Ake Ome! Exploring the New Year Celebrations in Japan

Ake Ome! Exploring the New Year Celebrations in Japan

New Year’s (お正月 oshōgatsu) in Japan is celebrated on 1 January, with festivities usually lasting a few days. If you’re spending this holiday in Japan, you’re bound to hear the greeting “Ake ome!”, or its long form “Akemashite omedetogozaimasu” (明けましておめでとうございます) which means “Happy New Year”. While every country has its own way of celebrating the New Year, Japan has many unique and interesting ways to celebrate―a blend of Shinto, Buddhist, and modern traditions. Planning to celebrate the New Year in Japan? Let’s take a look at some of the traditions to see how the New Year is celebrated! 

 

① Gorge on festive foods

In Japan, it is a common tradition to eat specific foods during the New Year's celebration. Toshikoshi soba is eaten on New Year’s Eve, while osechi ryori and ozoni are enjoyed on New Year’s Day itself.

 

Toshikoshi soba (年越しそば)

Toshikoshi soba
Toshikoshi soba | Photo by photoAC

Consisting of buckwheat noodles (そば soba) in a soup with various toppings, toshikoshi soba is traditionally eaten on the night of New Year's Eve (大晦日 ōmisoka). "Toshikoshi" literally means "year-crossing", and eating toshikoshi soba on New Year's Eve signifies crossing over from the old year into the New Year.

The noodles used are regular soba noodles, but a bowl of toshikoshi soba might come with kamaboko fishcakes bearing designs with sayings like "welcome spring" (迎春 geishun), or images of the zodiac animal for the new year. The noodles are usually long, symbolising longevity.

 

Osechi ryōri (おせち料理)

Osechi ryori for New Year
Osechi ryori | Photo by photoAC

Osechi ryori is a traditional assortment of New Year's foods, each with a symbolic meaning. They are usually put into beautiful square lacquer boxes (お重箱 ojūbako), stacked in multiple tiers, and further compartmentalised within each tier. Families can either make their own osechi ryori, or purchase them from department stores and restaurants, which can cost up to tens of thousands of yen! 

 

Types of dishes that goes into a Osechi spread
Common dishes in osechi ryori | Photo by photoAC

The contents of osechi ryori differ depending on who prepares it, but here are five dishes commonly found in osechi ryori:

Kuromame (黒豆): Sweet black beans. "Mame" is a homophone for the words for "diligent” (忠実) and "bean” (豆) in Japanese, so this black bean dish is said to represent hard work in the coming year. Additionally, the colour black is said to repel evil spirits.

Datemaki (伊達巻): Sweet rolled omelette mixed with fish paste. This dish is said to represent scholastic achievement due to its rolled shape, resembling a scroll.

Kuri kinton (栗きんとん): Candied chestnuts and sweet potato. Due to its golden colour, this dish is meant to represent wealth and prosperity for the coming year.

Ebi (海老): Shrimp. With their long whiskers and curved bodies, shrimp are said to be symbols of longevity.

Kobumaki (昆布巻き): Rolled kelp and herring. The name of the dish is a play on the word "yorokobu" (喜ぶ), which means "to rejoice", and is meant to represent happiness and luck.

 

Ozōni (お雑煮)

Ozoni with mochi
Ozoni, a soup to welcome the New Year | Photo by photoAC

Ozoni is a special soup dish that is traditionally eaten on the morning of New Year's Day. While the contents of the soup vary between households and regions, they all usually include this star ingredient: mochi (もち sticky rice cake). Due to its stretchiness, the mochi represents longevity.

 

② Bidding Farewell to the Old Year

In many countries, it is common to have New Year's Eve parties and countdown to the New Year, while in Japan, it is common to have bonenkai parties a few days before the year ends, and watch the Kohaku Uta Gassen—the annual holiday special programme broadcasted in Japan—on New Year’s Eve.

