Sunday, January 3, 2021

Ringing in the New Year in Japan

 -- Susan, every other Sunday


(Happy New Year!)

This year, my post here at MIE falls within the traditional Japanese three-day New Year celebratory period, so I thought I'd take this chance to share a few Japanese New Year traditions.

Japan follows the Chinese Zodiac system of animal years, using the Western calendar--meaning that here in Japan, the Year of the Ox officially began on January 1. Japan has a number of important New Year traditions and ceremonies, some based on indigenous Shintō observances and others borrowed from China (and elsewhere). While this post would be way too long if I tried to explain them all, here are a few of the most important:

New Year Decorations. Pine branches, either alone or arranged with green bamboo, are often displayed outside homes and businesses in the days leading up to the new year. These Shintō decorations, known as kadomatsu, are designed to provide a welcoming place for the deities who protect the home or business to reside through the New Year celebrations.

Shintō wreaths, or shimekazari, are often also hung outside homes and businesses.

My 2021 shimekazari

Joya-no-kane, or bell-ringing, is practiced at Buddhist temples on New Year's Eve. The massive temple bells are rung 108 times, to free listeners from the 108 worldly desires that stand between people and enlightenment, according to Buddhist beliefs. 

A buddhist temple bell, of the type rung for joya-no-kane

In many places, the ringing is carefully timed so that the bell tolls for the 108th time at 11:59 p.m., so that listeners can enter the new year unencumbered.  Given the nature of 2020, many Japanese temples limited the number of attendees who could come for joya-no-kane, so although I did go out at midnight to welcome 2019 I opted to stay home this year, so as not to take a space from a practicing Buddhist.

Welcoming 2020 at midnight last December. Little did we know...

The following morning, many people get up early for Hatsuhinode (first sunrise), because watching the sun rise on the first day of the new year is believed to bring good luck and good health for the year to come.

Sunrise atop Mt. Fuji. NOT on New Year, but lucky in its own way.

I didn't get up deliberately this year, but did happen to wake up just as the sun was rising, which struck me as pretty good luck in and of itself!

Once the sun is up, many people head to a Shintō shrine for Hatsumode - the first shrine visit of the year. Typically performed between January 1 and January 3, this is one of the most important Shintō observances; during this visit, people pray for health and good fortune in the year to come, and often acquire a hamaya, or demon-breaking arrow, which hangs in the house to protect the family all year.

Hatsumode at Kasuga Shrine in Nara,  January 1, 2020

As you can see from the photo above, hatsumode is usually quite crowded, especially at major shrines on New Year's day. In 2020, I waited for over 90 minutes to pay respects at Kasuga Shrine in Nara (one of Japan's most important Shintō shrines). The festivities are much more subdued in 2021, with social distancing in place and some shrines limiting the number of people who can visit at one time.

Along with hatsumode, many people also visit Buddhist temples dedicated to the shichifukujin, or seven gods of good fortune, to pray for prosperity, health, and luck in the year to come.

The seven gods of good fortune.

As with many cultures, food also plays a major role in Japanese New Year celebrations. People eat a variety of traditional foods, many of which have names that are homonyms for New Year wishes (like "prosperity," "good health" or "good fortune") or which have traditional connections to the New Year. The overarching term for New Year foods in Japan is Osechi ryori, and specialty shops often deliver pre-made Osechi boxes that look a lot like bento:

Traditional Osechi Ryori (photo from public domain source)

For those of us who can't eat fish, or don't want to go to all the trouble of full Osechi meals, it's also considered important to eat long noodles--usually soba, but any noodles will do--to symbolize long life. This year, I opted for black vinegar ramen:

Black Vinegar Ramen on January 1, 2021

In addition to the many Japanese New Year traditions, I have one of my own, which I began in 2018, during my 100 Summits year: every year, I climb a mountain on New Year's Eve, to send the old year out with gratitude for my physical health, and to express my hope that I will be able to continue climbing and hiking throughout the year to come. This year, for the first time, my son asked to join me, so we made the climb together.

With my son on the summit of Mt. Kintoki, 12/31/2020

While some of these traditions required modification to meet the special needs of 2020, it was comforting to see the traditions carried out around Tokyo this year, and to know that life continues in its cycle, and the new year comes, despite the difficulties we have all endured.

From my home to yours, I wish you a happy, healthy, and joyous 2021. 

Now, tell me: how did you celebrate the arrival of this new year?


  1. As I have mentioned before, I once welcomed New Year in Sapporo - a wonderful experience. However, since I was staying with gaijin, I missed out on some of the activities you describe. This year I actually made it to midnight with a few safe friends. Happy New Year. Here's to many more mountains. Cheers.

    1. And I forgot to mention the mandatory watching of Dinner for One (alternatively The 90th Birthday), which you can enjoy at

  2. I have several NYE traditions that all involve staying at home. Something special to eat, at least one stupid movie to watch and staying up to listen to Big Ben chiming in midnight :) Occasionally I'll swap out the movie for a really good book. Do I know how to live the high life or what? :D

  3. Oh, susan, what I should have done was call you when it was morning in Tokyo and midnight in NYC. What a missed opportunity. My recent habit has been to welcome the new year in my place in Florence. This year, though, I followed the Italian tradition followed wherever I happen to be: enjoying a delicious dinner of cottechino and lentils--the good luck meal to bring health and prosperity for the New Year. It was delicious. Which I pray 2021 will be for you, for me, and for all our MIE friends.

  4. Darling Susan, I did whatever my bride told me to do. Plus, of course, the dishes.

    You look terrific, and so happy to see you spent time with your person. Who knows when that sort of similar joyful opportunity will reach us in the US. Stay safe and Happy New Year. J&B