The end of the year and beginning of another is a special time. People associate it with family time, celebrating holidays, and joy. This was my first time spending the holiday season in another country, and there was quite a bit that is very different in Japan (called Nihon 日本 in Japanese) compared to America.
I can’t think of a set food eaten at Christmas in the states. People typically eat a very nice dinner and drink egg nog or hot chocolate and enjoy their Christmas sweets. In Japan however, there are two foods that are staples for the holiday (that actually isn’t a holiday because people still are expected to go in to work).
Those staples are KFC and Christmas cake. Every Christmas party or gathering I went to had fried chicken and cake, and the most entertaining thing about their presence to me was the fact that some Japanese people thought they got the tradition from the west. Turns out cake is just associated with special occasions (Happy birthday Jesus) and KFC had a clever marketing plan in the 70s that made fried chicken seem like the norm. For my dorm Christmas party we literally just ate fried chicken, sushi, and cake. Very Japanese.
Illumination is also associated with the Christmas season in Japan, and while having beautiful light displays is similar to the US, going to see them as couples is quite Japanese. I kid you not, practically everyone at the various illumination displays (several of which are up through February) was a couple. It was also clear they were couples because they were holding hands, which is very rarely seen in public in Japan. Every time I asked someone about the lights they said they were really romantic. Seriously, Christmas felt more like Valentine’s Day! Several of the illuminations I saw up in Roppongi Hills even had hearts, and there was a big heart made out of lights on Tokyo Tower!
New Year’s had a completely different feeling about it too. Instead of people going out an partying on New Year’s Eve, they have bonenkai (忘年会) which is a big drinking party to forget all the bad things about the past year. On New Year’s Eve, many people go to a shrine to welcome the new year and pray, and I have never seen the local shrine more crowded!
It was a much quieter celebration than in America, with a lot more focus on new beginnings, reflection, and family. People brought their children with them to the shrine and ate food from various stalls. The shrine workers also pounded fresh mochi and gave it away for free. It was quite delicious and I enjoyed bringing in the new year in typical Japanese fashion.
Starting on New Year’s Day, there are several things that are traditions for the Japanese, such as eating osechi (おせち), which is a meal where every food has a symbolic purpose, viewing hatsuhi no de (初日の出), the first sunrise of the new year, cleaning their house, and hatsumode (初も出), the first shrine visit of the year where they buy new charms for good fortune in the coming year and dispose of the charms from the former year.
明けましておめでとうございます！Happy New Year!