 

Bōnenkai (忘年会): Forget the Year

End of year parties in a Japan is a custom practiced for a long time now.
Bonenkai to say farewell to the old year | Photo by photoAC

Bonenkai―which literally means "forget-the-year party"―are usually meals or drinking parties held at the end of the year with co-workers and friends to forget about the worries and stress of the current year, and to look forward to welcoming the upcoming year.

 

Kōhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦): New Year Singalong

End of year TV programming at its finest
Kohaku is the one of the most-watched music events in Japan | Photo by illustAC

Usually just called Kohaku, the Kohaku Uta Gassen is an annual holiday television special produced by NHK, broadcasted live on television and radio. Held on New Year’s Eve, Kohaku (紅白) is a word combining red (紅) and white (白). For this event, Japan’s most popular music artists are invited for a singing contest, and split into two teams: the red team (female vocals) and the white team (male vocals).

The show runs for about 4.5 hours, from evening until midnight, and at the end, the judges and the audience vote to decide on the winning team. It is a huge deal to be invited to Kohaku, and you know you've made it as a music artist in Japan if you've been invited.

 

③ Fantastic Firsts 

Hatsuyume (初夢): First Dream of the Year

What would you hope to dream on the first night of the year?
The best dreams are said to be of Mount Fuji, a hawk, or an eggplant | Photo by photoAC

Do you remember the dreams you have while sleeping? In Japan, interpreting hatsuyume, your first dream of the year (the dream you have falling asleep on the night of 1 January and waking up on 2 January) is said to be a sign that predicts your luck for the next 12 months.

“Ichi Fuji, ni taka, san nasubi” (一富士二鷹三茄子). It is believed that the three luckiest hatsuyume dreams to have are: Mount Fuji ranking first, hawk ranking second, and an eggplant ranking third.

Why? It is said that Mount Fuji is auspicious because it is Japan’s highest mountain, and “Fuji” sounds like "fushi (不死)", which means "immortal". Hawks (鷹 taka) fly high, so dreaming of them symbolises that you will rise up in the New Year; while the word for "eggplant" (茄子 nasu) sounds like "accomplish" (成す nasu), symbolising that you will attain accomplishments in the New Year.

 

Hatsumōde (初詣): First shrine visit of the year

First shrine visit of the year is called Hatsumode
Hatsumode is one of the busiest times of the year at many shrines and temples | Photo by Pakutaso

Hatsumode is the first shrine or temple visit of the New Year, done on the first few days of January. Usually, families and relatives go together to pay respects and pray for a happy and healthy year ahead. Popular shrines in big cities can get very, very crowded during hatsumode, seeing up to millions of visitors! Despite long queues and large crowds, the process is usually pretty orderly, so just be patient and wait your turn.

 

Omikuji or fortune slips at the temple
Fortune slips to predict your fortune for the New Year | Photo by Carissa Loh

Other than praying, it is also common to get omikuji (おみくじ fortune slips) and omamori (お守り protective amulets) wishing for luck, happiness, safety, health, wealth, love, career, and school. 

 

④ Traditional decorations

Kadomatsu (門松)

Kadomatsu decorations at entrances
Kadomatsu adorn the entrances of buildings | Photo by Carissa Loh

If you've walked around Japan during the New Year, you might have seen green decorations made of bamboo and pine placed in by doors and entrances to buildings. Known as kadomatsu, these decorations are said to welcome in the gods and deities. "Kado" (門) means "door", and "matsu" (松) means "pine". Kadomatsu are usually made with bamboo tubes of different heights, together with pine leaves, and sometimes plum branches and flowers.

 

Shimekazari (しめ飾り)

New year decorations
Shimekazari | Photo by photoAC

Another decoration you might notice is shimekazari, a wreath made of rice straw rope, pine leaves, bitter oranges, and other lucky ornaments. Shimekazari are usually hung above doors to ward off evil spirits and invite the gods of fortune.

