Did you know that there are a variety of activities in Japan that you can participate in to mark the momentous occasion of the new year coming in? Other than letting your hair down during countdown parties or reflecting on the past year and making New Year’s resolutions, why not welcome the year the Japanese way by viewing the hatsuhinode (初日の出) i.e. first sunrise of the year?
The custom of watching the first sunrise of the year was said to have begun ages ago but the practice only became popular from the Meiji era. In the past, there was a shihouhai (四方拝) i.e. Prayer to the Four Quarters ceremony, wherein prayers were offered to gods of the four cardinal points and the ancestors, which was held on New Year’s Day at the Imperial Palace. This practice subsequently spread to the commoners, thus leading to the development of the hatsuhinode-viewing custom of today.
Viewing the hatsuhinode is a symbolic move of welcoming the toshigami-sama (歳神様) who governs the growth of crops and harvest into the household. Besides offering thanks for the year that had just ended, this will also ensure that the people living there will have enough to eat, a bountiful harvest, and good fortune and health in the coming year ahead.
You may have heard of another term, “goraikou (ご来光),” which actually has the same meaning as hatsuhinode. However, as compared to hatsuhinode which represents welcoming the toshigami-sama at places like beaches, observatory towers, tall buildings, or rooftops, the word “goraikou” actually has to do with Amida Nyorai (阿弥陀如来) i.e. Amitabha Tathagata in Buddhism. When someone stands on the top of a tall mountain with his back facing the sun, the mist in front of the person makes his shadow appear bigger than it really is and a ring of light is formed around the person. As such, this phenomenon is similar to how the Amida Nyorai appears and refers to watching the hatsuhinode on the top of mountains.
Depending on where you are, the sunrise timings will differ based on the longitude and latitude coordinates of your location. The timings generally are about the same every year, but whether you will be able to see the hatsuhinode will be affected by weather conditions. The map above shows the estimated sunrise timings for various locations in Japan so you can refer to this as a general guide and confirm the exact time for your location just before New Year’s Day.
In Japan, the first place where the hatsuhinode can be observed at 5:27 am is on an uninhabited island named Minami Torishima (南鳥島) which is 1,800 kilometers away from Honshu. Of course, it will be almost impossible to get there so you can consider going to Hahajima (母島), which is the second largest island of the Ogasawara Islands (小笠原諸島) where you can catch the first ray of sunshine at 6:20 am. If you are prepared to make the climb to the peak of Mt. Fuji (富士山), you will be able to observe the goraikou at 6:42 am.
Generally, your chances of observing the hatsuhinode will be higher if you are at places along the Pacific Ocean coastline because the weather over on the side of the Japan Sea tends to be cloudy, rainy, or snowy on New Year’s Day. As such, it is recommended that you check the weather forecast in advance before heading out in order not to make a wasted trip. Last but not least, as temperatures will be low in the night and early morning, you should ensure that you are kept warm while outdoors.
Given that there are so many places where you can head to for the hatsuhinode-viewing, how about considering these 5 locations to enhance your experience during the following years to come?
1. Taking the Inubo Hatsuhinode-go express train to Cape Inubo
If you are in Tokyo (東京) or somewhere in Chiba Prefecture (千葉県), how about taking the Inubo Hatsuhinode-go (犬吠初日の出号) express train to Cape Inubo (犬吠埼) in Choshi City (銚子市)? Here, you can see the first sunshine at the earliest time on mainland Japan.
There are usually three trains for this special New Year Day’s service and here are the 2017 details which you can use as a reference:
- No. 1 – Starts from Takao Station (高尾駅) at 1:33 am and reaches Choshi Station at 4:21 am. Stops at these train stations along the way: Hachioji (八王子), Tachikawa (立川), Kokubunji (国分寺), Mitaka (三鷹), Akihabara (秋葉原), Kinshicho (錦糸町), Funabashi (船橋), Tsudanuma (津田沼), Chiba (千葉), Sakura (佐倉), and Narita (成田).
