Visiting Japan during New Year (shogatsu) can be interesting and rewarding, as you have the opportunity to experience Japan's most important holiday, but it can also be very frustrating for unprepared visitors, as many tourist attractions, shops and restaurants are closed, and getting around can be inconvenient.
The New Year is a great opportunity to celebrate the religious aspect of Japan. It has the same resonance as Christmas in the West: a time for spiritual communion and being with family.
At the end of the year, many Japanese people organize festivities. A good part of the day on December 31st is devoted to making New Year's dinner: osechi ryori. The meal consists of several small portions in bento boxes, compartmentalized meals, beautifully presented.
All food eaten during New Year's has a symbolic meaning. Soba, or buckwheat noodles, symbolise longevity. Fish eggs represent fertility. Kuro-mame (black soybeans) symbolize health. Before the big day, it is also common to make mochi, glutinous rice cakes. This treat is not without risk: each year, this very chewy snack cause dozens of deaths by choking and suffocation.
December 31st is a day of high spirits and celebration. As night falls, spirituality comes into play. Instead of anticipating the stroke of midnight, the Japanese come to listen to eight hundred strikes on the temple bell. These are supposed to dispel the eight hundred passions and filth and call in the new year.
On the dawn of January 1st, watching the sunrise is a symbol of happiness. In the Shinto religion, the deity of the New Year arrives with the first ray of the solar star. This legend prompts many Japanese to look for a high place to make the most of the moment.
If you are in Japan during New Year, you can join the crowds doing hatsumode, the year's first visit to a shrine or temple. Hatsumode festivities are held at most shrines and temples in Japan during the first few days of the year, especially on January 1.
At popular shrines and temples you can enjoy a festive atmosphere, with food stands and many people lining up for a prayer at the main hall, and purchasing lucky charms in hope of a good year to come.
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Domestic and international travel activity is intense during the New Year holidays, as many people visit their families in the countryside or take domestic or overseas trips.
Travel is particularly busy from December 29 to December 31 when many people leave the big cities, and from January 2 to January 4 when they return home. As a result, trains, airports and roads get very congested. Booking seats on trains in advance is recommended, if possible.
Many tourist attractions, shops, restaurants, banks and ATMs are closed on one or more days between December 29th and January 4th, which will limit your sightseeing, shopping and dining choices, especially on January 1st.
Museums, gardens and castles are typically closed for multiple days over the holiday season. There is no nationwide rule - some close on multiple days, others on a single day and others not at all. Please check before visiting to avoid disappointment.
Restaurants often close on one or more days over the holidays, especially January 1st. However many fast food chains, hotel restaurants, and restaurants in modern shopping malls, will stay open on January 1st.
Shops usually close on January 1st, but are open on all other days around the New Year. A few shops may open on January 1st, especially in modern shopping areas and malls in big cities.