 

Fukubukuro (福袋): Lucky Bags and Bargains

Fukubukuro or lucky bags under the Christmas tree
Fancy a fukubukuro? | Photo by photoAC

If you have been to Japan during New Year, you might have seen fukubukuro (福袋)―literally “lucky bags” or “happy bags”―being sold everywhere from electronic stores to clothing stores, from coffee shops to toy stores, from supermarkets to luxury brands, and more. Traditionally started as a way to get rid of leftover products from the previous year, many places now also offer exclusive items specifically made for fukubukuro. These bargain bags are usually sold at a fixed price, but the total value of the items inside is worth much higher than the selling price—for example, a ¥10,000 fukubukuro may contain products worth ¥20,000 or more!

 

Fukubukuro galore in Japan
Fukubukuro can be found almost everywhere | Photo by Carissa Loh

Fukubukuro are typically sold in stores from 1 January, and every year the queues are long, with popular lucky bags running out quickly. In recent times, due to overwhelming popularity, some fukubukuro are limited to online sales by a lottery system, like the Starbucks fukubukuro. Some shops offer blind bag fukubukuro, where the contents of the bag are a surprise, while others offer special set fukubukuro, where the items inside are known, but offered at a fantastic price.

Other than fukubukuro, many shops also have massive discounts during the New Year, holding sales known as hatsu-uri (初売り), the first sale of the year.

 

...And A Happy New Year!

Although Japan has modernised over the years, many New Year celebrations remain deeply steeped in rich traditions, with symbolic meanings tied to items and actions. New Year in Japan may not be what you're used to, but if you are visiting Japan during the oshogatsu period, don’t miss the chance to experience the New Year in a new way!

 

Before welcoming the New Year, why not celebrate the end of a wonderful year with a Snack Subscription Plan at JAPAN RAIL CLUB? 


JAPAN RAIL CLUB is proud to present a box of citrus wonders in December’s Omiyage Snack Box: Merry Citrus! Immerse yourself in the thrill of the New Year celebrations while invigorating your senses with the vibrant flavors of winter citruses like yuzu and mikan. Exclusively available in the month of December, gift your loved ones with the tantalising flavours of Japan’s winter with JAPAN RAIL CLUB’s Snack Subscription Plan—use promo code CITRUSOFF12 to unlock your subscription at a limited time only! Ake Ome!

Meet the author

Carissa Loh

Having visited all 47 prefectures of Japan, Carissa's next goal in life is to ride all of Japan's sightseeing trains and climb all its 100 Famous Mountains. Sounds like a dream? Check back in 50 years.

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Get on track with our monthly offerings of exclusive snacks from all over Japan!

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Japan celebrates Golden Week between April 29 to May 5
Sue Lynn

Golden Week: Exploring Japan's Week-Long Festiv...

What is Golden Week? Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク or 黄金週間 Ogon Shukan), recognised as one of Japan's most prominent and bustling holiday periods, usually spans from late April to early May...

Dawn Sim Culture

Golden Week: Exploring Japan's Week-Long Festiv...

What is Golden Week? Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク or 黄金週間 Ogon Shukan), recognised as one of...

春暖花開:櫻花之外的六種當季花卉
Sue Lynn

春暖花開:櫻花之外的六種當季花卉

賞花的樂趣之一,就是它們轉瞬即逝的特性:花期每季只有幾天,但那短暫幾天卻難忘極了。來看看六種春天當季花卉,以及賞花最佳時機!

Carissa Loh Nature

春暖花開:櫻花之外的六種當季花卉

賞花的樂趣之一,就是它們轉瞬即逝的特性:花期每季只有幾天,但那短暫幾天卻難忘極了。來看看六種春天當季花卉,以及賞花最佳時機!

Spring Beginnings: 6 Seasonal Flowers Other Than Sakura
Sue Lynn

Spring Beginnings: 6 Seasonal Flowers Other Tha...

Flowers herald the beginning of spring, and in Japan, no flower is more synonymous with spring than the beloved cherry blossom (桜 sakura). However, other than these pretty, pink blossoms,...

Carissa Loh Nature

Spring Beginnings: 6 Seasonal Flowers Other Tha...

Flowers herald the beginning of spring, and in Japan, no flower is more synonymous with...

Spring Beginnings: 7 Things to Do in Japan in April and May
Sue Lynn

Spring Beginnings: 7 Things to Do in Japan in A...

