The Japanese New Year is just about as different from Western ways of ringing in the new year as it gets. Just like other holidays, most notably Christmas, where Santa Clause and holiday get togethers get smooched under an avalanche of illumination festivals and couples only dating customs so does New year's eve in Japan.
In most Western cultures the new year is celebrated in an adult fashion celebrated around fireworks, crazy parties and alcohol fueled borderline dangerous behavior, the Japanese New Year is much more family oriented. Even the time span is different as in the Western countries where New Year's is basically over when the hangover wears off, the Japanese New year can last until the 3rd or even 4th of January.
Despite how different the Japanese New Year is compared to the Western style some things remain the same. TV. In the U.S. where the late Dick Clark was always counted on to ring in the New Year with Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve and the famous dropping of the ball in New York's Times Square, Japan also has its own famous and must see version.
On the 31st of December you'll find millions of Japanese huddled around the television to take in "Kouhaku Uta Gassen".
This main stay of the Japanese new year is started way back in 1959, is a sort of popularity competition where two of the most popular bands duke it out in front of the judges to see which team or artists are the best of that year.
Of course this much loved 4 and one-half hour television show wraps up promptly at 11: 45 to make room for the extremely traditional "Joya no kane". This gives the family the time to get to the local temple to literally ring in the new year by ringing a large bell (as seen above) to wring out the bad fortunes or hard times of the year and make way for good fortune and prosperity in the year to come.
Hundreds line up to ring the bell and pray for a better days in the coming year. In smaller towns where kinship is felt more keenly, families will gather at the temple and often drink hot sake and many of the temples will give out free bowls of miso soup as well as small cups of hot sake to all those waiting patiently in line to change their fortunes with the ringing of the bell.
Following Joya no Kane, most Japanese families shake off the cold when they get home with hot bowls of Toshikoshi Soba. A traditional Japanese noodle made of buckwheat flour. Like most happenings that surround this special time of the year that are quite symbolic, the eating of Toshikoshi Soba ranks up right up there. This special soba is only eaten on New Year's eve.
Whether it be Dick Clark New Year's Rockin Eve or Kouhaku Uta Gassen, the similarities don't end there between Japan and the West.
Christmas cards and nengajo are another way of sharing season's greetings. The traditional way of sending season's greetings in Japan via nengajo is quite similar to the sending of Christmas cards in the West.
Just as the tradition of sending out dozens of Christmas cards has gotten chewed up more than a bit by the internet so has the traditional sending out of nengajo. (Though not to the extent as in the West.)
Nonetheless the basic meaning of sending out nengajo parallels the sending of Christmas cards. It's a traditional way of expressing gratitude to friends, co-workers, relatives. It also paves the way of staying in touch with acquaintances and old school friends etc. Many Japanese also use it to show their friends their new born children to help keep in touch with the changes in their lives.
A celebration wouldn't be a celebration without food. Just as the West does the annual weight gain festival with Christmas ham or turkey, the Japanese celebrate their New Year with Osechi-ryori.
One of the most defining characteristics of these once a year delicacies are the colorful boxes they are served in. Japanese snack on these hearty traditional foods during the lazy New Year's holiday filled with eating, drinking playing traditional board games and so on.
One amazing thing about Osechi-ryori is the tremendous variety of food that come in them. They are by no means easy to make so more and more Japanese will buy them at department stores. When you get done reading the rundown of what a typical Osechi-ryori contains you'll know why.
Some of the more traditional foods in them are broiled fish cake, bitter oranges, crab, sweet black beans which symbolize health, a thick seaweed called "konbu" which symbolizes joy, sardines, shrimp, egg roulade, Japanese radish, herring and the list goes on.
And if all the food, drinks and merriment haven't got you crawling into your futon for a long awaited rest, the toughest of the tough either keep the party rolling until dawn or wake up early enough to put the final wrap on this marathon of partying by watching the first sunset of the New Year's day termed "hatsuhinode". Some beautiful places to take in that first sunrise of the new year are Mount Takao and Mount Mitsutoge or Mount Tukuba.
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