New Year’s Eve in Japan

People lining up to ring the temple bell in Kyoto for New Year's Eve

I spent last NYE in Kyoto, and to say that this year is a bit of a let down is an understatement.

I have always found New Year’s to be a fairly meaningless celebration, which is generally a disappointment. I love the potential of a new year… brand new diary, new beginnings, new adventures. It has the makings of something great, but sadly, it is usually seen in with a lack of ceremony and ritual, which is something I love, and I am sure one of the reasons I love Japan so much.

New Year in Japan, or お正月(Oshogatsu), is an auspicious and meaningful time, with many layers of symbolism and tradition. Historically, Japan celebrated New Year according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, however, in 1873 Emperor Meiji adopted the Gregorian calendar and it is used in many aspects of Japanese life. (The Japanese do have their own calendar, which is marked by the current year of reign of the Emperor. 2016 is Heisei 28 and 2017 is Heisei 29, the year of the Rooster).

In days gone by, women would prepare three days worth of bento meals, so they didn’t have to cook during the new year period, as lighting fires was seen to be bad luck and, in fact, taboo to cook by the hearth. The tradition of eating cold meals continues, to some degree and this is called osechi ryori (or just osechi). Each food eaten around New Year is symbolic. Soba noodles are eaten New Year’s Eve, called toshi-koshi soba, they represent longevity and the easy passing of obstacles. Fish eggs are eaten to represent fertility.


There is a lot of preparations made for the New Year. People like to ensure all their debts are paid and the tradition of a complete and major clean is still very much adhered to. Osoji is a complete top to bottom, every inch of the house clean. This also happens in restaurants and other businesses. We saw entire shops pulled apart, with all the furniture on the street, to ensure nothing was missed in the cleaning.

Being Buddhist and Shinto, Japan celebrates New Year on a spiritual level, as well. Many people visit a Buddhist temple on New Year’s Eve to ring the bell. 除夜の鐘 (Joya no kane)  is ringing the bell (usually very big) with a wooden hammer on a thick rope (also large and very heavy) 108 times. Everyone lines up and the monks begin chanting at around 11:45 and the ringing begins. It takes a few run ups for each ring, and some rings are deep and reverberate right through you, while others are light and soft. Each group takes a turn to ring the bell once. 108 times is symbolic of the 108 sins or delusions of the Buddhist belief.

Please come back and read my New Year’s Day post tomorrow.

Read more about my experience on NYE 2016 here.

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