New Year’s, or shogatsu in Japan, is a time when people can get a taste of traditional Japan. People generally take the time around the New Year’s holidays to relax with their families and engage in traditional activities to remind themselves of their heritage.
Below are some New Year’s main events and activities in Japan.
Hatsumode is the first visit to a Shinto shrine of the New Year, although some people also go to Buddhist temples and call it hatsumode. People usually make their visit during sanganichi, or the first three days of the year, when many people take holidays.
During hatsumode, people throw saisen, or monetary donations, into a saisen bako (box) in front of a bell they ring by pulling a thick rope. They make a wish as they ring the bell.
Some shrines and temples attract millions of visitors during the first three days of the year. Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo attracts the most people almost every year, with as many as 3 million visitors making the pilgrimage.
Hatsumode is a long-standing tradition that began when people welcomed the dawn into their house on Jan. 1 and then went to ujigami-sama (a nearby shrine) to pray for a good year. But as the rail system developed during the Meiji Era, people began traveling to popular shrines and temples.
Similar to Christmas cards in Christian countries, nengajō are simple postcards labeled — typically in red ink — with two kanji characters reading nenga (new year) that are sold throughout November and December. Japanese have a custom of greeting their relatives, friends and coworkers on New Year’s Day and thus send nengajō at the end of the year to have them delivered to the recipients on New Year’s Day.
The greeting on nengajō reads, almost without exception, either akemashite omedeto gozaimasu or kinga shinnen.
The former is usually translated as “Happy New Year,” but literally means “Congratulations for the Turning of the Year.” The latter, consisting of four kanji characters, means the same.
Because of the many nengajō that are sent, the end of December and the beginning of January are the busiest times for Japanese post offices, creating an opportunity for many students to work part time sorting nengajō. It is advisable to post nengajō before Christmas so post offices are not too overwhelmed at the end of the year.
It is customary to not send nengajō when one has had a death in the family during the year. In such cases, a family member sends a simple postcard called mochu hagaki (mourning postcard), usually in November or December, to inform friends and relatives they will refrain from sending nengajō out of respect for the deceased. Because nengajō say omedeto (congratulations), it is considered inappropriate to send them to people whose family members have recently died.