Cherry blossoms, or sakura, are flowers symbolic of spring, often alluded to the promise of a new beginning in many Japanese literature. | Photo by Dawn Sim   A symbol...

Dawn Sim Spring

Spring Beginnings: 7 Things to Do in Japan in A...

Cherry blossoms, or sakura, are flowers symbolic of spring, often alluded to the promise of...

Spring Beginnings: 6 Must-Try Spring Foods in Japan
Sue Lynn

Spring Beginnings: 6 Must-Try Spring Foods in J...

Spring in Japan is a time for celebration as the season marks new beginnings. Other than the mesmerising cherry blossoms painting the landscape, spring is the best season to experience...

Wendy Ng Food

Spring Beginnings: 6 Must-Try Spring Foods in J...

Spring in Japan is a time for celebration as the season marks new beginnings. Other...

Spring Beginnings: 6 Must-Visit Spring Festivals in Japan
Sue Lynn

Spring Beginnings: 6 Must-Visit Spring Festival...

Photo by cyesuta (CC BY-SA 2.0)   Spring is a season of new beginnings, bringing with it beautiful flowers, comfortable temperatures, and a time of celebration. While most travellers head...

Carissa Loh Festival

Spring Beginnings: 6 Must-Visit Spring Festival...

Photo by cyesuta (CC BY-SA 2.0)   Spring is a season of new beginnings, bringing...

Castle Day (6 April): 10 Must-Visit Castles in Japan
Sue Lynn

Castle Day (6 April): 10 Must-Visit Castles in ...

Matsue Castle in spring. | Photo by 島根県観光連盟 Japan, a nation celebrated for its rich history and enduring cultural heritage, is particularly famous for its magnificent Japanese castles (お城 oshiro)....

Carissa Loh Culture

Castle Day (6 April): 10 Must-Visit Castles in ...

Matsue Castle in spring. | Photo by 島根県観光連盟 Japan, a nation celebrated for its rich...

Sakura Karinto and Marui Suzuki
Sue Lynn

Maker’s Story: Seasonal Karinto Snacks from Tok...

April marks the official arrival of spring in Japan, and one of the cherished traditions of celebrating this season is to enjoy “ohanami” (お花見)! Ohanami means “flower-viewing”, and this is...

Sue Lynn Maker's Story

Maker’s Story: Seasonal Karinto Snacks from Tok...

April marks the official arrival of spring in Japan, and one of the cherished traditions...

A Guide to Sakura in Tohoku: Best Cherry Blossom Viewing Spots in Northeast Japan
Sue Lynn

A Guide to Sakura in Tohoku: Best Cherry Blosso...

Hirosaki Castle Park | Photo by Aomori Prefecture Cherry blossoms or sakura (桜) herald the start of springtime in Japan. Spring is the prettiest and most enjoyable season with radiant...

Wendy Ng Spring

A Guide to Sakura in Tohoku: Best Cherry Blosso...

Hirosaki Castle Park | Photo by Aomori Prefecture Cherry blossoms or sakura (桜) herald the...

A Guide to Japanese Shochu: A Tasting Tour of Shochu Distilleries in Miyazaki
Sue Lynn

A Guide to Japanese Shochu: A Tasting Tour of S...

Shochu (焼酎) is one of the most consumed alcoholic beverages in Japan and the Japanese drink more shochu than sake. Considered to be Japan's national spirit, Shochu is gaining great...

Wendy Ng

A Guide to Japanese Shochu: A Tasting Tour of S...

Shochu (焼酎) is one of the most consumed alcoholic beverages in Japan and the Japanese...

Tohoku: A Tale of Tradition through its Cultural Icons
Sue Lynn

Tohoku: A Tale of Tradition through its Cultura...

Statues of the Namahage located in Oga Peninsula. | Photo by PhotoAC Steeped in tradition, Tohoku (東北), the northeastern part of Japan comprising of six prefectures – Aomori (青森), Akita...

Dawn Sim Culture

Tohoku: A Tale of Tradition through its Cultura...

