However, in Japan, many young people enjoy heading into town at Christmas, couples enjoy romantic dinners with champagne, and while there are no fireworks, there are lots of Christmas decorations and Christmas lights, which the Japanese call ‘illumination’. It’s a popular and joyous time even though only a small percentage of folks believe in Christianity.
New Year’s Eve on the other hand is spent with family, and is a relatively quiet period. It’s a custom for most Japanese people to return to their hometowns at this time of year, go to the local temple or shrine, ring the temple bell (in the Buddhist tradition), and many watch special New Year’s TV shows together at home.
New Year’s Day is a time for indulging in special foods, called ‘Osechi Ryori’, which often takes many days to prepare.
Unlike the rest of the world, there are no large fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve, although recently there have been some smaller instances of fireworks in Tokyo and Osaka. Generally speaking though, it is not a Japanese custom to have fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Rather, there are massive fireworks shows every year in summer in Japan, usually in mid-August to coincide with their Bon Odori festivals. But New Year’s Eve is spent more quietly and with less fanfare.
While very few Japanese are Christians (less than five percent), Christmas is still celebrated commercially in Japan. Many shops throughout Japan will decorate their stores with Christmas icons. One can see huge Christmas trees, images of Santa Claus, Christmas boxes and presents, and even staff in numerous department stores will wear Santa hats and/or costumes. Of course it’s all to motivate families to buy gifts and boost Christmas sales although some will say that’s a cynical point of view.
There are even Japanese-style Christmas cards in circulation now, which are really quite artistic. But most of the cards you will see at this time of the year are traditional New Year’s cards, called ‘nengajo’. Being Asia, they usually depict animals from the Asian zodiac calendar. 2013 was the year of the snake, and 2014 is the year of the horse. Actually, this was the inspiration behind my latest poem, The Year of the Horse, which you can view on the poetry page of my website – please feel free to check it out:
For those who ignore Christmas, the ‘winter break’ (a term mainly relevant to schools and universities) is still a time to look forward to; it usually starts just before Christmas and includes ‘oshogatsu’ – New Year’s. The best thing about the winter break is the time off from work for company employees, and a chance to spend time with family and friends. Most companies and offices will close shop on the 28th or 29th of December and start work again around the 6th or 7th of January. Of course, many shops stay open over this period, too, to cater to the people still requiring goods at this time, but don’t expect to see any shops open on New Year’s Day. Some convenience stores and department stores are bucking this trend, but generally speaking, most doors are closed on the 1st of January.
My wife and I always find it a bit strange to walk outside on New Year’s Eve and hear nothing but the distant sound of bells from the local Buddhist temple. We live in a rural mountain village in Mie Prefecture, far away from any major cities or even provincial cities. The only champagne cork we hear popping is our own, and there are no fireworks. However, being winter, usually with clear skies, there are millions of sparkling stars above to view, if you don’t mind standing outside in cold night air. The temperature is usually one or two degrees Celsius at this time of the year. I always stay out long enough to enjoy a cigar (I only smoke a cigar twice a year – on New Year’s Eve at midnight, and on my birthday). Then we head back inside.
Personally, we enjoy the peace and quiet, compared to all the noise and yelling and cars blaring their horns that we can recall from our youth on the Gold Coast in Australia on New Year’s Eve. I’m not a party pooper, but these days I do prefer the sound of nature to the cacophony of city noise. We don’t even have a TV anymore, something that some of our students here just can’t comprehend. My wife and I catch all our news and information via the Internet. Not that there’s much on TV anyway. On New Year’s Eve, most Japanese people are watching an annual talent contest between two teams (the red team and the white team – representing the colors of the Japanese flag) of professional bands and singers. It’s entertaining I suppose, but it’s also extremely loud and annoying if you ask me. We usually put on some New Year’s music from our own favorite musicians, finish our champagne, and go to bed.
On New Year’s Day, we usually sleep in, enjoy some mochi or sushi, and then drive over to a friend’s place for dinner – usually a ‘nabe’ or hot pot. Who knows? After living in this country for seventeen years now, maybe we’re turning Japanese! It reminds me of that song by The Vapors. “I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so!” Now that’s a great song for New Year’s in Japan!
I wish you all a great new year in 2014, and I hope that all, or at least some, of your dreams come true. Take care and have a great year.