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COVID-safe ways to ring in the new year in Japan

It’s time to say goodbye to another year and welcome in a new one. 2022 is almost here and with it the chance to celebrate a new beginning — another journey around the sun to make fresh starts.

Last year saw a muted new year celebration in Japan and across the world. It was right in the middle of the battle against COVID-19, with vaccination programs still in their early stages. Even the emperor’s annual new year greeting was canceled last year due to the pandemic, instead appearing via video message.

This year, things are a little different. Japan’s vaccine rates rank among the top three of all Group of Seven countries, and COVID-19 numbers appear to be relatively under control. The emperor and members of the imperial family are once again scheduled to appear on a balcony protected by glass for his greeting. The rise of the omicron variant might have cast gloom on some plans, but there is much to look forward to in the new year; there’s lots to celebrate and much to contemplate.

The “new” new year

The new year in Japan has only been celebrated on the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1 for around 150 years. In 1873, five years into the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the nation made the shift to the Gregorian calendar. Previous to this, the date of the Japanese new year was decided by the lunisolar calendar, and, before that, by the lunar calendar (as with Chinese new year). The lunisolar koshōgatsu (“little new year”) is still celebrated to a certain degree.

But Jan. 1 became the official New Year’s Day and, with it, most cultural events surrounding the new year moved as well, with celebrations lasting for three days. Before shōgatsu (Japanese new year) officially begins, the last day of the year is marked with ōmisoka (New Year’s Eve).

On Dec. 31, important errands are carried out and loose ends are taken care of, outstanding debts are paid, houses are cleaned and baths taken. The town of Oji, in Tokyo’s Kita Ward, typically holds its kitsune no gyōretsu (fox procession) on this day, but it is one of many in-person events canceled due to the pandemic.

The first day of the new year is the time for a lot of significant firsts: hatsudayori (the first letter exchanged), kakizome (first calligraphy) and hatsuyume (first dream). Whether it’s your first or 50th new year in Japan, there are many ways in which to say goodbye to 2021 and welcome in the start of 2022.

Watch events from home

New year doesn’t have to be about going out for the night and dancing ‘til dawn. In fact, most people spend the holiday at home: Japan’s new year is a more family-centric event, similar to Christmas by Western standards.

Since 1951, NHK has been providing at-home New Year’s Eve entertainment in the form of “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (“Red and White Singing Battle”). The four-hour live singing contest is broadcast simultaneously on television and radio between 7 p.m. and 11:45 p.m. and features the year’s most popular singers split into teams — red (male) and white (female) — who compete to win votes from judges and the audience. The theme of this year’s 72nd edition is “Colorful,” in an attempt to add a much-needed splash of color to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

For something a little more highbrow, do some channel surfing for the Tokyu Silvester Concert. This classical performance by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra counts down to the new year with a selection of memorable pieces — this year including Liszt, Rachmaninoff and John Williams’ “Star Wars” theme — and is broadcast live on the six channels from Shibuya’s Bunkamura concert hall. The public can attend the concert and the subsequent performances on the first few days of January.

A bowl of soba noodles is traditionally eaten sometime before midnight on New Year’s Eve. | GETTY IMAGES

Enjoy traditional treats

What kind of celebration would it be without good food and a glass (or two) of something festive? New year in Japan has a long list of culinary traditions attached to it, meaning if you didn’t get your fill of Christmas treats, there’s a chance to try out a lot of traditional goodies. The holiday is marked by a selection of dishes collectively called osechi-ryōri, many of which are homophonically or visually attributed to good fortune.

First up, there’s the bowl of toshi-koshi soba (year-crossing noodle), an extra-long noodle eaten sometime before midnight on New Year’s Eve for a long life and good health in the year to come. The noodles are eaten with tsuyu (broth) and a scattering of spring onions; accompanying tempura, particularly large ebi (prawns), is also popular. You can make this delight yourself, but supermarkets on New Year’s Eve will be packed full of varieties — and packed full of shoppers stocking up, too.

