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Ditch the Debauchery and do New Years Eve Like a Local in Japan

As things close down for a few days over the New Year period, workplaces hold bonenkai, or “year forgetting parties”—sort of like the good ol’ office Christmas party.

Team JJ



Japanese New Year, or shogatsu, is the most important date on the calendar. Though it’s celebrated on December 31st, it is markedly different to the traditions seen throughout much of the world. Swap champagne for soba, midnight kisses for Buddhist bell tolls and hangovers for watching the first sunrise…and you’ll come pretty close. Are there countdown parties and booze cruises?

Sure. But the majority of locals choose to celebrate traditionally. So when I received an invitation to ring in the New Year with my friend and her family, I couldn’t wait to see what this entailed.  

Japanese New Year Traditions 

Once the tinsel comes down on Boxing Day, you’ll start to notice more subtle garlands and decorations adorning homes and businesses everywhere. These straw, pine, bamboo and plum branch ornaments symbolize longevity, sturdiness and prosperity. But not everything surrounding this holiday has such a cool, hidden meaning. Another tradition, the fukubukuro lucky bags, is simply an excuse to celebrate shopping and bargain hunting. As things close down for a few days over the New Year period, workplaces hold bonenkai, or “year forgetting parties”—sort of like the good ol’ office Christmas party. After that, employees head home to be with family for a few days. It’s a time for cleaning and for starting the new year as fresh as fresh can be. 

New Year’s Eve

Soba and TV  

Over at my friend’s spotless house, the night began with eating Toshikoshi Soba for dinner. Literally translating to “year crossing buckwheat noodles”, this is a tradition that helps to break off the old year and cross into the new one. It’s bad luck to eat them at midnight, so we made sure to get in nice and early. 

Japanese New Year Tradition: eating toshikoshi soba
Traditional Japanese New Year food: toshikoshi soba

After dinner, while we were still patting our full bellies, I was introduced to another household tradition: watching “kohaku uta gassen”. This live TV special, also known as the “Red and White song battle”, has aired every New Year’s Eve since the early 50s. In it, popular musical acts are divided into gendered teams to compete for the crowd’s favour. It certainly added a bit of razzle dazzle to the night…even if we didn’t know what was going on.  

(You can read the rest of the article at this link. This article was first published by Team JJ on December 6, 2020. Check here for deeper and unique insights into visiting Japan, including wellness, travel, cuisine and more.)

Tokyo based Japan Journeys delivers the inside scoop on travel destinations, tips and experiences. Visit their website to discover more about Japanese culture, great travel itineraries and the very best things to do in Japan.