How Japan Rings in the New Year

Photos by Ari Beser Crowds gather at Zojoji Temple in Minato Tokyo to practice the tradition of Hatsumode, the first temple or shrine visit of the year.

Tokyo—“Tokyo’s going to be dead on New Year’s,” warned my friend Naoki, a resident of the capital city for the past 30 years and a veteran of its vibrant nightlife. “Everything will be closed, no one will be out, and if your friend is coming to visit you from home, and he’s never been to Japan, he may be disappointed.”

Naoki was only partly right. While Tokyo was far from the post-apocalyptic ghost town he dramatically painted, most of the shops and marketplaces in all but the major areas were in fact closed for the holidays. Japan takes time off for the last and first week of the year in favor of bringing in the New Year at home with family. The vibrant Shimokitazawa neighborhood, famed for its Bohemian atmosphere and trendy hangouts, had all but closed — except for a latte art café and a few thrift stores. In the major areas only the chain stores in Shibuya, Akihabara, and Shinjuku were open for business; local family owned restaurants had closed.

Tokyo wasn’t the only city that had gone quiet. When my friend arrived in Japan, we traveled to Nagano, arriving at night to find only one open restaurant in the vicinity of our traditional ryokan inn next to the famous Zenkoji temple.

For the three days following New Year’s Eve, millions of people visit temples and shrines all over Japan to pray for good luck in the coming year. Here is the practice in action at Fushimi Inari Taisho in Kyoto.

A Tokyo new year’s eve isn’t the out-of-control party —> Read More