The single most important holiday in Japan is undoubtedly Oshogatsu. Rich in religious tradition, Japanese New Year is a time to be thankful the current year ended safely and to invite luck and success for the next. Most Japanese families are on vacation from December 29th until January 3rd and spend that time with family, maybe because there is a lot of preparation required to have an auspicious New Year.
Before the end of the year, Japanese families start early by cleaning their homes to rid ‘bad spirits’ and give nengajo postcards to the post office for delivery later on. Christmas decorations are promptly replaced with Shinto ones on Christmas Day. Ornaments of straw rope called shimekazari are hung above entrances to prevent bad spirits from entering and to invite the Shinto deity Toshigami to bring blessings. Kadomatsu arrangements of pine and bamboo set in pairs serve as temporary housing for the deity during his visit. Kagamimochi rice cakes are displayed inside the home to appease those deities, and Osechiyrouri is prepared with ingredients symbolic of luck and health.
On New Year’s Eve eating toshikoshi soba is said to bridge this year with the next. From midnight and through January 3rd many people visit shrines or temples on hatsumode to pray (Oinori), buy amulets, and read their fortunes with mikuji. Those who are really energetic can get up to see the first new sunrise on January 1st called hatsuhinode too.
Popular shrines and temples will be crawding with people, so if you are adverse to crowds I recommend you check out smaller events off the beaten path. For a good view of hatsuhinode (sunrise) head to the beach, a tall public building, or go on a morning hike. Many places will have events with live music, food stalls, and early public transportation too in expectation of the morning crowds. Japanese New Year is a very unique experience. Why not try for yourself?