New Year’s - Japan’s biggest holiday of the year

In Japan, New Year’s is considered the most special event and holiday of the year. Most people take time off for a week to ten days from the end of December to early January. Although the Japanese are often considered as very hard-workers, it is the time of the year when everyone is able to relax and many choose to spend their time at home with family. Many people take the opportunity to go on vacation to destinations such as Hawaii as well.

Numerous TV specials are broadcasted around the turn of the year, and one particularly famous one program is NHK’s Kōhaku Utagassen which has been watched since 1951. The program where Japan’s most famous singers split into teams by gender and sing to compete, is broadcasted live on the evening of December 31. At one time viewership was over 80%, but more recently it has fallen to 40.2% just last year. Even so, it is still a popular custom to spend New Year’s Eve watching the program just before ringing in the new year.

On New Year’s Day, there is a custom to see the first sunrise of the year. Many people pray or make wishes to the sun when they see it rise above the horizon for the first time in the year. To do this, people must wake up at around 6am and go to the ocean or a place where the first sight of the sun is visible. There are years when it is not possible due to rain or clouds and not everyone does so, but it is still a New Year’s custom that has remained in the country for many years. Mailing out New Year’s cards to acquaintances to send thanks and good wishes is another tradition, although many are shifting towards the use of emails and social media.

Traditional New Year’s food known as osechi is prepared for the first meal of the year. The dishes which are categorized into iwaizakana, yakizakana, sunomono and nimono include black soybeans kuromame, herring roe kazunoko, broiled fish cake kamaboko, sweet rolled omelette datemaki, red and white vegetables kohaku-namasu and konbu-maki a type of seaweed rolls. The Japanese normally restrain from drinking sake during breakfast or lunch but New Year’s is an exception. People also go to temples or shrines to pray for a peaceful year ahead. The most popular location is Meiji Jingu shrine in Harajuku, Tokyo which is visited by more than 3 million worshippers every year.

New Year’s is also a time for shopping. In recent years, heading in on the first day department stores and shopping facilities open for business has become a seasonal tradition, where many buy a fukubukuro - a bag full of products for a discounted price. The contents of these bags were once typically 50,000 to 100,000 yen worth of apparel sold for just 5,000 to 20,000 yen, but nowadays various types can be found. This year, Ginza’s Matsuya sold six bottles of the luxury wine Romanée-conti fukubukuro for 10.2 million yen and Nihonbashi’s Mitsukoshi offered a fukubukuro for a trip to go horseback riding in the Palace of Versailles garden for over 1.85 million yen.

Last year, department stores and retail facilities struggled with sales due to a decline in overseas tourists and fall in consumption by the wealthy. This New Year’s however, was blessed with fine weather and it seems stores have had a relatively good start to the new year.