25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas and New Year’s in Japan

New Year's at Sensoji Temple in 2021

When I lived in rural Japan, I never got to enjoy many Japanese Christmas events unless I was going through a big city to get to an airport, to fly to another country for the holidays. But, because I moved just outside of Tokyo, I was finally able to enjoy all of the great Christmas and New Year’s events that big cities have to offer. Don’t get me wrong, though, the Japanese countryside does the winter holiday season in its own small-town way. 

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One of the most important details to note when preparing for your Christmas and New Year’s holiday getaway to Japan is to remember that winter in Japan is cold. Depending on where you go in Japan, the weather can range from spring chill down south in Okinawa, to below freezing way up north. The eastern Japanese prefectures lining the Pacific Ocean usually don’t get epic white Christmases, but the west coast along the Sea of Japan definitely does (i.e., the 2017 Fukui Snowpocalypse).

If you’re not used to cold weather, you’ll want to bring a cozy puffer jacket, a heavy woolen coat, or an even more heavy duty winter jacket meant for winter sports (similar to the one I bought for the 2017 Snowpocalypse) to keep you warm. Uniqlo’s heat tech shirts and pants, puffer jackets and vests, and layering cozy sweaters usually keep me warm whether I’m in Fukui or Tokyo. 

Another important detail to remember is that businesses tend to close down for Japan’s New Year’s holiday. Most people who work in Japan only get time off for New Year’s, so businesses tend to shut down to accommodate this. Christmas is like any other day for Japanese businesses, but you will need to check the holiday hours of the restaurants and stores you’d like to go to before trying to go. Your hotel, hostel or Airbnb host should have information about this if you ask.

Now that we’ve gotten past those important details, let’s get to the fun part. There’s a ton of fun things to do, taste, see and Japanese traditions to participate in during the winter holiday season, and I’ve crafted a full list with information about the whys and hows. Whether you just happen to find yourself spending Christmas and/or New Year’s in Japan or you planned it, here is my expat guide of 25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year’s in Japan.

Celebrating Christmas and New Years in Japan

You might be wondering why Japan is the place to be for Christmas and New Year’s when most of the country is not even Christian. There’s two good reasons for that: 1) when Japan adopts Western or foreign concepts and traditions, they make it their own (i.e., Japanese curry, Katakana, etc.), and 2) Japan goes all out for holidays, with a bit of cute as the cherry on top. 

For both Christmas and New Year’s in Japan, there’s so much to do, see, taste, and experience. From the age-old traditions wrapped in incense and Buddhist hems to the new-age flavors of cute desserts and fancy light displays, Japan will not disappoint even the most Grinch-like of travelers. 

At the heart of it, the winter holidays in Japan are for spending time with the ones you love and allowing yourself to take some time off from work and enjoy life. There’s always excitement in the air starting in November as illuminations begin, presents are bought, and anticipation for a new year rises. 

My 25 ways to celebrate the winter holiday season in Japan is split into tips for Christmas and tips for New Year’s, but let’s start with the jolliest of them all: Christmas.

25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Kobe Illuminerie

1. See Winter Illuminations
Japanese illuminations are one-of-a-kind. Whether you’re in rural Japan seeing a small light-up at the train station or in the downtown of a big city surrounded by trees decorated with thousands of lights, you will thoroughly enjoy yourself. I always enjoyed the small illuminations in Fukui, but I have to say that the big city does it just a little better. 

Most illuminations begin in mid-November before all the leaves hit the ground and the trees become bare and last until the beginning of February. If you want to catch a glimpse of Christmas trees, decorations, and lights together, however, it’s best to go from mid-November until December 25th. After the 25th, all signs of Christmas are pretty much taken down (except for the lights, of course) to make way for New Year’s.

*Illuminations I love and/or recommend:
・Roppongi Hills Illumination, Tokyo
・Kobe Luminarie, Hyogo
・Nabana no Sato Illumination, Mie

25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Christmas Markets
25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Christmas Markets

2. Explore Christmas Markets
There’s Christmas Markets in Japan?! It’s super surprising, but yes, there are. Even more surprising is that they are modeled after German Christmas markets, so you can find all of your favorite Germanic foods like mulled wine, hot beer, sausages, cheese, and pretzels (in my opinion, pretzels are the best part)!

