Shogatsu: Japanese New Year’s Day

After the busy time in December (cleaning, cooking, writing New Year cards) and then finally celebrating New Year’s Eve (Omisoka), what’s happening next? The first day of January is the most important holiday of the year. It is called “Shogatsu” (正月).
On Shogatsu families come together, eat expensive food and visit shrines. It’s a little bit similar to our Western-style Christmas in my opinion.

While it might vary from family to family there are a few traditions that still remain until today. These New Year’s Day traditions are:


1. Shogatsu Food: Osechi Ryori

The best thing about Japanese New Year’s Day (Shogatsu) is the food. Traditionally people eat “osechi ryori” (お節料理), but as it is expensive or takes a lot of time if you make it yourself, a lot of people go for sushi or even Western-style food nowadays.

Osechi ryori consists of many different types of dishes put into compact boxes (jubako, 重箱) that resemble bento boxes.

The tradition of osechi ryori started in the Heian Period (794-1185). The food might vary from region to region, but each dish has its own meaning.

Osechi Ryori, typical Japanese New Year's Day shogatsu food

Kohaku Kamaboko (紅白蒲鉾, red and white kamaboko): Red and white are the festive colors in Japan. Red has a celebratory meaning, white is a holy color. Kamaboko stands for the first sunrise of the new year.

Kuromame (黒豆, black soybeans): The word “mame” also means health. Eating black soybeans will make sure you’ll stay healthy in the new year.

Kazunoko (数の子, herring roe): Kazu means “number” and ko means “child.” If you eat a lot, you might be blessed with children in the new year.

Daidai (橙, Japanese bitter orange): Daidai can also be written with the kanji “代々” then meaning “from generation to generation”. Just like “kazunoko” it symbolizes a wish for children.

Datemaki (伊達巻き, sweet rolled omelette mixed with mashed shrimp or fish paste): This food originally comes from Nagasaki. During the Edo Period the “castella kamaboko” was said to look like the fashionable people in their beautiful festive kimonos (伊達者, datesha) and so it was called “datemaki”. It symbolizes the wish to be fashionable.

Kuri-Kinton (栗きんとん, mashed sweet potato with sweet chestnuts): The golden color of the food symbolizes a wish for wealth and success in competitions.

Konbu (昆布, a kind of seaweed): It is associated with the word yorokobu (喜ぶ, joy). Thus, konbu is not only used as food, but also as a New Year’s decoration.

Tai (鯛, red sea-bream): Tai is associated with the Japanese word medetai (めでたい, auspicious), so it’s just the perfect dish to celebrate the start of a new year.

Tazukuri (田作り, dried sardines cooked in soy sauce): Tazukuri (田作り, lit.: rice field maker) are small fish that were used to fertilize rice paddies. It symbolizes the wish for a rich harvest.

Ebi (エビ, shrimp): The shrimp symbolizes a long life “until your hips bend” (= until you get very old).

These were just a few dishes that are part of the osechi ryori on Japanese New Year’s Day (Shogatsu).

Zoni, a traditional soup with vegetables and mochi eaten on shogatsu (Japanese New Year's Day)

Another traditional food for Shogatsu is a soup called Zoni (雑煮). It consists of mochi (rice cake) and vegetables. It’s a very delicious soup and I personally like it a lot.
However, because of the stickiness of the rice cake, there are some choking accidents every year. It happens especially with older people.
So just a word of warning! Always eat your mochi slowly and chew well!! smilie



2. The first shrine visit of the year: Hatsumode

Hatsumode (初詣) is something you can experience yourself if you visit Japan in early January.
It’s the first shrine visit of the year and a very important custom. Some people go right after midnight, but the majority visits a shrine on January 1st (Shogatsu 正月) and the following days.

After they spent a calm morning together, eating delicious osechi ryori, Japanese families go to their local shrine to pray for good fortune in the new year. Some go to the big and famous shrines, but it’s extremely crowded there!
Even I experienced it once together with a Japanese family. We had to stand in line in the cold for many hours. A lot of police officers had to take care of the situation.

The first shrine visit is also used to get rid of old fortune and protection charms and to buy new ones, often with the zodiac of the new year.
After praying to the deities of the shrine, people line up to buy new lucky charms or omikuji.

Hamaya, protection arrows at Japanese shrines often bought on shogatsu (Japanese New Year's Day)

Hamaya (破魔矢, demon exorcism arrow) with the zodiac of the year 2012, the dragon. Most people will buy one to protect their house from evil spirits.

Hatsumode: the first shrine visit of the year in Japan often on shogatsu (Japanese New Year's Day)

Some people wear traditional clothes and come in their festive kimono to the shrine.

Apart from the first shrine visit, there are a lot of other “firsts” of the new year. One that is still seen as very important is the “first sunrise of the year” (初日の出, hatsuhinode). On Shogatsu some people get up very early and go to a place from where they will have a great chance of seeing the first sunrise (e.g. on top of a mountain).


3. No presents, but money: Otoshidama

For me Japanese New Year’s Day is a lot like Christmas. Thus, there have to be presents!
And there are! Japanese children get a present from their relatives (sometimes even from neighbors), called “otoshidama” (お年玉).
Otoshidama is just money, but usually quite a lot, and is handed over in a special envelope called “otoshidama bukuro” (お年玉袋).

How much money a kid receives depends on many factors such as age, the number of siblings or the income of the person who gives the money.
Usually elementary school kids can expect 1000-5000 yen per envelope while high school students might receive 10.000 yen. To prevent jealousy between siblings they often get the same amount nowadays despite their age.

I think this is a great tradition and better than giving a (possibly unwanted) present!


4. New Year’s Decoration:

As New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are the two most important holidays in Japan, it goes without saying that it also involves a lot of festive decoration.
A lot is already put out at the end of December such as Kadomatsu or Kagami-Mochi. Please have a look at the blog post about Omisoka – Japanese New Year’s Eve for more information about New Year’s Decoration.


5. Traditional games vs. lucky bags

January 1st (shogatsu) was traditionally supposed to be a very calm day spent together with the family.
You are not supposed to do any chores or work which is why Japanese people are always so busy in December. They need to get done before January 1st hits.

There are a lot of traditional games that will bring the family together on that day such as:

Hanetsuki (羽根突き, Japanese badminton), takoage (凧揚げ, kite flying), karuta (カルタ, a card game), koma (独楽, top) or sugoroku (双六, a board game).

Fukuwarai, traditional Japanese game

Fukuwarai (福笑) is also a traditional Japanese game. A blindfolded person needs to put eyes, eyebrows, a nose and a mouth on a printed poster face. It’s a lot of fun! Above you see the one that I “created” when I couldn’t see what I was doing. smilie

As everything (shops, restaurants) used to be closed on January 1st (shogatsu), it was easy to spend a calm day together with the family.

Recently, though, this tradition is changing more and more.
Huge sales are taking place in big department stores – even on New Year’s Day.
Nowadays a lot of people stand in line twice: once for their first shrine visit and then in the department stores.

Something that has gotten quite popular are so-called “fukubukuro” (福袋, lucky bags) that you can find everywhere in early January. Not only big department stores, but also small outlet stores or even Mr. Donuts offer those bags that contain a variety of the shop’s products, but you won’t know what is inside until you actually buy and open it.

That’s how a lot of Japanese kids spend their otoshidama money! smilie

Talking to some middle-aged Japanese people showed me that they don’t really like that change. They are sad that the traditions slowly disappear and that “shogatsu” is not spent quietly with the family, but is turning into a hectic day just like any other.

How about you? What do you think about the recent changes? Is it something good or bad?
Or is it just inevitable?

One word of warning for people who think about traveling to Japan during winter vacation:
A lot of tourist attractions and also tourist information centers are closed from the end of December to the beginning of January. The time span to look out for is December 29th – January 4th!

When you meet someone for the first time in the new year, please say:
(akemashite omedetou gozaimasu, “Happy New Year!”)


