The yearend period, called shiwasu, is a really hectic time in Japan. Think of it as spring cleaning, Thanksgiving and the usual end-of-year activities all rolled into one.

Businesses and individuals busily try to tie up any loose ends, or at least bring things to a good stopping point, to end the year on a good note. You're also supposed to give your home a good cleaning from top to bottom, to banish the old and stale to greet the new year afresh. Then there's the added pressure of getting ready for the oshogatsu (New Year) celebrations, which usually involve family gatherings that for millions of people include a long trip back to their hometown. And on top of all of that there are all those bonenkai or "forgetting the year" parties to attend, which more often that not involve serious drinking, plus the fairly recent addition of Christmas-related parties and events. It's no wonder that many people find this the most stressful time of the year.

Given all this frantic activity, it makes sense that New Year's Eve itself, called omisoka, is traditionally celebrated very quietly in Japan. Instead of fireworks and party crackers and flowing champagne, most people spend the evening at home watching TV or reflecting on the year with friends and family. Temple bells, which can be heard throughout most of the country, ring out the old year 108 times, once for each of 108 traditional evils. Eating toshikoshi soba (yearend buckwheat noodles) is an integral part of New Year's Eve in most parts of the country. The word "toshikoshi" means to climb or jump from the old year to the new.