Most of these markets are done with great help from the foreign community in Japan and through European embassies or consulates in the area. Plus, the crafts and merchandise for sale (ornaments, nutcrackers, Matryoshka, etc.) are usually handmade or imported from Europe. 

There are many Christmas markets sprinkled around the big cities during the holidays, especially in Tokyo, so you can go to many different Christmas markets if you really love German Christmas. However, Christmas markets are pretty popular in Japan and can get pretty crowded. To avoid big crowds, go earlier in the day or go at night an hour or so before the market closes.

*Christmas markets I love and/or recommend: 
・Tokyo Christmas Market (Hibiya Park)
・Osaka German Christmas Market (Umeda, Nakanoshima Park)
・Sapporo German Christmas Market

25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: KFC

3. Order Kentucky Fried Chicken
Starting in the early 1970s, ordering a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) became a bona fide Japanese Christmas tradition. In the United States, my family wouldn’t think of ordering KFC for dinner, but in Japan, KFC or any fried chicken is a must. 

Rumor has it that the KFC “party bucket” in Japan started after a KFC manager overheard a bunch of foreign expats remarking on how they missed Christmas foods from back home. Now, KFC has expanded their Christmas chicken offerings to smaller chicken boxes, meal sets with sides like honey biscuits and desserts, and even offers grilled chicken, too. The party sets are not the cheapest meal option for the holidays, the cheapest meal set being ¥2,800 yen or $28 USD, but if you want a “traditional” Japanese Christmas, then KFC is the way to do it. 

If you want to order KFC, many couples and families reserve weeks in advance through the phone, in person, or online as reservations start at the beginning of December. The good news is that there are a good number of people who don’t reserve, so you can stand in line on Christmas day at many KFC chains and get fresh chicken on Christmas Day.

Tip

An alternative to ordering KFC is buying fried chicken from a convenience store, a grocery store, or a local fried chicken (karaage, 唐揚げ) shop. Like KFC, Convenience and grocery stores also allow you to reserve your Christmas chicken in advance, and often at much cheaper prices. I personally like Family Mart’s fried chicken, but 7 Eleven is a close second. Other than convenience and grocery stores, fried chicken for Christmas is also offered at Maru Kara (秘伝の唐揚げ専門店 まるから).

25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Cake
25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Cake

4. Devour Christmas Cake
Who’s a fan of fruit cakes? If you didn’t raise your hand, then you’ll be happy to know that Christmas cake in Japan is usually a delicious and spongy strawberry shortcake decorated with little Santas on top. Nowadays, buying a cake for Christmas has become a tradition in Japan, so you can find cakes of all styles, shapes, and flavors, but a Japanese shortcake is classic. 

Like ordering KFC, Christmas cakes should be ordered in advance, especially if you’d like to get one from a local bakery. I don’t mean a week in advance, either–I’m talking three weeks to a month in advance (I made that mistake before). Advertisements for Christmas cake pre-orders start in mid-November, but these beautifully merry cakes aren’t cheap. One round cake for two people can cost ¥3,000 yen ($30 USD) or over! Coming from the land of Costco and Walmart, I find that super expensive for such a small cake! However, if you want a little more cake for your buck, you can order cakes from convenience stores, grocery stores, and even from chain bakeries.

Tip

If you’re visiting Japan during Christmas and, of course, didn’t pre-order a Christmas Cake, you can buy Christmas cakes on the day-of from Cozy Corner Ginza or slices of cake from local cake shops, convenience stores, and grocery stores. After the 25th, leftover and unbought cakes are usually heavily discounted.

25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Romantic Date

5. Go on a Romantic Date
Fun fact, the most popular time for marriage proposals in Japan is Christmas! 

One of the biggest differences between Japanese Christmas and more Western Christmases is that Christmas in Japan is for lovers. From advertisements on TV and in stores, to special couple discounts and for-two dinners, Christmas in Japan is celebrated more as a romantic holiday. Of course, if you have a family with children, then Christmas is usually celebrated as a family, but as the holiday is considered a regular working day, couples usually celebrate on Christmas Eve or after work on Christmas day.

