For New Year’s, we decided to do a 6-day trip to Kyoto/Osaka partly as a getaway after 3 months’ worth of long distance, and partly (mostly) because there would be great food and shopping (from my POV) and fantastic photography opportunities (from his POV). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the slight ruffles regarding mismatched expectations about what the trip was really about – as one can see from the above divergence, the first day or so was punctuated by some passive aggression (from my part, I will admit) regarding how we should / had actually intended to spend our time in Japan. But luckily we weathered through that kerfuffle; an autopsy of that disagreement quickly revealed that my moodiness stemmed from being perpetually cold in the outdoors, traipsing from shrine to shrine – and once this was remedied through a scarf purchase, the rest of the trip was definitely much more enjoyable. I had to grudgingly accept that this NYE was one of the most memorable yet: it was the first NYE I’d spent abroad, and it was also an interesting change from the orthodoxy of fireworks and raucous countdowns.
Here are 5 thoughts I have after spending Dec 31/Jan 1 in Kyoto/Osaka, which may or may not be helpful as a quasi-guide for those of you contemplating a Japanese NYE:
1. It’s a Big Deal i.e. there’s people all around.
The Japanese New Year (正月/shogatsu) is arguably the biggest festival celebrated in Japan. I’d say it was like NYE and Chinese New Year mashed up into one big ball of traditional festivities; most (well at least, from the insane crowds on the streets of Kyoto after the clock struck midnight) people seem to take part in a number of relatively effortful traditions (e.g. queuing for 1.5 hours to watch the bell-ringing – more on that later). The air was thick with excitement on the day before NYE, when we went to Nishiki Market. Granted, I’m not sure this is attributable to shogatsu, but given that families gather for o-sechi foods in celebration of the New Year, the immediate association I made was with the hustle in Hong Kong wet markets in the days before Chinese New Year when everyone and their grandmother goes to buy fresh fish and live chickens for the family dinner.
The actual night of December 31 saw great masses of people standing patiently in police cordons, right in front of the Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社), even into the early hours of the morning. The subway appeared to run all night; children and dogs were part of the revelry and we saw numerous families with toddlers in tow strolling down the main road towards the Yasaka Shrine (which had been blocked off for the occasion).
Even on January 2, when we visited Ikukunitama Shrine (生國魂神社) in Osaka, the line stretched to a good length in front of the main altar where people rang the bell to pray. So if one is keen to experience the festive spirit and buzzing good vibes, then Osaka/Kyoto during the New Year is very exciting – and quite crowded.
2. The traditions are a novelty, and quite unlike anything else I’d experienced before.
Of course, this is premised on my own limited worldview so perhaps in other parts of the world outside Japan these traditions are also practised – but at least for this Hong Kong born-and-bred tourist, witnessing the different practices in celebration of a new start was an experience in and of itself.
The most memorable thing would probably be the bell-ringing at midnight (除夜の鐘/joya no kane), although in the confusion of queuing I’m still unsure as to exactly how it works. Apparently this is a Buddhist tradition where temples strike a giant bell for 108 times, to dispel unwanted earthly desires called “bonnou“, and what we saw / participated in that night in Chion-in (知恩院) involved large numbers of people (both local Japanese people, and curious tourists, and an odd child or two) starting to queue from 8 p.m. onwards to witness the ringing. We joined the queue at a little before 11 p.m., and managed to get to the “bell-tower” (i.e. where the bell was housed, which was on a little hill) around quarter past 12. It’d be a lie to say that I thoroughly loved this experience, although it was cool; the line was a testament to dedication because I honestly did not understand why the group at the front was happy to stand in the cold for 3+ hours just to watch the monks shout something and then strike the HUGE bell with a wooden pole. Think Mulan, when she orchestrates her band of soldier-friends to open the Forbidden Palace gates with the column, and add hundreds of smartphone screens (mine included) as onlookers fought to get a good shot of the action. The niggling question I still have is why the ringing started before 12 a.m. of January 1, if the Japanese New Year follows the Gregorian calendar. None of this, by the way, should suggest that I wasn’t impressed: the first few peals from the bell I heard did leave me a little shook, but the crushing crowd (not helped by everyone’s reluctance to leave before getting that perfect shot) made it quite stuffy even on top of a hill in the chilly air. Verdict? Should witness once as a bucket-list item; probably would not try again.
Honorable mentions of interesting traditions include the Okera-Mairi Ceremony (apparently “exclusive” to the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto?), where people burn pieces of rope and then swing it around like lassos to preserve the flames – although I saw signs around the park surrounding the Yasaka Shrine telling people to extinguish all naked flame, which seems to defeat the purpose of the ceremony to facilitate the bringing back of specific embers for good fortune (or what-not). There were also traders peddling all sorts of interesting trinkets and good-luck charms, like wooden arrows (“hamaya“) , to be collected back the following year to be burned to parallel the closing of a chapter. We saw stacks of wooden blocks (with writing on it – I suspect these are wishes) being tossed into flames. It all seemed quite therapeutic in its symbolism. If we had more money to spend, I’d probably have happily indulged in all these rituals (you can never have enough blessings, right?).
Point to note: when I relayed these things to my father, he scoffed at it and said that the same fantastic traditions took place, on the same scale, at temples around Hong Kong (and presumably in China?) – see Wong Tai Sin Temple during Chinese New Year. This is probably true, but one difference is that (it seems) more young people are keen to join in the fun, whereas the temples are strictly more for the older generations during CNY – which was particularly cool given how technologically advanced etc. Japan also is; evidently, it’s a melting pot of tradition and advancement.
