounds of the temples, there is also a busy trade in wooden trinkets that will bring luck in the year ahead, such as "hamaya" arrows and "ema," or small boards that people write a wish on and then tie to a rack.

Prayers are once more said before the offerings box, where the sound of falling coins is almost constant.

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"Going to the temple is always my favorite part of the holidays," said Mitsue Nagasaku, an office worker who lives in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo. "I always find it refreshing to be outside on a cold winter day and to see friends and family at the temple. Some of these people we only see once or twice a year, so it is important to see and speak with them again."

Old gifts, new gifts

"Every year we bring back the lucky gifts we brought the year before and, for my children, the best part is the tradition of throwing the old ones onto the bonfire and buying new gifts for the year ahead," she told DW.

In years gone by, people would flock to the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo to see the emperor, empress and other members of the monarchy appear on a balcony and wave to the crowds, although that tradition has been put on hold due to the pandemic.

One final New Year event that is a must-see for many Japanese is the annual Hakone Ekiden, a fiercely contested race between runners representing 20 universities from across the country. The race starts in the Otemachi district of central Tokyo, with a team of five relay runners wending their way 107.5 kilometers (66.8 miles) to the town of Hakone, overlooked by a snow-capped Mount Fuji.

On the following day, the runners retrace the route back to central Tokyo — with the conclusion of the race effectively a signal to the nation to steel itself for the year ahead.

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea