Here comes busy December. What is it like in Japan?

Lots of events related to Buddhism, Shintoism and Christianity take place in Japan’s December, and people get busier than usual. Let’s look how Japanese people spend one of the winter months.


– Greetings for year end to people who are involved in your business and activities.

The twelve months have each Japanese classic name. December is called Shiwasu that means in old days Buddhist priests used to be too busy and run from house to house to recite a sutra.



Nowadays too, people are busier than usual for Japanese unique customs. For example businesspeople are busy with deadlines by the fiscal year end or visiting their clients with some gifts (sweets, calendar for the next year, etc) to thank them wishing their continuing dealings, etc.


Talking about greeting cards, though in the present day we enjoy convenient tool named “internet” and we emails New Year greetings online, still many people prefer writing greeting cards to their important clients, families and friends.

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In addition, Nengajo (New Year greeting card) also works as a mini lottery ticket. See the image below. You can see the numbers in the down side of the card. Prizes are like this: 1st prize is free travel ticket or home appliances that are worth 100,000 yen.

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If you love Hello Kitty, as some of you might already know, you can buy Hello Kitty Nengajo (57 yen / card) at a post office.


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– Many events to attend.

Many companies hold year-end party in an izakaya (Japanese pub) to reflect on the year and saying each other words of appreciation on their hard work. This party is called “Bonenkai” which literally means “party to forget the year” to go for the new year with fresh mind.

Also active people are busy with Christmas parties, and New Year events such as concerts.


– Traditional December life.

Now I would like to show you very Japanese and traditional the end-year scene seen from December beginning to the year-end.


  1. What’s the origin of Japanese New Year celebration?

People have been familiar with one of the Japan’s religions, the Shintoism that has thousands of gods. It is said that the Toshigami, one of the gods who descends to earth to bless the happiness of the year in each family. The Toshigami is also believed to be a god of rice fields and mountains, so He is related to prosperity of descendants and fertility, giving people happiness and healthy life. Also he is called Shougatsu-sama (New year god), Toshitokujin (the Virtuous god).People have much to do towards the year end to welcome the god.


  1. Shopping for the New Year.

Toshi no Ichi (End-year market)

Instead of Occidental Christmas market, end-year markets (Toshi no Ichi) are held around December 13 to 23 in Japan where you can buy home decorations and goods for the New Year, such as Hagoita (Wooden racket decorated with colorful flower and doll for ornamental purpose) and fortune-inviting goods.



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The event is originated in the Edo period and developed in or near shrines. One of the famous markets in Tokyo is held in Kanda-Myojin and Asakusa.

3. Total house cleaning

In the last ten days (it depends on each family. Some families need less days), they clean up every tiny space where they usually don’t clean in a daily life. This event is to welcome the Toshigami (The New-year god) for the coming New Year. Be careful that He will leave you if you do the cleaning on January 1st.



4. Get rid of bad luck.

They get rid of ill luck in the shrine twice a year. The first one is in June end and the second one is in December end.


5. New Year’s Eve.

Nowadays depending on families and regions, but traditionally they prepare the best dinner in the New Year eve for the special tomorrow. Especially they prefer fish dish called Toshitori-sakana (Dish for the Toshigami god). As this country is surrounded by the sea, the supreme dish is considered to be fish one. Especially sea bream is one of the preferable fish because it is called “tai” in Japanese which is phonetically included in the Japanese word “medeTAI” (happy). Other preferable fish are yellowtail in the western Japan and salmon in the east.


After fabulous dinner time, many families are watching TV programs like “Kohaku Utagassen” in which ladies group and men group compete in the stage performance. At or after 11:00 pm, they begin to prepare noodle dish called “Toshikoshi soba” which means new-year-eve noodles.

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What’s the origin of Toshikoshi soba?

It is said that the custom began in the Edo period (17th-19th Century). Merchants in those days used to eat soba at every month end, which was called “Misoka (30th day) soba (noodles)”. Later the custom shifted to that they eat noodles in the new-year eve.


Buckwheat noodles are considered to be long life for their length. On the other hand soba is easy to cut than other types of noodles, so people thought it cuts off bad luck from them.


When the clock turns 0:00, everyone says “Akemashite Omedetou” (Happy New Year). And then they go out to a temple to ring a bell (Joya no kane) enjoying free hot rice liquor (Amazake) served there. Also every shrine is lit up and opened to welcome people coming to pray for their good luck through the year. As there are many events all through the night, public transportation is available until the early morning.



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What’s Joya no kane?

People ring the bell in the temple 108 times when it is around 0:00.

Joya means literally “to pass by the new-year eve to welcome the New Year”. In old days people used to be awake all through the night for the god that blesses us with prosperity and new life.


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Why 108 times?

It is because in Buddhism they say we have 108 worldly worries and greediness that disturb people’s peace of mind, so they ring 108 times to get rid or them for the fresh year.

I recommend that you travel in Japan around year end and feel the lively atmosphere different from other months. Enjoy your trip!