7 January 2012

On the New Year

Posted by Roland under: JET .

If you haven’t heard about it yet, you’ll hear it here now, New Year’s is a big deal in Japan. While in America, Christmas is the winter holiday of choice, Japan has placed more importance on the New Year holiday.

To that effect, starting around December 29 or so, you start to see a lot of places close up and take their holiday break. Most places do n’t open until January 3 or 4. In fact, during the New Year’s holiday period, the only thing I could find consistently open was fast food, convenience stores, and big malls (more on the malls later). This actually turned into a bit of a problem personally, as the ATMs in Japan also operate on schedules, so ATMs also had their only holiday break. That meant money was scarce at the end of holiday period (after spending most of it traveling). It was a point where I was thinking, “when will this holiday ever end?”

But New Year’s is big family time for Japanese. To that end, there’s not a lot of traveling as you would think, and if there is any traveling, it’s usually entire families doing the deed. One of the reasons there probably isn’t a huge travel boom for New Year’s is that some travel sights (museums and Kumamoto Castle comes to mind) are closed for the holidays as well. While my image of an American New Year’s is bars and restaurants open all night for huge parties, when I was in Kagoshima City for New Year’s Eve (a legitimate large city), only the aforementioned categories of buildings mentioned above were open…and even when it came to restaurants, actually a good number were still closed (and the one we ended up eating at closed at 11).

New Year’s isn’t the time to party all night (although I’m sure that fun can be found somewhere). In fact, while my travel group did find an New Year’s Eve event to attend (an outdoor mini gathering with some fireworks), by 12:20 most everyone had left. Not exactly Times Square.

So what do you do for the New Year’s holiday? I assume that most families just stay at home, have a good dinner and enjoy themselves. To that end, the TV networks usually show 4-6 hour long shows, knowing that the family homes will be tuning into something. However, the big thing to do for New Year’s is what the Japanese called “hatsumode”, or basically the first shrine visit of the New Year.

In Kagoshima City, I went to Terukuni Shrine, the largest there. To that end, the grounds were jampacked with people trying to make their offering for the New Year. The shrine was prepared for this, having fences to herd people in the appropriate lines, as well as extra staff on hand to deal with people buying charms for the New Year. Of course, one can make their offering to a shrine any time of year, but the first of the year has importance as basically setting your pace for the coming year. I made sure to make my own offering for success in 2012.

The other large part of New Year’s is the shopping. I lamented the loss of the Black Friday tradition during Thanksgiving, but I was heartened to see that the Japanese saved their shopping craze for New Year’s. While not everything is open, the stores that are open (plus the big shopping malls, which definitely are open) usually feature big sales to celebrate the New Year. But a special part of the New Year’s shopping craze is something the Japanese call “lucky bags”, basically grab bags where you don’t know what’s inside. I actually saw them before, when they open a new convenience store in Amakusa, that new store will usually feature lucky bags for a few days after opening, the contents being hidden, but usually an assortment of what you could buy in the store.

The “luck” factor comes in because while the contents are hidden, the idea is that some bags have contents that total up to higher than the bag’s price. Basically it is a gamble, but if it is a store that you would shop at anyway, you’re not going to be dissatisfied with what you get. Clothing lucky bags are usually the first to sell out (the stores actually claim to pack in clothes higher than the bag price, which is a hint that they’re just trying to get rid of inventory). And then some stores take the gambling aspect out of it by listing what you’ll get in the bag, basically listing the savings you’ll get, with the added bonus that you get a fancy bag to go with your purchase.

For my own part, I also indulged in a few lucky bags, grabbing one from a furniture/home item store and one from a Spencer’s Gifts kind of place (think random gifts). Excited as I was, I didn’t really get what I expected so I was a little hmmmm when I opened up. But then again, that’s the luck of the lucky bags. There’s always next year.

One Comment so far...

Eric Says:

8 January 2012 at 2:27 am.

Some other new years traditions I know of are Osechi-ryouri (the traditional new year’s foods) and going to see the first sunrise. If Saki is to be believed, everyone ate soba and zouchi on new years.

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