New Year is one of the best seasons to visit Tokyo, not only because the city has a diverse and fun nightlife, but also because it is one of the best times to experience many traditional elements of the Japanese culture. In Japan, the New Year’s celebration is a family time, unlike in the West, where Christmas tends to be the more family orientated holiday. There is a real “holiday spirit” in Japan at New Year; and as it’s a family holiday, there are many traditional activities for people of all ages, so that everybody can enjoy themselves and have an unforgettable night.
Among the things not to be missed at this time of year in Japan is to try eating tashikoshi soba on the New Year’s eve. The idea behind eating this long and thin noodle dish is to wish for a long and healthy life. Many soba shops in the city prepare this dish specially for this day, but be aware that many stores will be fully booked with people eager to have some, so you must be prepared to wait in line for a while, but it’s worth it! Another very popular dish is the osechi, a collection of many traditional Japanese dishes in a three layered box. Unfortunately, not many restaurants serve the osechi, but many other shops sell ready made boxes, which are designed to be shared with the family.
Besides eating, many places in Tokyo hold special New Year’s countdown events or parties. The most popular are the parties held at the Tokyo Sky Tree and Tokyo Tower. However, if you want to attend one of these parties, be prepared to wait in line, as they are extremely popular. However, even if you are not able to go all the way up to the top observation deck, you can have a good time and enjoy the countdown. If you are looking to have a night on the town, many clubs in Roppongi hold countdown parties. However, if you don’t have a large budget, these options may seem a little expensive, but there are many other, cheaper alternatives to enjoy New Year in Japan.
Hanayashiki Amusement Park,
Tokyo is a city that has a long history, a reason why it should not surprise you that the first amusement park ever built in Japan can still be found and operating in the heart of the city, in mid XXI century. Hanayashiki was founded in 1853, in the Edo period, and it was opened as a flower park. The park was then modernised in 1872 with the erection of children’s playgrounds and the addition of exotic animals. The park continued changing until eventually, it became the first amusement park in the country.
Hanayashiki can be found in the Asakusa area, very close to the Sensoji temple. Amazingly, the park has been able to accommodate around 36 different attractions in a very small terrain, including Japan’s first roller coaster, a haunted house, and the Space Shot, a ride in which people are harnessed and then rapidly launched to the top of a yellow tower. Another very popular attraction is the Bee Tower, an elevated gondola that allows people to have a great view of the city, including the Tokyo Sky Tree and Sensoji temple.
This year Hanayashiki celebrated its 160 anniversary, and held a special countdown event on New Year’s eve. From 10 pm, you need to pay an entrance fee of 1000 yen to have access to 5 attractions: Bee Tower, Obake Yashiki (Japanese style haunted house), Bikuri House (“Surprising House”, currently the oldest operational attraction of the park), the Merry Go Round and the Swan Lake. It also had a special countdown ceremony and you can access other smaller games such as shooting galleries.
Its proximity to Sensoji Temple, and its family oriented celebration makes it the perfect place to have a delightful New Year’s eve. You can find Hanayashiki very close to exit 3 of the Asakusa Station of Tokyo Metro. You just need to walk your way to the main building of the Sensoji temple and turn left, you’ll immediately see the Bee Tower and the Space Shot Tower, then continue walking in that direction and you’ll find the main entrance.
Hatsumode: First Visit of the Year to a Temple.
After the New Year’s countdown, it is a tradition in Japan to do the hatsumode, or the first visit of the year to a temple, and say thanks for both, the past and the New Year. Among the most popular places to visit are the Meiji Jingu, close to JR Harajuku Station, and Sensoji, the most important and famous temple in Tokyo, located in the Asakusa neighborhood. Many people try to avoid big crowds and just visit the nearest temple to their home. It doesn’t matter where you go, the important thing is that, if you are visiting Japan during this time of the year, this is an event that you cannot miss. We recommend you to go to Sensoji temple, because it is a more complete and organized experience than at other temples. It also has a small “matsuri” or festival around the temple, with many food and game stalls, which makes it a lot more fun, and allows you to experience two different Japanese traditions.
During New Year’s Eve, Sensoji will be totally arranged and prepared to receive the coming year. Its organization is exceptional. Some people arrive very early to say thank you before the New Year. Due to the temple’s importance, it is one of the most crowded, thousands of people will arrive to fulfill this Japanese tradition. However, you have nothing to worry about. Thanks to the temple’s logistic and the participation of the Tokyo police department, the line to access the altar moves very fast and in an orderly fashion. The line to access the main altar normally reaches to one or two blocks away from the Kaminarimon (The Thunder Gate), the symbol of both, Asakusa and the city of Tokyo. When I visited, it took me around one and a half hours to walk along the path to reach the main altar. This might seem like a long time, but actually at the time, it seemed very quick as waiting in line with others makes it more of a social event. As it’s a celebratory time there is a wonderful atmosphere and it’s a good chance to mix with the locals and see first hand how Japanese people experience their own traditions.
We must remember that hatsumode is a ritual, and that it has its own process. Firstly, it is very important that, before you get in line to access the main altar, you don’t forget to wash your hands in the well of water, normally located next to the Temple’s entrance, to purify yourself. Then, you have to wait in line and once you reach the altar, follow the next steps:
1.- Say thank you to the gods.
2.-Throw a coin (normally a 5 yen piece).
3.- Ring the bell (if there is one).
4.- Bow twice.
5.- Clap your hands twice.
6.- Make a wish (or more)
After exiting the altar hall, its time to enjoy the festival surrounding the temple. Many people also take this opportunity to draw the omikuji, which is a kind of horoscope, sold at temples, to find out if you will have good luck in the new year. They cost 100 yen, and you get them by shaking a hexagonal box that contains numbered sticks. After shaking them, you take one stick and look for the box with the same number. Many temples only have the omikuji written in Japanese, but in Sensoji there’s also an English option. You can get five different types of luck: daikichi (excellent); chuukichi (very good); kichi (good); suekichi (good but your luck will take a little time to arrive); kyou (bad); and, daikyou (very bad). If you get one of the first four normally you can keep it, depending on the interpretation you give to the written message. If you get one of the last two, you can tie the paper to one of the trees in the designated area, in an attempt to avoid any bad luck.
Once you have completed all these rituals its time to grab a bite to eat in one of the many food stands surrounding the temple. Many of them sell simple food such as takoyaki, or yakisoba. If the weather is very cold, we suggest you try the nabe, a Japanese stew, very popular during this season. Don’t forget to try a hot sake and make a toast to the New Year. By celebrating in this way, we are sure that you not only will have a great time, but you’ll also have a complete Japanese experience.