*Date spots I love and/or recommend:
・Miyashita Park, Tokyo
・Shibuya Sky, Tokyo 
・Yokohama Minato Mirai, Kanagawa
・Kyoto Station Top Floor, Kyoto
・Nakanoshima Park Waterside, Osaka

25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Dinner

6. Have an (American) Christmas Dinner
KFC and Christmas cake, not your thing? You can enjoy an American-style Christmas dinner in Japan (or drop by your favorite kaitenzushi restaurant).

There are many American-style and expat-run restaurants in big cities like Tokyo that you can be sure to get a taste of home or a taste of the United States for Christmas. As an expat in Japan, sometimes I miss a little bit of home, so having these American options helps me enjoy the holidays the way I do back home.

I recommend Soul Food House and Bubby’s in Tokyo for Christmas Dinner.

25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Seasonal Desserts
25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Seasonal Desserts

7. Try Seasonal Desserts
One of the activities I most enjoy doing in Japan when it comes to eating is trying all the seasonal desserts and drinks. Japan takes its seasons very seriously. Each season has a different taste, smell, and association. During the holidays and winter season, you can find drinks and foods using chestnuts, sweet potatoes, and Christmas motifs like Santa and Christmas trees. 

For quick Christmas desserts, you can stop by Starbucks to try their seasonal frappuccinos and lattes, Krispy Kreme for Christmas-themed donuts, and any local trendy cafe because they’re bound to have at least one dessert or drink on the menu for Christmas. 

Other than going to local cafes, I personally love enjoying holiday desserts by getting a little fancy for some afternoon tea. Over the years, afternoon tea has really caused a boom in Japan, and now there’s themed afternoon tea events for almost every season. Some of the fanciest afternoon tea sets are at Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills, Hilton Hotel Tokyo, and Westin Hotels, but basically, any fancy hotel has Christmas afternoon tea of varying varieties and sizes. Just search “クリスマスアフタヌーンティー”(Christmas afternoon tea)  in Japanese, and you can turn on Google Translate to find a hotel near you serving it. Tea set prices can range from ¥3,000 to ¥7,500 ($30 to $75 USD). 

Lastly, if you’re more into consuming as many sweet desserts and drinks as possible, Japan has you covered with their buffets. There are a few restaurants in Japan for the sole purpose of offering only desserts, but Christmas-specific dessert buffets can be found at Sunshine City Prince Hotel, Conrad Tokyo Hotel, and Hilton Hotel Odaiba. These suggestions are all in Tokyo, but every major city has hotels hosting these crazy-sweet buffets. Just search “クリスマスブッフェ” (Christmas buffet), translate the results with Google Translate, and reserve your spot for the buffet online.

8. Get Festive at Tokyo Disneyland and USJ in Osaka
Normally I’d suggest you visit Tokyo DisneySea when visiting Japan because the theme park is exclusive to Japan, but for Christmas, you should definitely visit Tokyo Disneyland. 

Tokyo Disneyland’s “Christmas Fantasy” allows visitors to experience their classic storybook tales with a Christmas twist. There are fireworks, illuminations, Christmas trees, special Christmas-themed merchandise, foods, and drinks. 

Similar to Disneyland, Universal Studio Japan’s Christmas event includes fireworks, illuminations, Christmas trees, Christmas-themed merchandise, food and drinks, and even a special illumination at the Hogwarts Castle.

Tip

If you plan on going to Tokyo Disneyland or Tokyo DisneySea for your first date, don’t. Urban legend says that budding couples that go to Disneyland or DisneySea for their first date won’t last. Opt for USJ or one of the illumination locations I suggested instead.

25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Shopping

9. Shop the Christmas Sales
You may be used to holiday “Black Friday” or “Boxing Day” sales, and Japan will not disappoint. There are many great sales happening around Christmas so that you can buy a gift for your sweetheart or family to exchange.

One thing to remember is that Japan is largely a cash-based society. While many big department stores and chains accept credit cards, the small mom-and-pop second-hand store in Shimo-kitazawa may not.

However, to prevent the spread of infectious illnesses, more establishments are accepting cash apps and credit cards as methods of payment since 2020.

25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Skating

10. Go Ice Skating
Ice skating is not only one of my favorite activities to do in winter, it’s also super festive to do it during Christmas, too. Japan is a great place for all kinds of winter sports, and you can find open-air or outdoor ice skating rinks in even the most countryside of towns during Christmastime.  