Statues of the Namahage located in Oga Peninsula. | Photo by PhotoAC Steeped in tradition,...

Tasty Tohoku Treats: 6 Must-Try Food from Northeast Japan
Sue Lynn

Tasty Tohoku Treats: 6 Must-Try Food from North...

Japan is a food paradise and beyond the major cities and well-trodden travel routes, you can unearth more culinary treasures spread throughout the country if you venture into the less...

Wendy Ng Food

Tasty Tohoku Treats: 6 Must-Try Food from North...

Japan is a food paradise and beyond the major cities and well-trodden travel routes, you...

Sakura 2024: 5 Must-Visit Cherry Blossom Spots in Tokyo for Ohanami
Sue Lynn

Sakura 2024: 5 Must-Visit Cherry Blossom Spots ...

If you have visited Tokyo between late March and early April, then chances are you have witnessed the enchanting sight of cherry blossoms (桜 sakura) in full bloom. A cherry...

Carissa Loh Culture

Sakura 2024: 5 Must-Visit Cherry Blossom Spots ...

If you have visited Tokyo between late March and early April, then chances are you...

Tasty Tohoku Treats: 6 Must-Buy Souvenirs from Tohoku
Sue Lynn

Tasty Tohoku Treats: 6 Must-Buy Souvenirs from ...

Located on the north-eastern part of mainland Japan, Tohoku (東北) is made up of six prefectures, and is a treasure trove of beautiful nature and fascinating history. It’s a wonderful...

Carissa Loh Food

Tasty Tohoku Treats: 6 Must-Buy Souvenirs from ...

Located on the north-eastern part of mainland Japan, Tohoku (東北) is made up of six...

Omiyage Day (8 March): Exploring Japan's Souvenir & Gift-Giving Culture
Sue Lynn

Omiyage Day (8 March): Exploring Japan's Souven...

Have you heard of omiyage (お土産)? If you’ve been to Japan, then you have probably seen the colourful and beautifully packaged boxes of local confectionery filling the gift shops along...

Carissa Loh Culture

Omiyage Day (8 March): Exploring Japan's Souven...

Have you heard of omiyage (お土産)? If you’ve been to Japan, then you have probably...

March Maker's Story: Hand-grilled Rice Crackers from Akita by Kanaeya
Sue Lynn

March Maker's Story: Hand-grilled Rice Crackers...

The Tohoku Region is home to some of Japan’s best untouched nature. Take Akita as an example, a prefecture where lush landscapes meet premium rice fields. Renowned for its exceptional...

Sue Lynn Maker's Story

March Maker's Story: Hand-grilled Rice Crackers...

The Tohoku Region is home to some of Japan’s best untouched nature. Take Akita as...

March Maker’s Story: Obuse Chestnut Snacks from Takachiho (Winner of JR East Omiyage Grand Prix 2023 - Koshin’etsu Area Prize)
Sue Lynn

March Maker’s Story: Obuse Chestnut Snacks from...

If you have been to Japan, you will understand the universal struggle of finding the perfect souvenir or omiyage (お土産) to bring home for your loved ones and colleagues. While...

Sue Lynn Maker's Story

March Maker’s Story: Obuse Chestnut Snacks from...

If you have been to Japan, you will understand the universal struggle of finding the...

Hina Matsuri (3 March): Japan’s Spring Festival Celebrating Girls’ Day
Sue Lynn

Hina Matsuri (3 March): Japan’s Spring Festival...

Displaying exquisitely made hina-ningyo dressed in traditional Heian attire is the main activity associated with the Hina Matsuri | ©photoAC Have you ever heard of Japan’s Hina Matsuri (雛祭)? Otherwise known...

Dawn Sim Culture

Hina Matsuri (3 March): Japan’s Spring Festival...

Displaying exquisitely made hina-ningyo dressed in traditional Heian attire is the main activity associated with the...

Inspired by Izu: Exploring Izu Peninsula Through The Eyes of Japanese Writers
Sue Lynn

Inspired by Izu: Exploring Izu Peninsula Throug...

