Lunar New Year celebrations in Japan are as outdated as, well, the lunar calendar in Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun adopted the solar calendar system in the late 19th century, abandoning the lunar system that it had used for centuries.
So, for Japan, New Years Day, or gantan, comes on the same day it comes for most countries outside of Asia – January 1. But the country’s festivities are no less colorful and full of tradition as their eastern neighbors.
Buddhist temples ring their bells shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve. People count along with the 108 rings, which represents the hardships and sorrows of the past year. When the tolling is silenced, the New Year has begun.
And on that auspicious day, how you execute “firsts” is crucial, including the first visit to the Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples. Also, on the must-do list is a trip to the ocean to witness the hatsu hinode or “first sunrise,” which is said to bring good health throughout the entire New Year.
The entire celebration starts during the last few days of December and through the first few days of January and lasts for five to six days. Most stores and offices close during this period, so stocking up is key.
Properly welcoming the New Year is extremely important to the Japanese. So much so that most people take a few days off before the holiday to make preparations, including meticulously cleaning the house. Dust mites don’t have a chance this time of year.
However, as Japan continues to change, so do its customs. For example, the huge, traditional Osechi feast for the entire family that mothers spend days to prepare can now be found ready-to-serve in supermarkets. But one tradition hasn’t shown any signs of fading: giving children otoshi-dama, a cash allowance that’s called the “New Year treasure.” Some customs are just too important to let fade.