- No. 3 – Starts from Omiya Station (大宮駅) at 1:45 am and reaches Choshi Station at 4:39 am. Stops at these train stations along the way: Urawa (浦和), Akabane (赤羽), Ikebukuro (池袋), Shinjuku (新宿), Akihabara, Kinshicho, Funabashi, Tsudanuma, Chiba, Sakura, and Narita.
- No. 5 – Starts from Shinjuku Station (新宿) at 2:42 am and reaches Choshi Station at 5:07 am. Stops at these train stations along the way: Akihabara, Kinshicho, Funabashi, Tsudanuma, Chiba, Sakura, and Narita.
Tickets can be bought at train stations, ticket vending machines, major travel agencies, and via JR East Japan’s Eki-Net (Japanese only).
After reaching Choshi Station, you can take the local train to Inubo Station and walk for about 15 minutes to get to Cape Inubo where the sun is expected to rise at 6:46 am.
2. Fancy trying your luck at bingo after seeing the sunrise?
Over at Bihoro-cho (美幌町), Hokkaido (北海道), you can head to the rest house at Bihorotoge (美幌峠) i.e. Bihoro Pass between 6:00 am and 8:00 am for a glimpse of the first sunshine. To get here, you would need to take a 30-minute car ride from Bihoro Station. While waiting for the sunrise, you can buy hot drinks to keep you warm and local produce at the rest area on the second floor. After watching the hatsuhinode, you can try your luck at the bingo game which is said to have attractive prizes for the lucky ones! For more details on the 2017 event and directions which you can use as a reference, you can visit this website (Japanese only).
If you feel that waiting outdoors for the hatsuhinode might be too cold for you, there are some landmarks across Japan which are open earlier than usual for this annual event, offering you some much-needed warm comfort during the wait, and allowing you to have some fun after the sun has risen:
3. Goryokaku Tower (五稜郭タワー)
For the 2017 event (Japanese only), the Goryokaku Tower in Hokkaido was open from 6:00 am to 8:00 am and visitors got a free soft drink each while waiting for the hatsuhinode at 7:04 am. Once the sun rose, there was a lion dance to pray for a safe and peaceful year ahead. In addition, there was an auspicious mochi-making event that took place in the tower’s atrium at 7:00 am where the completed mochi was given out to visitors. Those who also spent at least 2,017 yen at the tower’s shop on the first three days of the new year had a chance to win something in the lucky draw.
4. Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー)
For those who want to view the hatsuhinode from Tokyo Skytree’s observatory, you may want to keep a lookout for the following years’ lucky draws which will be announced some time in October. For the 2017 edition (Japanese only), only 882 visitors selected through a lucky draw got to witness the first sunshine that was expected to happen at 6:42 am.
The Skytree was opened for public access from 7:30 am and there were various events that took place on the first three days of the new year. For those who wanted to meet sumo wrestlers in person and test their strength, they were able to join them in mock matches and take pictures with them at designated time slots throughout the day. The first 2,017 visitors to Skytree on the first three days of the new year were also able to receive a limited edition wooden block strap, while there were limited edition merchandise and food & beverage options at the cafe. Last but not least, the 2017 New Year’s decorations at various locations within the Skytree were based on the theme of Katsushika Hokusai’s (葛飾北斎) signature work, “Fugaku Sanjurokkei (富嶽三十六景).”
5. Fukuoka Tower (福岡タワー)
If you are going to be in Kyushu (九州), you might want to consider coming here for a glimpse of the first sunshine expected to take place at 7:21 am from the Dazaifu (太宰府) area.
On New Year’s Day 2017 (Japanese only), the tower was open to visitors from 5:30 am. There were two mochi-making sessions at 7:45 am and 11:00 am wherein the mochi was given out to visitors. The first 800 people who showed up also got a postcard bearing a picture of the hatsuhinode and the Fukuoka Tower.
During the first three days of the new year, there were ornaments in the form of the Rooster, which is the zodiac sign of 2017, for the first 100 early birds on 1 January, and the first 50 on 2 and 3 January.
Be sure to include hatsuhinode-viewing in your itinerary if you are in Japan during this period to start your new year with a lot of positive energy and warmth from the sun. Here’s wishing everyone a great year ahead and best of luck in whatever you do!