Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Happy New Year!

New Year’s, or oshogatsu, is the largest and most important holiday in Japan. There are a multitude of customs and traditions both old and new that Japanese people follow at this time. Some customs have been around for centuries while others are more recent additions to the holiday.

One of the most important customs of the holiday comes days and even weeks before January 1st. People send friends, family and colleagues nengajo (greeting cards). The influx of cards in the postal system causes Japan Post to hire hundreds of temporary postal workers each year. The giving and receiving of cards for new years is a relatively recent custom that was adopted in the 1800’s and is based on the western tradition of sending Christmas cards.

Of course there are many other traditions that you can discover in Japan at this time of year, but for foreign visitors perhaps the most striking is the new year’s celebration itself.

The celebrations and events at stroke of midnight on December 31st in Japan are somewhat different to those that westerners are used to. Instead of huge parties, fireworks and carnivals, towns and cities in Japan are flooded with people travelling to their local shrine. At the stroke of midnight shrines sound their bells 108 times to signal the beginning of the new year. People then give their prayers at the shrine, usually with their entire family. The crowds in larger centers like Tokyo can be massive. To cope with this the city’s train system runs around the clock at this time.

According to the Chinese calendar, this year is the year of the rabbit. Souvenirs and collectibles, featuring the animal of the year are a popular item at the start of the new year and are available at many shrines and shops across the country. The Chinese new year officially begins on February 3rd this year. China-towns in Japanese cities like those in Yokohama will also hold special parades and festivals to see-in the year of the rabbit.

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