あけましておめでとう! smilie
Happy New Year, everyone! smilie


  • We always have ozoni for breakfast on New Years day in Japan. It is a great New Years tradition for us. We also always look forward to catching up with family and relatives and spend the day relaxing, eating and drinking.

    • The soup is really easy to make, so I think it’s great to have it on New Year’s Day – even outside of Japan. Osechi is also nice, but such a hassle to make if you can’t buy it anywhere.

  • I like how the Japanese have a “First of the Year” for nearly everything, including onsen visits :) I’m quite glad that not everything is closed anymore on the 1st and I quite like fukubukuro, but then I don’t really have any family to spent time with when I spent New Year in Japan.

    On the other side… sometimes it’s better not to spent too much time with your family :)

    • For traveling I totally agree. Although I know it and am prepared for it, it’s just annoying when tourist information centers are closed …. or sightseeing locations!

      Haha, I agree, but I guess for Japanese people it’s really a great chance to come together. The children often move away to a big city like Tokyo for jobs, marry, have their own little family and during the year there aren’t many chances to visit each other – especially if the parents’ house is far away.

  • I really hope to once celebrate New Year’s in Japan! :heart: And I’ve always wanted to eat osechi, especially ozoni :shiawase: It looks really pretty as well.
    I love how they still have all these traditions like we have for Christmas, but I guess that too is changing like you said with all the commercialization and the likes.
    I’d still love to have myself a fukubukuro :satisfied:

    Thanks so much for sharing, I really enjoyed this entry :luvit:

    • I hope you’ll get a chance to experience it some day! ^____^
      Luckily they’re not very tempting for me. I guess one could spend a little fortune on those lucky bags and be disappointed in the end! ;P

      Glad you enjoyed it! :3

  • Gorgeous post!! As for Osechi, I’d made it myself until 5 years ago. In 2007 on 31(Omisoka), I injured my finger when cooking and went to hospital. Since then I’ve always ordered two sets of it at a department store. Of the osechi, I love Datemaki!! As for Hatsumode, famous shrines are extremely crowded during New Year’s holiday so I visit a small shrine near my house instead.
    May 2013 be a happy, prosperous year to you!!

    • I’m sorry to hear that you injured your finger while trying, but I guess it was still an interesting experience (the cooking not the thing with your finger:sweatdrop2: ).
      I also try to avoid the popular shrines, but when I’m traveling that’s usually more difficult (especially when one of the shrines was on my “to-visit-list”).

  • Wow, such a detailed post! That’s one ‘zanen’ thing about small island life, we don’t get as much variety, though at least its unique. On my old island we would go to the small shrine right after ringing the bells and midnight. Here, they go to the shrine at sunrise and make mochi ^_^. For some reason my elementary students this week arent a fan of me saying “chodai” after they tell me how much money they got ;-)

    • It sounds really interesting, though. I think I’d love to experience it once! :)
      IKR! When my students ask me for Christmas presents, I ask them to give me their otoshidama in return and they’re like: “Uh, nevermind.” *g*

  • I guess people in Japan works almost everyday in a year that’s the reason why the old traditional people kept one day for the family reunion and to keep their mind and body relaxed on that specific day. People should follow the traditional way so that it reaches new generation people. Business people utilizing this day to making good money and youngsters are falling into this well :)

    • I think that’s what “Shogatsu” (Japanese New Year’s Day) was supposed to be for, but recently people don’t relax on that day anymore.
      I agree! If it’s good traditions like in that case, people certainly should keep and follow them!

  • Hey these are all really cool. I was wondering what your favourite Japanese food was since you said it was one of the best parts about the Japan New Year? And why you would choose that over other Japanese foods?

    • The osechi ryori per se is what makes it so special. Most of the ingredients you can find during the whole year, but not as a set like for New Years.
      But what I like the most about it is that there’s a meaning behind each and every food presented on that day (I’ve mentioned this in this blog post).

  • I really enjoyed this post after having experienced New Year’s Eve/Day in Nagano. The various food symbolism was somewhat explained to me, but I feel you’ve detailed it in a more understandable way ;)

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