New Year’s Celebrations, or shogatsu for New Year’s Eve and gantan for New Year’s day, are easily the biggest and most important holidays on the Japanese calendar. Oftentimes preparations for New Year’s will begin on or around Christmas Day and continue through the end of the month. In stark contrast to western traditions, New Year’s in Japan is a serious affair and considered a time for families to gather, cards and gifts to be exchanged, and ceremonial foods to be eaten.
Traditionally, New Year’s preparations start with a full deep house-cleaning. According to Shinto beliefs, a god enters each household during New Year’s, and a clean house is required as a token of welcoming. It is a common occurrence for everyone to help out with the cleaning, including the household’s children. A decorated kagami mochi is placed in the household’s shrine as a final touch.
On New Year’s Eve, once the cleaning and food preparations for osechi-ryori are finished, Japanese families will gather together late in the evening to eat toshikoshi soba (or year-crossing soba noodles) and listen for Buddhist temple bells, which ring 108 times leading up to midnight. Toshikoshi soba is thought to usher longevity and good fortune into the new year, and the bells from the Buddhist temple are rung to cleanse humanity of their sins, offering a clean slate to start from.
New Year’s Day is a time of intense, but somewhat austere festivity. Some people get up to watch the first sunrise of the year, but the practice is not particularly widespread. Most will share a traditional breakfast of osechi and a type of mochi soup called ozoni, and then head out to the local shrine in traditional kimono to pay their respects to the gods and pray for good fortune in the new year. Festivities can continue for up to five days and include giving monetary gifts to children, playing card games, flying kites, and in recent years, watching one of the many New Year’s Specials that air on TV. Most businesses in Japan are closed during New Year’s Day and a few days after in observation of the holiday, typically reopening by the third or fourth day of the new year. The time off to recharge and renew is important to everyone, so the new year can be started properly, with a totally fresh outlook on life.