2016 is already here, and yet it’s never too late to take a look at the Japanese way of spending the night between years, and the first day of the new year. And what better place to explore the oshougatsu (お正月) practices, than the old capital, Nara. If you’re looking to spend the New Year in Japan in the future, hopefully you’ll have a better idea of how to enjoy it to the fullest through this experience!
I have spent three years in Nara and as much as I believed that I kept most of my gaijin-ness intact, this city had a huge impact on my lifestyle. And, in a certain fashion, on the way I celebrate New Year.
This will be a short trip into the amazing things Nara has to offer to its visitors, at the end and the beginning of the year.
I will be frank with you. Nara is not a metropolitan city. You won’t have Christmas-decorated stores open until 10 PM, blasting Mariah and Wham all day long. You won’t have clubs where to unleash yourself on the dance floor, on the night between years. You won’t even have fireworks at midnight to mark the passing of another year, in a blast of noise, color, and light.
Nara is, after all, a traditional town, where the Buddhist and Shinto rites are preserved maybe moreso than in any other part of Japan, and this particularity is prominent during the winter holidays. That being said, New Year’s Eve in Nara is far from boring. In Japan, the night between years is spent at the temple, and Nara is no exception.
Todaiji, the huge Buddhist temple in the middle of the ancient capital, is probably the best place to go for the New Year’s midnight ceremony. The queue over there is impressive. People are waiting in line to pay a visit to the Big Buddha, make the first prayer, draw their first omikuji and buy -of course- their first omamori of the new year.
The atmosphere is amazing. People are mostly waiting in silence, listening to the Buddhist sermons and mantras being played from huge speakers all over the place. Of course, there’s no rule of being completely silent. The waiting line is outside the temple, in the main courtyard, and after all, it’s New Year’s Eve.
The cold in Nara is bitter especially during the late winter months, but December can be brisk too. In order to keep the people warm, there are bonfires set up all along the waiting line. Their flickering light and the smell of burned wood and smoke, combined with the heart-melting mantras recited in the background create a truly magical atmosphere.
Then, the joya no kane, the mystical Buddhist bell ringing ceremony that takes places at exactly midnight and it marks the beginning of a new year. The bell rings 108 times, a number which in Buddhism stands for the 108 sins of the human being, including envy, greed or hatred. The bell cleanses the sins and the spiritual foulness of the past year, in order to receive the new year, spiritually purified.
After hearing the bell ring and getting purified at the temple – maybe also spending some money on omamori and omikuji – everyone heads home. As I wrote above, there are very few places in Nara where you can spend NewYear’s Eve outside, such as some izakayas and karaoke booths. However, there is always an option to spend omisoka (the last night of the year) at home. Most Japanese do it like this, as New Year is a family celebration, a bit like Christmas is in Europe and the US. After coming back home from the temple, you’d eat some zaru soba and watch some TV programs. Well, if you went to the temple chances are you missed one of the most watched TV shows of the whole year, which is Kouhaku Uta Gassen.
This music show starts at about 7 PM and lasts until 11:45 PM and it is literally a musical battle between two teams, the red and the white. Both teams feature the best of the best of Japanese music, from enka to mainstream SMAP, Arashi, Bump of Chicken or AKB48, and has a huge audience rate (2015 was an exception though). The MCs are also famous artists or actors, which also contributes to the popularity of the show.
It’s New Year’s Day and this calls for a stroll to a shrine to get one more blessing for the year that just started. This is one other moment that makes you realize how deeply interconnected and codependent Buddhism and Shinto have become in Japan. The midnight visit to the temple is followed up by a prayer at the Shinto shrine, the next day. Well, technically, the first 3-5 days of the new year, depending on the shrine. This is called hatsumode, “the first showing to the shrine”, and this is one more fundamental and indispensable New Year tradition, especially in Nara.
There are hundreds of shrines in Nara prefecture, but the one that gathers everyone’s attention is probably Kasuga Taisha. The astronomical proportions of this shrine, the grounds of which cover most of the Kasuga Mountain, seem however not to be enough for the hoards of visitors eager to take the “first water” mizutori of the year and buy some more omikuji and omamori.
Arm yourself with a lot of patience as the crowd advances very slowly, it will probably take 3 hours from the main torii to the temple. That is on the first 3 days but that doesn’t mean it’s empty in the next ones.
Of course, there are sideways, detours, alternative routes which can spare you the waiting in line. The best route would be accessing the shrine from the south. It’s a small path in the woods, which leads to one of the adjacent altars of Kasuga, after which the road takes you directly to the main shrine. The queue will be there too, but well, a stroll through the woods on the first day of the year is always good, right?
New Year’s traditional Japanese food is osechi ryori but this, as amazing looking and delicious as it is, it is not to be served in restaurants but ordered and enjoyed at home. This New Year’s traditional food stands out through its variety of dishes, the luxurious arrangement, and the serving mode, in a box just like bento.
The prices are as luxurious as the food inside, varying from 10,000 Yen (for those who ordered at the convenience store, or the small – 2 persons’ boxes), to something above 100,000 yen, for those who want a lavish New Year lunch or dinner. In Nara, Nikko Hotel and Gojo Genbei restaurants had my favorite osechi menus, but my number 1 was not ordered from any restaurant, but prepared by the wives of three Buddhist priests from Todaiji who invited me and some friends over for lunch on the 1st of January.
Tenpei Kurabu is another restaurant that provides exquisite osechi at reasonable prices and what’s best, it’s easy to access by car or by bus.
Also, if you’re not necessarily a fan of the traditional Japanese dish, you can try any of the regular menus, in any restaurant on Higashi Muki street. The authentic Japanese taste and the amazing flavors will make you addicted to it.
Apart from delicious food, music shows and ceremonies at the temple, New Year’s is also an opportunity for bargain sales. Most shops will await the customers with the so-called fukubukuro, present bags with values from 500 yen to 10,000 yen, which – and this is the fun part- are sealed, so you can’t see its contents. Basically, you can make yourself or a good friend, a surprise present. Believe me, there is no need to hesitate. Most of these fukubukuros are filled to the brim with the best of the best of the shop’s fall-winter collection and the bigger the value, the more valuable its contents too. I remember I bought one for 500 yen just because I liked the bag in which it came. It was full of accessories – literally anything you can imagine from classy hair bands to earrings and even a warm hat. I am still wearing most of them, 4 years later.
Also, the big malls, such as Aeon, or Itoyo Kado (only for Nara of course) have bargain sales, some kind of Black Friday lasting for a week from the 1st of January until 7 or 8, when you can buy almost anything at 50%-60% off.
New Year is a time of joy and celebration in Nara, one of the few times of the year when the old capital seems to regain the festivity and popularity it once had. It vibrates in the lights of the temples, in the sound of the bells and with the smell of delicious food coming from the open air stands or from the restaurants. This was my top 5 NY must-dos in Nara. Just in time for you to plan 2017 winter holidays in the ancient city of Japan.