If you’re looking for a unique way to spend New Year’s this year, Tokyo might be the place.
Shogatsu, the New Year, is considered to be the most important holiday in Japan. Most businesses shut down from December 31st – January 3rd while people spend time at home with their family and loved ones. Several noteworthy customs take place over these few days, including the ritual of hatsumode, or the first temple visit of the year.
We decided to skip the party and fireworks this year, and participate in a traditional Japanese New Year.
Check out our video of New Year’s Eve in Tokyo!
December 31st is the ONE night of the year that the trains in Japan run all night long, so it’s easy to enjoy the midnight countdown wherever you are. It’s also a popular tradition in Japan to stay up through the night and watch the first sunrise of the year.
Meiji Shrine is the most popular spot in Tokyo for New Year’s, but we decided to visit Zojoji Temple instead. Not only can you see Tokyo Tower in the background, but you can also join the crowd in releasing wish balloons just before midnight.
At first, Tokyo Tower goes completely dark. Moments before the countdown, sparkling lights slowly start appearing from the bottom of the tower and making their way up the side. The crowd cheers down together, “san…ni…ichi…” and Tokyo Tower flashes with lights and displays the new year. It’s a magical site, especially with the thousands of clear balloons floating into the sky!
Shortly thereafter, the first temple bells begin to ring. A lucky few are able to participate in the ringing of the giant bell – precisely 108 times. This number signifies the belief that there are 108 human sins, which are being relieved with each ring of the bell.
There are hundreds of food stalls lining the temple grounds, selling delicious meats, sizzling soba and hot sake. It’s custom to eat toshikoshi soba around midnight to ward off evil spirits before the New Year!
You can partake in any of the various rituals surrounding the temple. You might notice people burning incense and waving the smoke towards their body and over their heads. I was told this is a self-cleansing ritual practiced commonly on New Year’s. There are also several massive bonfires in which people burn their lucky charms from the previous year. Don’t forget to bring a few lucky 5 yen coins and make a wish for the new year!
If you’re thinking about visiting a Japanese temple for the New Year, below is a list of the most popular spots in each region:
Note: Zojoji’s official website reports that the balloon release has been cancelled for the last several years, but indeed it has not. You do have to arrive before 9pm to receive a balloon, and those with balloons release them together from a designated section of the crowd.