Many people ask me if Christmas is celebrated in Japan. If you visit Japan in the last week of the year, you’ll probably see Christmas trees on display in hotel lobbies and beautiful Christmas decorations adorning the shops and department stores. You may even receive Christmas gifts from Japanese friends and hear Christmas carols being played in their homes. However, these customs are adopted from abroad and Christmas is not strictly celebrated in Japan, as the emphasis is on New Year Celebrations.
There are quite a few traditions associated with the Japanese New Year so I’ll try and explain a few of the main customs. Many people will send New Year’s Day postcards which are usually handwritten, but with the introduction of computer software it’s now possible to customise your cards and simplify this tradition if you have hundreds of postcards to send. Traditional food known as osechi-ryori is also eaten during New Year celebrations and this can vary from region to region (see picture below). It’s also common for children to receive a gift of money on New Year’s Day and this is given to them in envelopes decorated for the occasion. Rice cakes known as mochi are also prepared in the New Year period and eaten in January. If you’re lucky enough to stay with Japanese friends at New Year then you’ll probably be watching the very popular NHK music programme called Kohaku Uta Gassen on television, which showcases the most popular music for that year. Lastly, in the first few days of the new year, millions of people throughout Japan will visit shrines or temples. If you’re in Tokyo then Meiji Shrine in Harajuku is a popular place to offer a prayer.
I wouldn’t recommend a short visit to Japan during the New Year period as many shops, tourist attractions and even restaurants could be closed for as long as two weeks during this period. Many Japanese will take a holiday and often travel to domestic or overseas destinations at this time.
So don’t be afraid to give your Japanese friends Christmas presents as I’m sure they’ll be appreciated but it would be nice to try and understand some of the New Year customs and join in with these Japanese traditions to fully enjoy the festive season when you’re in Japan.