Japanese New Year Traditions (Part 3)

At the stroke of midnight you’ll hear the ringing of bells as shrines around the country participate in joya-no-kane (除夜の鐘), a New Year’s Eve/New Year’s tradition where the bells are rung 107 times in the old Year and once in the New Year. The bells are rung at Buddhist temples to symbolize the 108 earthly temptations from their faith and to get rid of the 108 worldly desires regarding sense and feeling in every Japanese citizen.

joyanokane illustration

Prior to midnight if you could find it on NHK you could watch Kōhaku Uta Gassen, commonly referred to as Kōhaku. This is an annual and traditional NYE celebration in Japan comparable to the countdown and ball drop in Time’s Square. This year is the 72nd annual event with the first live audience in two years.

Much like the popular singing shows in America the program divides the most popular music artists of the year into competing teams of red and white. The “red” team or akagumi (赤組, 紅組) is composed of all female artists (or groups with female vocals) and the “white” team or shirogumi (白組) is all male (or groups with male vocals). At the end, judges and the audience vote to decide which group performed better. Performing on Kōhaku is strictly by invitation only is said to be a big highlight in a singer’s career. This year’s winner was the red team, #girlpower!!

With the first rising of the sun in the new year many will be out participating in hatsushinode (初日の出). Based on the belief that the god Toshigami, who brings good luck, arrived with the first sunrise of the year, many folks, myself included will be out to greet this new year.

初日の出 over Tokyo Bay

Today is also the first arrival day for nengajō (年賀状), Japanese New Year’s Day postcards.

Nengajō for 2022, the year of the tiger

Similar to the American tradition of sending Christmas and New Year’s cards, this is the busiest time of year for the Japanese post offices, so much so that they normally hire student labor. Sent to family and friends historically it was a way to touch base with those you didn’t see often.

Otoshidama examples

While waiting for the mail to arrive Japanese parents can keep the excitement going by passing out otoshidama. This is a monetary gift 🎁 given to children by parents and family members. While there is no set amount it can be as much as ¥5000 (~$45). The money is presented in special envelopes called pochi-bukuro which have different designs based on the preference of the giver. The zodiac animal of the year is often a popular design.

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