KYOTO – Let’s be honest. We’re adults. New Year’s in Japan can be a bit hectic. And then static. It’s one of the longest, if not the longest, holiday periods in the year.
Initially it feels like the whole country is on the move before the onset of calm: banks are closed; post offices shut; museums in hibernation. It’s almost unimaginable for a country that normally operates in fifth gear to settle for second, but therein lies its charm. New Year’s Eve in Japan is not unlike Christmas in the West: Families are reunited, everyone eats too much, time slows down a little and there’s a reserve of that feel-good spirit and warmth in the air. There might not be fireworks, but there is mochi rice cakes. I will get to that.
The holiday in Japan is about family, hence why the travel networks are so overloaded in the run-up to the final week of December, with people returning home, and then again a few days into the new year with people heading back to the humdrum of “reality.”
“Maybe they (families) only get to see each other once a year and they’ll get together for this special time of the year, so it’s an important time,” says Russ Hewick, who runs Dragonfly Tours Japan (www.dragonflytour-japan.com), which brings small groups, including families, on guided tours of Japan. Having traversed the country innumerable times, Hewick has a few tips to impart for families traveling with kids.
“If you’re traveling in Japan with little kids over the new year, don’t bring a big buggy. Bring a small buggy that folds up nice and easy,” Hewick says (think origami). “This will make traveling around in public transport much easier.”
I concur. I have an 18-month-old son and he pretty much goes everywhere strapped to me in a sling. While I look like a yuppie dad, it’s at the expense of scouting out elevators and navigating the crowds with a cumbersome buggy.
New Year’s being a family holiday, Hewick recommends staying at a minshuku, which are not unlike the humble bed and breakfast and are often run by a family.
“You’ll get to eat some of the New Year’s food and experience more of Japan staying at a minshuku,” he says. “One other benefit of staying at a minshuku — you’ll be able to wash clothes — which with kids is a never-ending task.
Hewick also suggests not to try and cover all of Japan. This is probably good advice at anytime, but especially at New Year’s.
“Instead try to pick one place,” he says. “If it was me traveling with my family, I would go for Tokyo. There’s lots to do in Tokyo for younger kids, but, for slightly older kids who are interested in culture and history, I would pick Kyoto.”
Mother of five and professional blogger Nicole Avery from Melbourne visited Japan with her husband and five children (ages 4 to 15) in 2013.
“It was one of the best holidays we have ever had, we all loved Japan,” she says via email. “Among the seven of us only the 15-year-old could speak a spattering of Japanese, so we were a little worried about how we would get along, but this wasn’t a problem. The Japanese were so accommodating and helpful to us.”
Avery adds that once, when looking for directions, her interlocutors opted to guide them to their destination. This isn’t at all unusual in Japan; often it’s easier than explaining.
If you are traveling with kids, Avery recommends taking some time to talk to them about Japanese culture prior to your trip “and make sure they know some cultural norms.” For example, refraining from eating and drinking on public transport. Speaking on your mobile phone is another “no-no” while on trains and buses. Avery, who blogs at www.planningwithkids.com, also recommended carrying yen at all times, as many shops and restaurants don’t accept foreign-issued credit cards. For withdrawing cash, check the convenience store Seven Bank’s website (www.sevenbank.co.jp/intlcard/card2.html)
Highlights from the Avery family trip included: seeing sumo live, feeding the deer in Nara and eating okonomiyaki — a simple, but delicious “pancake” made famous in Osaka.
“We loved how organized everything was,” she said.
Wherever you decide to settle over New Year’s there is plenty to do according to Miki Watanabe, a Japan National Tourist Office official (www.jnto.go.jp/eng); so much that Watanabe was hesitant to recommend one particular event. She did, however, point me in the direction of the Tourist Office’s monthly guide to major events and happenings around Japan, which is published in Japanese and English (www.jnto.go.jp/eng/pdf/event/calendar_events_201412.pdf)
Watanabe also recommended acquainting yourself with the Tourist Information Centers (TIC), of which there are more than 300 across Japan. I often drop by the TIC located inside Kyoto Station and while it’s always busy — this being Kyoto — the staff, bless them, are well-informed and helpful, and there’s reams of brochures and pamphlets.