You can go ice skating at Akasaka Sacas in Tokyo, Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse in Kanagawa, and Umeda Ice Skating Rink Tsurun Tsurun in Osaka.

11. Enjoy Winter Fireworks
Seeing Japan fireworks is a whole other experience. There’s music, the fireworks are timed to the music, and there are classic Japanese festival foods. Japanese firework displays are very different from your standard summer festival or Fourth of July fireworks display, and you can even enjoy them in the winter!

If you want to get a good spot to see those epic firework displays up-close, you should go to the location early to scout your spot and put down your picnic mat, blanket or scarf to save it. After saving your spot, check out the yatai stalls that sell all the fan favorites like okonomiyaki, takoyaki, yakisoba, hashimaki, and kasutera. Outside foods, like food from the convenience store, is also allowed, so pick your favorite conbini and stock up on food and drink for the show. 

*Winter Firework Displays I Recommend:
Odaiba Rainbow Winter Fireworks, Tokyo (Every Saturday in December)
Chichibu Night Festival, Saitama (Dec 2-3)
Atami Kaijou Hanabi Festival, Shizuoka (Dec 9 & 16)

Celebrating New Year's in Japan

Arguably the most important holiday in Japan, New Year’s or Oshogatsu (お正月) is the time when families get together, exchange gifts (otoshidama, お年玉), and have some time off from work and school. Although most stores, restaurants, and banks are closed during the 4-day New Year’s holiday, there are still many things and Japanese traditions someone can do when visiting Japan during this time.

12. Decorate for Good Luck
Once Christmas is over, it’s time to take your decorations down and decorate to welcome the New Year gods for good luck. In Japan, families, stores, restaurants, and government buildings decorate their doors or the front of their building with special decorations meant for New Year’s. The decorations that people hang on their doors or place in front of their building, called kadomatsu (kadomatsu, 門松) usually include pine, bamboo, the colors red and white while New Year’s bouquets are specially made to welcome a prosperous new year. 

Kagamochi (鏡餅) is also used to decorate homes and is placed to ward off fires in the New Year. The kagamochi display is usually two large mochi (rice cakes) stacked on top of each other from smallest to largest with a daidai, or bitter orange, balanced on top. Although this decoration is actually fresh and edible, you can buy it wrapped in plastic or a full-on plastic model as a souvenir. 

If you want to join in on this decoration, you should decorate where you are staying or your home before December 31st. It is said that decorating on the 29th brings bad luck and decorating on the 31st is too late, so it’s best to have your decorations up by December 28th (I’ve personally decorated on December 30th). After New Year’s you should take your decorations down on January 7th as that is the day when the New Year gods leave the living world. 

How to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Hatsumode

13. Do Hatsumode
On January 1st after midnight or between January 1st and January 7th, it is Japanese tradition to visit a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple to give thanks for the previous year and pray for good fortune in the new year. 

During hatsumode, or “the first shrine visit (of the year),” you should come prepared with ¥5 yen coins as an offering before you pray. While other coins are acceptable, a coin with a whole in the center, traditionally the ¥5 yen coin, is the best coin for good luck. At the temple, there are also incense, ema, charms, goshuin, and omikuji for you to buy. These all make great fun souvenirs and gifts.

The most popular shrines and temples to visit in Japan for hatsumode are Meiji Shrine (Tokyo), Kawasaki Daishi Heikenji Temple (Kanagawa), Naritasan Shinshoji Temple (Chiba), Senso-ji Temple (Tokyo), and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu (Kanagawa).

Tip

There is a specific way to pray at Japanese shrines and temples. After giving your offering (preferably of ¥5 yen), bow twice and clap twice before you start praying. After you finish praying, bow again and you’re done! Hopefully the shrine and temple gods heard your prayers.

How to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: ringing the Joya no Kane

14. Welcome the New Year with a Ring
Along with many other temple/shrine-based traditions in Japan, it is ancient tradition to ring the Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘) or New Year’s Eve bell. The bell is rung 108 times by Buddhist monks at temples throughout Japan on New Year’s Eve and signify the 108 worldly desires that people experience throughout their lives. The belief is that once the bell is struck for the 108th time, you will be cleansed of your problems from the previous year. Once it becomes 12:00am on New Year’s Eve, you will hear bells in the distance being struck and is quite the profound way to welcome the new year. 