There’s a long list of other osechi dishes that vary from region to region. These usually include datemaki — rolled omelette with hanpen (fish cakes) — tazukuri (dried sardines cooked in soy sauce) for an abundant harvest and kuromame (simmered black beans) for health in the year to come.

And then there’s ozōni. Thought to date back to the Muromachi Period (1392-1573), it’s one of the most ubiquitous components of new year feasts across the country. The cloudy dashi soup contains a location-dependent combination of mochi (rice cake), chicken and a variety of vegetables.

Don’t forget to wash it all down with a sip of toso: sake spiced with a mixture including dried ginger, sanshō (Japanese pepper) and cinnamon. It symbolically alleviates any illness from the previous year and bestows a long life ahead.

Visit a local landmark

In towns and cities throughout Japan, local landmarks are focal points for ringing in the new year. Shibuya’s scramble crossing New Year’s Eve countdown has attracted crowds exceeding 100,000 since 2016, but was canceled last year due to the pandemic. It remains to be seen how many of these large celebrations have been put on hold again this year, but there are still places to get out and see a glimmer of new year celebrations where you live.

In Kasai Rinkai Park in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward, the city’s second-largest park is open all night for new year celebrations. Events center around the 117-meter-tall Diamond and Flowers Ferris Wheel, which offers views of impressive Tokyo landmarks such as Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree. Expect live music performances as the clock strikes 12.

Aside from new year-specific events, there are also the seasonal illuminations that are still lighting up urban areas and make for a more private and COVID-safe way to see lights come new year. Yokohama Milalight, for example, sees approximately 500,000 LEDs lighting up the city through Feb. 13.

Visitors offer prayers on the first day of the new year at Kanda Myojin Shrine in Tokyo in 2021. | REUTERS
Visitors offer prayers on the first day of the new year at Kanda Myojin Shrine in Tokyo in 2021. | REUTERS

Visit a local temple or shrine

At midnight, many people in Japan make their way to pray at a shrine or temple for hatsumōde, the first such visit of the year. Buddhist temples begin the year with joya no kane — ringing the bonshō (large Buddhist temple bell) 108 times to symbolize the 108 worldly sins.

The sacred spaces see lines of visitors waiting to pray, so it might be a good idea to avoid taking a trip to particularly popular hatsumōde hotspots. Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in Chiba, Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu shrine and Senso-ji, Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka, and Nagano’s Zeko-ji all see millions pour through their gates throughout the three-day new year period.

One of the best ways to experience this tradition is to keep it local and visit a neighborhood shrine or temple. Many of these smaller venues are busy but not overcrowded, hosting groups of families, friends and couples alongside a handful of food stalls. Last year, even at smaller shrines there were coronavirus measures in place, such as disinfection stations at shrine entrances and social distancing.

During the visit, take a moment to pray for good fortune in the year ahead (read: pray for no more COVID-19, please).

People watch the first sunrise of the year from Tokyo's Odaiba neighborhood. | GETTY IMAGES
People watch the first sunrise of the year from Tokyo’s Odaiba neighborhood. | GETTY IMAGES

Watch the first sunrise of the year

Much like the first shrine visit of the year, hatsuhinode (first sunrise) is also part of the traditional new year celebrations. Japan’s relationship with the rising sun is woven into its identity; The name of the nation itself, Nihon (or Nippon), means “sun’s origin” and the emperor himself was once believed to be related to the Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu.

Watching the sun come up on a new year is a particularly poetic way to start 2022, whether you’ve been up all night partying or you’re an early riser keen to see the dawn. Spots for sunrise events can be found all over the country, though it’s worth noting that Mount Takao, Choshi Hill Observatory in Chiba and Yokohama’s Osanbashi are all popular destinations. Viewing venues also open up especially for the event, including the observation decks at Sunshine 60 and Tokyo Tower.

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