Japan is one of the first countries to ring in the new year. Fireworks are not unheard of, but they are rare. Instead, people ring in the new near at a shrine — and wherever you are in Japan there will be a local shrine — with all the trappings that come with hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year). One way of distinguishing a shrine from a temple is that shrines are marked by bright vermilion torii or gateways. Locals are likely to greet you with a “yoi otoshi wo” before midnight and an “akemashite omedeto gozaimasu” afterward — both equate to a friendly “Happy New Year’s.”
You’ll also be glad to know that shrines are open for business, not just for prayer. There are usually stalls and vendors selling the staple foods on offer at festivals, such as yakisoba (fried noodles), okonomiyaki and amezake, a traditional sweet sake often served hot. If you want to experience one of Japan’s famous megacrowds then head to Meiji Shrine in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, which attracted 3 million people during the first three days of this year. At Chionji in Kyoto, the giant copper bells will be rung 108 times. The event is free, but tickets are given out an hour before midnight. However, the mood is strictly somber and not so much celebratory.
If you are staying in and you want to go “native,” there’s a musical battle on NHK, the state broadcaster, between a red team and a white team called “Kohaku Uta Gassen.” It should put you to sleep.
Because mothers know best, I asked the Kansai Kids Network (www.kansaikidsnetwork.com), a group of families that organize family-themed events, for some advice and ideas for families traveling in Japan over New Year’s. The consensus was, “New Year’s, Japan, family vacation — gasp!” But, after coming round to the idea, they helpfully provided ideas and advice: sales shopping, usually starts on Jan. 2 — and look out for the fuku bukuro — a bag full of surprises sold in department stores. Many of the big malls also have kids play areas and child-minding facilities. If you’re looking for snow — and snow-themed activities — Snow Japan (www.snowjapan.com) has a comprehensive guide to skiing and snowboarding activities — but be warned many of the hotels are booked long in advance.
And there’s the mochi pounding, a tradition usually held a few days prior to the new year. Check with your local TIC for information on where you can go along with your kids to watch and partake in hammering the gelatinous rice into sweet cakes — just watch out for your fingers and thumbs.
For eating out, especially with picky children, family restaurants are abundant, and they have quick, simple and cheap kids meals.
Another mother recommended onsen (hot springs) or sento (public baths). These are usually segregated by gender and are family-friendly. And if you can combine a visit to an onsen after a hike, it’s an experience you’ll long remember.
And then there’s always the Internet: one mother from Kansai Kids who posts images to the photo-sharing website Instagram told me about a chance encounter with an Australian tourist, traveling with her son, who had seen her photos and contacted her for ideas for what to do in Osaka. The request led to a meeting. The Instagram hashtag for #お正月 (New Year’s) has thousands of photos — so get to know your hashtags!
Japan’s big theme parks — Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea (www.tokyodisneyresort.jp/en), and Universal Studios Japan in Osaka (www.usj.co.jp/e/) — are popular attractions all year round and to mark the holiday season they put on special events. Both theme parks have countdown parades, and currently USJ has the most-illuminated Christmas tree in the world (yes, they have a Guinness world record to certify that). Expect crowds and long wait times at both parks.
As for me, I’ll be in Okayama Prefecture (mostly trying to avoid people) but Judith Mikami from Kaigai Connections (www.kaigaiconnection.jp) recommended a list of family activities in West Japan from pottery making in Bizen to making ice cream in Hiruzen. My wee man is still in his breaking phase, but I’ll try making something.
If you’re in Japan over New Year’s the message is there’s lots to do, just make sure you do your homework first. Yoi otoshi wo, wherever you end up.