Celebrate the New Year Japanese-style in Tokyo and take part in some of the city's unique events
New Year is a magical time in Tokyo. Japan’s most important and traditional holiday, the o-shogatsu season sees the country slow down to celebrate the start of the year. In Tokyo, January sees temples and shrines heave with visitors making their first visit of the year (hatsumode) and department stores are equally packed as savvy shoppers hunt for bargains in the sales and pick up fukubukuro (lucky bags). Here’s a rundown of some of the highlights to look out for if you are in Tokyo for New Year.
Meiji Jingu Shrine
Nestled next to Yoyogi Park, Tokyo’s largest Shinto shrine sees crowds 50 people wide line the long path from the main entrance for much of the night on New Year’s Eve. Get in line around 11pm and be prepared for a long wait if you want to be amongst the first to celebrate. The first three days of the year see literally millions of people make a pilgrimage here - so many that a special additional platform (usually only used by the Imperial Family) at neighbouring Harajuku Station is put into use to accommodate the throngs of people. Once you make it through the line and have tossed some coins into the collection box at the main shrine, continue through the grounds where stands offer warm sake, festival fare and games.
Open all night Dec 31-Jan1.
Nearest station: Harajuku, Yoyogi-Koen or Meiji-Jingumae.
Sensoji Temple, Asakusa
Meiji-jingu’s main rival at o-shogatsu is Sensoji, Tokyo’s largest Buddhist temple, in Asakusa. Hordes of people head to this iconic temple, known for the giant lantern hanging in the main gateway, in the old Shitamachi area of Tokyo to pay their respects and purchase lucky items for their Buddhist altars at home.
The street that runs down the centre of the temple grounds, known as Nakamichi-dori, is home to shops selling traditional crafts that have plied their trade here many hundreds of years since the Edo period. Be sure to sample some of the traditional sweets and check out the souvenirs as you head for the main temple. Once you reach the front, it is customary to throw coins into the large collection boxes. Most opt for the five yen piece as its name "gyoen" is a homonym for good luck in Japanese. You'll notice that the guards at the temple stand inside protective screens to shield them from all the flying coinage, so it is best to watch out in case you get hit from behind by a stray yen! New Year also sees the grounds fill with stands offering o-mochi (sticky rice cakes) and other seasonal foods, hot sake, cold beer and you’ll see many Tokyoite.
Nearest station: Asakusa.
This popular temple in the Minato-ku area offers some unique twists on the more standard New Year celebrations with a large balloon release of about 3,000 balloons bearing wishes for the coming year. Papers are handed out from 8:30pm and balloons from 10:30pm. A special ceremony starts at 11:30pm culminating in a countdown to midnight.
Zojoji Temple, 4-7-35 Shibakoen, Minato-ku.
Nearest station: Shibakoen or Onarimon.
Almost every neighbourhood has a small Buddhist temple where New Year will be celebrated with bell ringing. During the night “Watch-Night” bells are rung 108 times to mark the passing of the year and to get rid of the 108 worldly desires. If you hear the bells and want to join in, just head to the nearest temple. You’ll more than likely find the neighbourhood out in force and there’s bound to be someone passing round hot sweet sake.
The Emperor's New Year greeting
Unlike Buckingham Palace or the White House, there are only two days a year that the Imperial Palace opens to the public and both fall in winter. On December 23, the Emperor’s Birthday, and a national holiday in Japan, the inner grounds of the palace are opened. Then on January 2, the Emperor makes several more public appearances to mark the New Year. The Emperor and other family members are scheduled to appear on a glassed-in balcony around 10:10, 11:00, 11:50, 12:40, 13:30, 14:20 and 15:20, waving regally and making a shortly statement to the flag-waving and camera-toting crowds below.
Kokyo, 1-1 Chiyoda-ku; 03-3213-1111.
Nearest station: Hanzomon, Nijubashimae.
Dezome-shiki (New Year's Parade of Firemen)
Organised by the Tokyo Fire Department, this is a unique event that celebrates the work of firefighters through demonstrations of traditional ladder stunts and modern firefighting technology. Firefighters dressed in Edo-era (17th century) costumes perform acrobatic routines on bamboo ladders, thrilling the crowds with their agility. Similar events are held throughout Japan, the Tokyo event in Odaiba also features over 100 fire engines, rescue helicopters and large-scale firefighting and emergency drills. The Dezome-shiki event is free and held during the day on January 6 each year
Tokyo Big Sight, Ariake 3-chome, Koto-ku; 03-3212-2111.
Nearest station: Kokusai-Tenjijo.
Bear in mind that many local restaurants and smaller shops may be closed over the holiday period (typically 1st-3rd of January).