While Japan is known for its unique cultural festivals, it’s also adopted several western holiday traditions – including Christmas and New Year celebrations – with several small changes. Here’s a quick guide to the festive season in the land of the rising sun.
クリスマス | Christmas
Although it’s still recognized as a special day, Christmas in Japan generally lacks the religious connotations that many other nations place on it – in fact, it’s mostly seen as a great date night for couples. However, Japan does have a small Christian population, who observe the day in similar ways to their religious counterparts around the world.
English-speaking countries have grown used to Santa Claus (now sponsored by Coca-Cola), but another prominent white-haired capitalist features in the nascent Japanese tradition: Colonel Sanders. Millions of Japanese families indulge in the colonel’s secretive blend of herbs and spices on December 25 every year, ever since a wildly successful ‘Kentucky for Christmas’ marketing push back in 1974.
お節料理 | Osechi-ryōri
One thing that doesn’t change regardless of the season is the overwhelming importance of food in Japan. As you may have guessed, the country takes its eating very seriously. The national cuisine has developed over many centuries, and certain foods are inextricably linked with specific times of the year. One of the best examples of this is osechi-ryōri – the selection of traditional foods eaten by families between January 1-3.
Resembling elaborate bento boxes, every item is impeccably presented, and the food inside represents the family’s wishes and hopes for the coming year. For example, the presence of kazunoko (herring roe) symbolizes a wish to be blessed with multiple new additions to the family over the coming year – no pressure if your mother-in-law presents you with one of these.
除夜の鐘 | Joya no kane
What’s the best part of New Year’s Eve? Is it the communal festive vibe while everyone waits for the clock to strike midnight? Is it the fireworks? Is it the ritual purification?
If you answered ritual purification, you’re in luck. Deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy, this tradition involves a bell being rung 108 times in total to represent the 108 ‘defilements’ or earthly desires. The bell is struck 107 times on New Year’s Eve, and one final 108th time as the clock strikes twelve. Similar to western ideas like new year’s resolutions (#newyearnewme), it symbolizes letting go of past mistakes and flaws, and focusing on starting the new year free of anxiety or emotional baggage.
御年玉 | Otoshidama
Being a kid in Japan can be difficult. The life of a young student is typically a busy one – with after-school club activities and even cram school taking up a substantial portion of the day, only for the poor child to return home to begin on tomorrow’s homework. Luckily, kids are rewarded for their hard work and good behavior much like adults are: with cold, hard cash.
While it’s not going to allow them to live out their fantasies of building a real-life mech suit or plugging themselves into an alternate reality video game, the sums of money given to kids around New Year are generally substantial to the point where 5,000 yen or more is not considered uncommon.
福袋 | Fukubukuro
Ordering and opening assorted fukubukuro or ‘lucky bags’ has become a Christmas and New Year staple for shopping enthusiasts in Japan, to the point where it’s very much a part of the holiday season.
From designer fashion to anime collectibles, you can find incredible value for your hard-earned yen during this special sales period. The catch? You often don’t really know what you’re going to get in your secret bundle. Rest assured though, because the value really is outstanding in most cases.
These are some of the most wanted gifts of the year, and often have to be pre-ordered to make sure you get the mystery bundle of your choice. If you’re in Japan around New Year’s Eve and have some room in your suitcase, why not try to get your hands on one of these fun mystery boxes and see what all the hype is about?
Looking for more Japan-inspired blog posts? Check out some of our guides here, full of local recommendations and insider tips.