If you ask pretty much anyone in Japan what their favorite holiday is, they will usually tell you it is the New Year’s holiday. Although New Year’s is a huge party holiday to be spent with a friends (and occasionally family) in the West, in Japan it is more often considered a pretty big family holiday of the quite, rather reserved type.
At first, this can be a little bit sad for some people that love to go out, drink a few cold ones, scream out the countdown and then kiss a random stranger, but after awhile you can start to appreciate the differences. I’ve started to look forward to the changing of the year and the whole physiological effect of doing away with the old year and starting anew.
I find it to be a good time to reflect on the old year and remind myself of what I want to be doing with my life. The one thing I don’t look forward to is the big cleaning, like spring cleaning in the States, that usually happens around the start of the year. It’s just too cold to go out and wash windows.
Bonnenkai – Forget the Year Parties
During the month of December, there are numerous bonnenkai, which literally means ‘forget the year party’. These parties are typically held by companies for their employees. The usual party is organized like an event with numerous welcome speeches, activities, and obscene amounts of alcohol.
Businessmen usually end up going to several of them during this season. I know a few students of mine that went to 2 or 3 of them in one week actually. This makes the December season incredibly busy for a lot of people because they are sometimes hungover at work, and then can’t work overtime because they have a party to go to.
These parties are almost always compulsory as well and although they sound like a good time a lot of employees aren’t real big fans. In a recent survey, only about 33.5% of people polled were ‘eager’ to go to their companies’ bonnenkai. All that heavy drinking sometimes takes its toll I guess.
Bonnenkai are a kind of rite of passage for junior employees as well. They are the ones that have to organize the entire event from working with the boss’s schedule to find the best time to dealing with restaurants and special requests. They have to do it all and then usually end up emceeing the event as well.
New Year’s Cards
In the West, it is generally quite common to send out Christmas cards once a year to family and close friends. In Japan, people send out New Year’s Cards. Typically people get them printed somewhere around the beginning of December and address them and write a short note on each one before sending them off to the post office. The post office then holds them until New Year’s day and specially delivers all of them.
If you get married or have a child that year, you should splurge a little and get some premium cards to send out. This usually involves full-color cards with multiple photographs on them. If you don’t have any particular special events going on, a lot of people will send out more generic postcards or print them out at home on their printer.
If there is a death in the family, you shouldn’t send a New Year’s card. Instead, the grieving family sends out special postcards to notify you of the situation so that you don’t send them a card. Those are always a bit sad to get in the mail.
New Year’s Night
And finally New Year’s Night comes. Several big shrines have all night events. For example, at Chion shrine the monks ring a giant bell at midnight, which is quite a sight. And at Yasaka shrine, which is very close by, people gather to light a rope for the first fire of the new year. I celebrated New Year’s this way about 3 years ago, which was a lot of fun. Just remember to put out your rope before you get on the train, haha.
Also during these first few days of the new year people will ‘refresh’ their good luck charms. Good luck charms are only lucky for a year (or so the monks say). So, you should return to the shrine to dispose of them and get new ones every year. Visitors also often times get omikuji, or their fortunes, for the new year.
This is the only night during the year that the trains and subways run all-night. Granted, the train service is not very frequent, so you might be waiting out in the cold for awhile to catch a train, but they do run all night.
New Year’s Experiences
Have you experienced New Year’s in Japan? What was it like? Where did you go? Let me know about it in the comments.