Happy New Year! New Years is the probably the most important holiday of the year in Japan, fulfilling a similar role to Christmas in the UK as a day where people spend time with their family and practice religious traditions, whether or not they themselves are committed believers. At the moment Tokyo is very quiet – many people have fled the city to visit family in their rural home towns, shops and business are closed and many will remain so until the 3rd.
There are two main choices of New Years greeting in Japan. 明けましておめでとう(akemashite omedetuo) is what you say during the first few days of the year. Be careful with this one, it is often simply translated as ‘Happy New Year’ but it is incorrect to say it on New Years Eve, unlike its English equivalent. If you want a season specific greeting on NYE, try the more general よいお年を！(yoi otoshi wo) which means ‘have a good year.’
My friends and I were at Shibuya crossing at the turn of the year, counting down to 2016 with the huge crowds present. Everyone went a little crazy at midnight, popping champagne cheering and running into the streets periodically a bit like a mosh pit. It was intense but a lot of fun. After that we went to Womb, a nearby club, and had a great time dancing the night away. A good thing about going out in Tokyo at New Years is that the trains run on all night at half hour intervals. One of my biggest complaints about Tokyo is that the last train is ridiculously early and there are absolutely no night buses. This combined with the sky high taxi fares makes a sensible night out virtually impossible – you have to commit to staying out until the first train at 5am which usually leads either to being extremely bored or someone chundering in the streets of Roppongi. I escaped either of these fates, thanks to the trains allowing me to go home at 3am like a normal human being.
The only places that typically aren’t deserted on New Years Day are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Quite the opposite in fact – when my boyfriend and I headed to our local Shinto shrine today it was so busy we had to queue for about an hour to get in. It’s traditional to either go to a shrine on new years day or midnight – which is probably why the trains run all night, not to cater to disreputable young gaijin like myself who fancy a dance.
I’m glad we chose to go to our local shrine instead of heading to one of the massive famous shrines such as Meiji Jingu – whilst I’m sure that would have been an amazing experience, the intimacy of our local shrine felt almost magical. We arrived a little before sunset and queued for about an hour so we watched the sun go down on the shrine and the lamps being lit which was lovely.
At the shrine we washed our hands with ritual water and queued up to throw ¥5 or ¥50 yen into a box (these coins have holes in them, which is good luck), ring the temple bell, clap and bow. We also bought おもくじ (omokuji) – paper fortunes which make predictions about various aspects of your life such as business, family and romance for the coming year. They’re rated from really lucky to a big curse and I got 小吉 (shou kichi) which means ‘small luck,’ so not too bad. I was told that I will achieve what I wish for – my 願事 (negaigoto) – this year, but it will be tough so I have to work hard. Sounds about right to be honest 😉 Along with many others I tied my fortune on the wires in the shrine grounds in the hope of improving it.
I’m a Christian but I didn’t feel uncomfortable taking part in these practices. This is because, although some Japanese are institutional Shintoists, Shinto is widely regarded as a religion of ritual practices which are an important part of Japanese culture, rather than a dedicated and exclusive belief system which governs ones life. I’m confident that some of the people at my local shrine today were atheists, Buddhists, even Christians or Muslims, taking part in the rituals because it’s tradition, rather than because they have any serious belief. Like how we burn Guy Fawkes in effigy on Bonfire Night in the UK but less… horrible and bizarre.
(I love Bonfire Night, but looking at your country’s traditions from the outside makes you see them in a new light)
I really enjoyed my first New Years in Japan and I wish you all the best for 2016!