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CULTURE | Traditions


Article | Eileen

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The countdown to the end of the year is one of most beloved experiences around the world. In Japan, the countdown not only marks the end, but the start of a few traditions related to the New Year’s holiday. Here are some the traditions Japanese people do for their New Year’s holiday.


The Japanese New Year’s holiday is commonly known as Oshogatsu (お正月). Back in the day the whole month of January would be in celebration for the New Year, but nowadays only the first three days are celebrated. The three days are known as Sanga Nichi (三箇日). During these three days many businesses, restaurants, stores, and other establishments are closed. Usually office workers would have December 28th to January 4th off.


What is Hatsumode? It is the first shrine visit of the year. A shrine in Japan has ties to the Shinto religion. However, there are some who visit Buddhist temples instead of Shinto shrines for their first visit of the new year. There is no specific date to pay a visit, but it usually occurs within the first three days of January since many people are off.

On New Year’s Eve, some of the major sites like Meiji Shrine have people lined up hours ahead of time waiting to make their first shrine visit. Meiji Shrine is one of the most visited shrines for the New Year’s holiday. Over 3 million people pay a visit to this place during the Sanga Nichi. If you are one of the people waiting until midnight at the site, then know that 5 minutes before date change they play the Japanese National Anthem and the Shinto priest hits a large drum to clear out any lingering evil spirits before the new year.

Meiji Shrine is so busy that visitors usually have to throw their money into this make shift rift, which is the temporary offering box. It is quite a sight to see when people finish their prayers and fling their money into the designated area.

During your visit, there is a place for you to drop off your old omamori (protective charms) to be burned and purified. The reason for doing this is that after a year of protecting you from evil spirits, the charms then need to be purified by a sacred flame. Then you can pick up a new charm to protect you in the coming year.

After going through everything and now you feel hungry, then head over to the nearby food stall area. Many shrines and temples have an area dedicated to selling festival food. This includes okonomiyaki, takoyaki, yakitori, chocolate banana, and many more.


If you were one of the people waiting at the shrine until midnight for your first visit, then it is time to find a spot to do Hatsuhinode. What is Hatsuhinode? It is watching the first sunrise of the new year. There are plenty of places to watch the sunrise in Tokyo. This includes Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, and Sunshine City. Going to a nearby beach to see the sunrise is another way to experience a Hatsuhinode.


New Year’s in Japan welcomes the beginning of another year as well as amazing sales. The New Year’s season is the equivalent to America’s Black Friday. The difference is that many stores have this thing called Fukubukuro or Lucky Bags. These lucky bags are not limited to retail stores, but expand to even food chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks. Basically, you pay a certain amount for a random bag filled with items totaling more than what you spent. It is a way to clean out inventory and draw more people to their establishment. Not every store does Fukubukuro, but they would have great discounted prices off their merchandise.

So, if you completed your first shrine visit of the year and do not plan on doing Hatsuhinode then head over to one of the famous store chains and line up for lucky bags. Some department stores would have long queue lines and if you really want the Fukubukuro then it is best to be one of the first groups. Remember these lucky bags can be a hit or a miss. You may end up with stuff you do not want. It is a gamble and proves to be a popular trend year after year.


In many English-speaking countries, they say “Happy New Year’s.” In Japan, the greeting is “Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます).” For slang many say “Ake Ome,” which is the shortened version.

When meeting coworkers for the first time in the year it is customary to say the New Year’s greeting as well as “kotoshi yoroshiku onegaishimasu (今年よろしくお願いします),” which translates to “please take care of me this year.”

There is another phrase, but it usually said before the new year. The phrase is “yoi otoshi wo omukae kudasai (良いお年をお迎えください).” Many usually just say “yoi otoshi wo,” instead of the polite version. It basically means “have a happy new year.”


You finished many of your firsts of the year and now you are heading out for January 2nd. The second day of the year is when the Ippan Sanga happens. What is Ippan Sanga? It is an event where the Emperor and Empress as well as the imperial family make general public appearance. At this time the imperial family receive the New Year’s greetings from the public and the Emperor addresses the people with well wishes for the year. It is also one of the few times the public is allowed into the inner palace grounds.

This year there were 5 appearances scheduled for the day. To be guaranteed an opportunity to see the imperial family then you have to make it past the gates by 2pm. There were many who lined up early in the morning to be part of the first batch to see the Emperor at 10 am. Another reason why it is good to arrive early is because there are two security check points you have to go through.

For this event the subway exits closest to the imperial palace will be closed for security purposes. Plus, it helps with the logistics of organizing the queue lines. Over the course of the day over 120,000 people attend the Ippan Sanga. Everyone enters through the main gate known as Nijubashi. As you go through the whole process there will be constant announcements to keep moving and walk slowly. Even if you want to stop and take a photo you have to somehow not impede the flow of traffic.

Once you are in the inner plaza in front of the Chowa Den Hall, you wait there until the imperial family makes their appearance on the balcony. After the speech everyone is funneled out into an area that branches to multiple exits. They have signs stating which exit is closest to what stations. The overall experience for the Ippan Sanga was well worth the lines and wait. It is a special event that most Japanese people have never attended and only seen from their television sets. If you ever have the chance to go then it is a definite recommendation.

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