Not all temples allow visitors to strike the large bell, but you must arrive early and stand in line to do it. One temple that allows visitors to hit the Joya no Kane is Kinkaku-ji (pictured above); however, even if you aren’t allowed to ring the bell, attending the ceremony on New Year’s Eve is also an amazing way to celebrate.

How to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Omikuji

15. Get Your First Omikuji of the Year
One of my souvenirs in Japan is omikuji. They’re tiny pieces of paper that predict your fortune for the year, and it’s always super fun (unless you get a curse). Although you can get an omikuji any time during the year, it’s tradition in Japan to get a fortune during hatsumode (the first temple/shrine visit of the year) to predict luck for the year.

The levels of luck for omikuji range from super good (大吉) to super bad luck or a super bad curse (大凶). If you get a bad fortune or a fortune you don’t quite like, you must tie the fortune and leave it at the temple or shrine so that bad luck won’t follow you. You’ll know exactly where to tie it because they will be walls up with wire across where other omikuji are tied. If the fortune is good, don’t tie it. Take it with you! People typically put the fortune in their wallets or in something they always have with them so that they can carry the luck at all times. 

The other fortune levels in order are: 中吉 (good luck), 小吉 (ok luck), 吉 (luck), 半吉 (not great luck), 末吉 (luck in the future, 末小吉 (ok luck in the future) 凶 (bad luck/curse), 小凶 (small curse), 半凶 (half-curse), (末凶) (future curse), 大凶 (really bad curse). 

How to Climb Mount Fuji Like a Pro

16. See the first Sunrise of the New Year
There’s nothing like watching an epic sunrise, and if you can get up early enough to catch the first sunrise of the year, then why not catch that amazing experience. Every New Year, Japanese people go out early in the morning on January 1st to see hatsuhinode (初日の出), or the first sunrise of the year.

Catching the sunrise on Mt. Fuji is one of the most amazing experiences you can have in Japan, but unfortunately, Mt. Fuji is impossible to climb unless you’re a skilled climber (and super dangerous, too.). Of course, even if you can’t climb to the top of Mt. Fuji to see the sunrise, you can still go to on of the Fuji Five Lakes and watch the sun rise above the famous mountain. The best spots to get a good view of Mt. Fuji and the sunrise in Fujiyoshida are the Chureito Pagoda at Arakura Sengen Shrine and Lake Kawaguchi.

So, where else can you see the first sunrise of the year?
Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower, Shibuya Sky, and Sunshine City observation deck in Tokyo have special January 1st sunrise viewings and offer a limited number of tickets for pre-reserve through a lottery system and same-day purchases. 
Shibaura Minami Futo Park (Tokyo) offers a great view of not only the sunrise, but also of the Rainbow Bridge, another famous symbol of Tokyo. 
Kasai Rinkai Park (Tokyo) not only holds a small festival on New Year’s eve, but you can also ride the largest Ferris Wheel in Japan into the new year.
Mt. Takao (Tokyo) and Mt. Ryugatake (Yamanashi) are realitively easy mountains to climb in the winter. You will need hiking and winter clothes to hike these mountains safely. 
Miura Beach (Kanagawa) is a popular viewing spot that puts on small festival with taiko drumming performances to welcome the new year. 
Yoshiminidera Temple (Kyoto) is a popular spot for photographers to catch the first sunrise over Kyoto. You should get there early for the best spot and wear good shoes for climbing. 

Tip

Some cities have late-night train service for people who want to catch the first sunrise, but you should check the timetables for the station or line you will be using before you go. Tokyo Timeout usually has timetables for the Tokyo area.

17. Eat Toshikoshi Soba, Osechi, and Ozoni
If you ever have osechi, soba and ozoni, either you like those foods or you don’t. But, it’s Japanese tradition to eat all three foods for the new year to bring good luck. 