If you are a fan of Japanese literature, take a walk in the footsteps of literary giants and look no further than Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島), which lies just about 1-2...

Dawn Sim Travel

Inspired by Izu: Exploring Izu Peninsula Throug...

If you are a fan of Japanese literature, take a walk in the footsteps of...

Mount Fuji with tea plantation in the foreground
Sue Lynn

Mount Fuji Day (23 February): 5 Ways to Enjoy J...

Standing at 3,776m above sea level, the almost perfectly symmetrical Mount Fuji (富士山 Fujisan) is Japan’s highest mountain, and has become a symbol of the country, recognised worldwide for its...

Carissa Loh Travel

Mount Fuji Day (23 February): 5 Ways to Enjoy J...

Standing at 3,776m above sea level, the almost perfectly symmetrical Mount Fuji (富士山 Fujisan) is...

Happy Cat Day (22 February): 5 Cat Islands in Japan to Meet Feline Friends
Sue Lynn

Happy Cat Day (22 February): 5 Cat Islands in J...

Are you a cat (猫 neko) lover? If you’ve been to Japan, you might have noticed how beloved cats are over there. Think maneki-neko (招き猫) cat figurines that beckon luck,...

Carissa Loh Culture

Happy Cat Day (22 February): 5 Cat Islands in J...

Are you a cat (猫 neko) lover? If you’ve been to Japan, you might have...

In the Mood for Love: Romancing on Valentine’s Day in Japan
Sue Lynn

In the Mood for Love: Romancing on Valentine’s ...

Love is in the air in February with Valentine’s Day! On 14 February, Valentine’s Day is universally celebrated across the globe where presents like chocolates, candies, and flowers are gifted...

Wendy Ng Culture

In the Mood for Love: Romancing on Valentine’s ...

Love is in the air in February with Valentine’s Day! On 14 February, Valentine’s Day...

Romance Izu in the Air: 5 Romantic Spots in the Izu Peninsula
Sue Lynn

Romance Izu in the Air: 5 Romantic Spots in the...

With so many captivating attractions, you can spend days exploring the Izu Peninsula with your loved one, but where to start? Here are our top five picks for romantic dating...

Carissa Loh Travel

Romance Izu in the Air: 5 Romantic Spots in the...

With so many captivating attractions, you can spend days exploring the Izu Peninsula with your...

A Side Trip to Saitama: Discovering “Little Edo”, Cafes, and the Railway Museum
Sue Lynn

A Side Trip to Saitama: Discovering “Little Edo...

Located just about half an hour north of Central Tokyo, Ōmiya Station (大宮駅 Ōmiya-eki) is the gateway to the neighbouring Saitama Prefecture (埼玉県). It is also a stop on more...

JAPANKURU Travel

A Side Trip to Saitama: Discovering “Little Edo...

Located just about half an hour north of Central Tokyo, Ōmiya Station (大宮駅 Ōmiya-eki) is...

February Maker’s Story: Shizuoka-grown Wasabi by Kameya Foods
Sue Lynn

February Maker’s Story: Shizuoka-grown Wasabi b...

Are you familiar with wasabi (わさび)? Made from the Wasabia japonica plant, wasabi or the Japanese horseradish is a unique spice native to Japan and is a staple in Japanese...

Sue Lynn Maker's Story

February Maker’s Story: Shizuoka-grown Wasabi b...

Are you familiar with wasabi (わさび)? Made from the Wasabia japonica plant, wasabi or the...

Winter Wonderland: 7 Snowiest Cities in Japan and Must-do Activities
Sue Lynn

Winter Wonderland: 7 Snowiest Cities in Japan a...

Winter season in Japan boasts some of its most amazing and picturesque sceneries, especially in regions lying alongside the Sea of Japan (日本海), otherwise known as Yukiguni (雪国), or Snow...

Dawn Sim Festival

Winter Wonderland: 7 Snowiest Cities in Japan a...

Winter season in Japan boasts some of its most amazing and picturesque sceneries, especially in...