3. Food, glorious food: the New Year’s markets!
Not entirely sure whether this is an entirely NYE thing, but for the run-up to, and days after, NYE, food stalls popped up around numerous shrines (the Yasaka Shrine, Chion-in, Ikukunitama Shrine etc.) – from my hazy memories of Kyoto over 6 years ago, I don’t seem to remember the marquees surrounding the temples, but I could be wrong. What definitely is unique to the New Year’s is the stalls being open all night on NYE, when normally the shrines close at around 5/6 p.m. The closest comparator would be the Chinese New Year markets (年宵/”niin4 siu1″, also traditionally known 花市/”fa1 si5″), which are set up a few weeks before CNY, and which offer novelty products, local delicacies (fish balls, fake shark fin’s soup, hot Vitasoy) and festive goods like flowers and kumquats.
These Japanese markets, on the other hand, were all about the food – and my God, what a variety of Japanese street food there was. There was corn roasted on a coal-fired grill, squid bigger than my palm thrown unceremoniously on a sizzling griddle, all sorts of fruit (including the juiciest Japanese strawberries) dipped in sugar syrup colored a festive red, snacks featuring eggs in all forms (いか燒, where squid pieces and a floury paste were added to an eggy base; fried eggs sandwiched between prawn crackers smothered with Japanese barbecue sauce), grilled oysters – the list goes on. This was, for me, the highlight of spending New Year’s in Japan: the food wasn’t the sort you could normally get from a shop, and it also wasn’t the type I’d seen being recommended in travel guidebooks or blogs. Everything was just hearty, and the combination of smells was intoxicating. My knitwear smelled like seafood and coal for the next few days, but the joviality vibes (which, I have concluded, is usually linked to food) were enough to balance out my other grievances. Would recommend going just for this alone.
4. Apart from the festivities, things are at a standstill.
However, if you’ve had enough of shrines – and trust me, they do seem to blend into one another after you’ve seen three or four – the first few days of the New Year can be a little dead, because it’s such a big festival centered around celebration and family. In the past few decades, Chinese New Year used to trigger the same response: shops and restaurants closed for at least three days to mark the occasion; now, even local eateries tend to stay open throughout (and obviously it’s business as usual for the malls). In contrast, when we got to Osaka on January 1 and checked into our Airbnb home next to Sakaisuji Hommachi station (i.e. a slightly less touristy spot), the place felt quite…dead. The streets were completely empty; every shop and restaurant had their doors shut, with cheerful posters suggesting that they had closed for the New Year.
While it’s not all quiet (see below), the downside is that one loses at least the first day of the New Year as a tourist, because a good number of things are just not open. For example, we weren’t able to try any omakase this trip because all of the sushi places we tried to book in Osaka were closed for 3-5 days for the New Year. When we went to the Kuromon Ichiba Market, I’d say half of the stalls were closed; this was rather disappointing because my sneaking suspicion was that the legit stalls (which didn’t just cater to tourists) were the ones that would be more willing to let the tourists pass them by. Even the big department stores like Takashimaya and Isetan were closed for January 1. In hindsight, I would probably have wanted to go to Osaka first (for the pre-NYE stretch of our trip), and then to Kyoto, since the shrines would all be open for the first few days of the New Year – though this would undermine the NYE experience in Kyoto…(but omakase is important).
5. SALES. Very legit sales.
I had actually not anticipated the extent of the sales that would be going on once 2017 rolled around – it was basically the Black Friday of Japan, with fukubukuro (福袋) i.e. “lucky bags”. Shops of all shapes and sizes, ranging from high street clothing brands to The Body Shop counters in department stores, packed a selection of products into beautifully festive bags and sold them at a discounted price. This was incredibly exciting: the Boyfriend, for example, managed to get his hands on a fukubukuro at a Japanese clothing chain for 10,000 yen, in which there was a scarf, a knit jumper, a t-shirt and a pretty decent coat – the kind you’d probably usually buy, at a bargain, for 10,000 yen. Almost everything else in the store was discounted. When we went to Gu (basically another UNIQLO), it seemed like everything had been slashed down to 990 yen; this meant we emerged from Shinsaibashi looking like deranged refugees clutching to 4-5 bags per person.
The caveat was that the sales made the shopping experience a little manic. At Shinsaibashi, salespeople lined the street thrusting fukubukuro in your face and waving signs with excited exclamations like “SALE!!!” and “10,000 YEN ONLY”; it didn’t help that Japanese salesladies in particular seemed to all have the highest-pitched voices, such that their incessant calls made it a little overwhelming to the hapless traveler (me) trying to seek out a bargain. When we went to Takashimaya on January 2, every booth seemed to offer its own fukubukuro and the crowds were definitely stressful – but not as stressful as the line at the tax return counter which snaked around the entire floor, and which successfully deterred me from making a purchase just to avoid having to join that death march. Still, if I had a little more time and money, and flying on a cheap ticket with luggage limits was not an issue, I’d probably have had even more of a field day in Osaka. I can’t speak for Kyoto, since I wasn’t there for the New Year, but if you’re into Japanese style then it’s very much a paradise to be in Japan for NYE. One complaint – or perhaps remark – would be that the cold weather made shopping much less enjoyable, because each shop blasted heating and made it intolerably stuffy if one kept her jacket, scarf and general winter gear on…but shedding all layers required holding on to said layers, which was not conducive to trying on clothes. That aside, it was fun seeing another side of the festivities: the same excitement we felt at Chion-in, only this time in reaction to fukubukuro and not the pealing of the bell.
And that’s it: some thoughts on spending the New Year’s in Kyoto/Osaka, with a sincere hope that someone might stumble upon this next November or something and find this helpful. If anything these are notes to myself so I remember this trip, and I’m excited for this to mark the start of an endeavor to write more, think more, and let the words flow. Not forcing it.