Osechi (御節) is special new years foods eaten on New Year’s day that is packed in 3 or more lacquer wooden bento boxes called ojubako. Each osechi food is chosen for a specific meaning or imagery, but they usually represent prosperity, good luck, and health. In the past, osechi was made by the women, particularly mothers, of the family, but now Japanese families typically by osechi at department or grocery stores. The foods are usually kazunoko (herring roe/eggs), kuromame (black beans that are usually sweet), gomame or tazukuri (dried sardines), kombumaki (kombu or seaweed wrapped tightly), datemaki (fish cake), kamaboko (pink and white fish cake), pickled vegetables, konnyaku, shrimp, and sea bream. Osechi can be quiet expensive with many prices starting at ¥10,000 ($100 USD), but you can pre-order these lunch boxes at any grocery story before New Year’s eve, but order as early as you can. 

Ozoni (お雑煮) is New Year clear-broth soup made with mochi (rice cakes), chicken, and seasonal vegetables. It’s eaten on New Year’s day with osechi

Toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦), is a noodle dish typically eaten on New Year’s eve. The buckwheat noodles are eaten in a hot dashi broth with chopped scallion and colorful fishcake slices. These “year-crossing” noodles symbolize starting a new year simply with a fresh start, and is usually eaten with friends or family at a restaurant or at home. If you can’t find toshikoshi soba at a restaurant, you can usually find it at any convenience store.

Japanese TV Specials: Kohaku

18. Watch Japanese New Year’s TV Specials
On New Year’s Eve, there are two main TV specials on Japanese TV that the whole nations toons in for. NHK’s “Kōhaku Uta Gassen” (紅白歌合戦) and Nippon TV’s “Downtown no Gaki no Tuskai ya Arahende!” (ダウンタウンのガキの使いやあらへんで!) are the two specials that features Japan’s pop culture all-stars to battle it out on TV and bring laughter into the New Year.

“Kōhaku Uta Gassen” (紅白歌合戦) is a song-battle special that splits Japan’s most popular singers and pop star groups into male vs. female teams. The white team features the male pop stars/groups like Arashi, Kis-My-Ft2, and Official HIGE DANdism, while the red team features female pop stars/groups like Keiyazaki 46, NiziU, and PERFUME. The special starts at 7:30pm on December 31st and ends with a New Year’s countdown, just in time for viewers to leave for Hatsumode. 

Although “Downtown no Gaki no Tuskai ya Aranhende!” had controversy in 2018 for its offensive Blackface, the show has featured a combination of Japanese manzai comedy, slapstick, and practical jokes since 1989. The jokes and challenges (called “batsu games”) get pretty crazy, as per the style of Japanese comedy, but you won’t need to understand Japanese to laugh at the visuals of those jokes.  Gaki no Tsukai airs on New Years Eve from 6:30pm to 11:55pm.

19. Send Nengajo
Similar to the tradition of sending Christmas Cards, it has been Japanese tradition to send New Year’s greeting postcards to friends, family and colleagues since the 700s. Nengajo (年賀状) are sent through the mail as early as December 15th to reach their intended destinations by January 1st, and after January 7th, you should send winter greetings instead. These special postcards are sold at department stores, post offices, convenience stores and stationary stores all across Japan in designs that showcase the zodiac animal of the new year. More art-inclined people can design their own nengajo and get it professionally printed online or at local print shops, but if you’re just visiting Japan, why not pick up a package of cards?

Some common Japanese phrases written (vertically) on these postcards are:
明けましておめでとうございます (Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu),  新年おめでとうございます (Shinnen Omedeto Gozaimasu), or 謹賀新年 (Ginga Shinnen) = Happy New Year
今年もよろしくお願いします (Kotoshi mo Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu) = I look forward to being in contact with you in the new year, too.
昨年はお世話になりました (Kyounen ha Oseiwa ni Narimashita) = Thank you for your support last year

Pick up some postcards and write your own!

20. Enjoy the Oji Fox Parade The Oji Fox Parade (王子狐の行列) is a festival in the northern-Tokyo town of Oji that celebrates the ancient myth that foxes from all over Japan would come to the Oji Inari Shrine to celebrate. Famous Ukeyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige created a print depicting this myth, and the actual Oji Fox Parade began as a tradition to celebrate the print and the myth in 1993. On December 31, Oji locals dress up as foxes, hold lanterns and make their way to Oji Inari Shrine as the first hatsumode of the year. Unlike other Japanese festivals, the parade ends after midnight at 2:00am, so be aware of train schedules and grab some kairo heat packs from the convenience store before going.

21. Catch the Emperor’s New Year Greeting
On January 2nd, the Emperor and Empress of Japan appear on the Chowa-Den Hall balcony of the Imperial Palace to greet visitors for the new year. They appear five times between 10am and 2:30pm, but entry hours for the Imperial Palace grounds and east court are from 9:30am to 2:10pm. Visitors can enter through the Nijubashi main gate and exit through the Sakashita-mon, Kikyo-mon, Ote-mon, and Inui-mon gates. You must arrive early to get a good spot because almost 100,000 people come yearly to get a rare glance at the imperial family.

How to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Lucky Bags

22. Indulge in a Lucky Bag
One of the best ways to take advantage of Christmas and holiday sales in Japan is lucky bags (fukubukuro, 福袋). These bags, ranging from ¥5,000 to ¥30,000+ ($100+ USD), are said to have started from as far back as the Edo Period and a superstition that merchants should sell old merchandise and goods before the new year. This started an annual tradition of stores, restaurants, and even convenience stores selling unsold merchandise from the previous season. 

Usually, you don’t really know what you’ll be getting when you buy a lucky bag, but some stores do show you the contents of the bags before you buy them. At discounts of up to 70%, you can buy the lucky bags at the store starting on January 2 (when stores usually open for their New Year sales), but you’ll have to line up and fight your way to get one of the limited-stock bags. If you’re not into participating in the (polite) Hunger Games when you’re shopping, some popular stores allow you to order the bags online or pre-order them.

23. Countdown the New Year
There’s a few ways to celebrate the New Year in Japan, and one of the most popular ways is to do a countdown. In major cities across Japan, young people go out to popular landmarks and countdown the New Year together. 

I’ve done this way of celebrating and it gets really crazy. There’s usually no moving room and you have to keep yourself from being carried away or crushed by the crowd. The most popular—or most crowded—locations to do the public countdown is Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo and in Osaka’s Dotonbori district. In Shibuya, over 10,000 people gather to see performances in front of the Shibuya 109 shopping building, and in Osaka, people gather on the Ebisu Bridge next to the famous Glico running man advertisement to drink, countdown the New Year, and do the tradition of jumping in the Dotonbori River. This dangerous dive is known as the “Dotonbori Dive” (道頓堀ダイブ) and started as an Osaka baseball tradition in 1985 when Hanshin Tigers fans jumped from the bridge to celebrate a rare win against the Seibu Lions.

25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: New Year Party

24. Go to a New Year’s Party
Who doesn’t love a party? 

There’s the traditional Japanese way of celebrating the New Year, and then there’s the modern way: New Year’s parties. After you’ve enjoyed counting down the New Year at the Shibuya Scramble or if you want to just celebrate at the party itself, there are many New Year’s parties at clubs and restaurants in big cities in Japan. 

In Tokyo, the most popular clubs to party at are Womb, ageHa, WARP Shinjuku, 1 OAK Tokyo, and my personal favorites, V2 and Harlem. In Osaka, clubs like GHOST and Piccadilly are favorites for both foreign and Japanese communities with pretty good music and atmosphere. Clubs in Japan are usually open from 10pm to 5am the next day (the first train), so you can dance the night away until the next morning or catch the last train of the night.

25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas & New Year's in Japan: Ekiden

25. Watch New Year’s Ekiden
The Hakone Ekiden (駅伝) in Japan is a marathon race and competition between university male track and field teams all across Japan. Japanese youth in track and field train for local and regional ekiden marathons from junior high school (my students often placed in the regionals), and if they continue with track and field in university, go on to represent their university in the national race. Held on the second and third of January, runners run from the center of Tokyo (Otemachi) to Lake Ashi in Hakone and back, making it the longest long-distance relay race (218km) in Japan. You can watch this race on TV or on the streets at the actual marathon to cheer the young runners on.

If you hesitated to book a trip to Japan during the winter holiday season, I hope this guide helped you see that you can enjoy some great Western and non-Western traditions even in Japan! Have any questions or comments about Christmas and/or New Year’s in Japan? Feel free to comment below.

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