December winter in Japan is a very joyous month with the occurrence of several widely celebrated festivals such as Christmas and New Year. However, did you know that unlike the other Asian countries which typically follow the Lunar calendar, Japan follows the Gregorian calendar and celebrates the first day of January as their cultural New Year Day also known as Shogatsu 正月(similarly to our “Lunar Chinese New Year”). As such, 31 December (New Year’s Eve also known as Omisoka 大晦日) is widely perceived by Japanese as an especially significant day that leaps into a brand new year. If you are in Japan during this important holiday, you may like to consider the below countdown options celebrated on this special night.
(1) Countdown Parties in Pubs and Night Clubs
Tourists visiting Japan during this period typically expect a major countdown party with outdoor stage, celebrities’ performances and spectacular fireworks against an iconic backdrop. In fact, I personally made the mistake by travelling to Tokyo Tower and Shibuya, visualizing a romantic countdown with Tokyo Tower as backdrop 😂 and was hugely disappointed! Note: There is no countdown at Tokyo Tower. Nevertheless, they do have a winter illumination that ends at 10pm. On the other hand, Shibuya has a reasonable crowd but they are mostly made up of tourists or non-Japanese staying in Tokyo. If you are keen, you may participate in countdown parties held by respective pubs and night clubs in Shibuya area. Do caution that the crowd can also be quite rowdy, which explains the need for many policemen deployed to maintain traffic order in that area.
(2) Visit a Temple for Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘)
A famous Japanese tradition is the Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘) – the ringing of bells 108 times in all Buddhist temples from late night of 31 December to 01 January. The last 108th bell will strike at 0000 hours on 01 January. This tradition signifies the removal of 108 human sins, particularly the sins during the previous year. If you would like to witness this ceremony, do join in the queue with the locals at temples from as early as 10pm onwards to strike the bells. Some temples in Tokyo, which allow visitors to participate in the ringing of the bell (either complimentary or with a fee) are listed below. Do check their website for further updates.
Address: 3 Chome-15-1 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo 104-8435, Japan
Phone: +81 3-3541-1131
Note: Zojoji has a spectacular night view against Tower Tower in the backdrop.
Address: 4 Chome-7-35 Shibakoen, Minato, Tokyo 105-0011, Japan
Phone: +81 3-3432-1431
Address: 1-6-21 Moto-Azabu, Minato, Tokyo 106-0046, Japan
Phone: +81 3-3451-7402
Address: Japan, 〒191-0031 Tokyo, Hino, 高幡７３３
Phone: +81 42-591-0032
Address: 3 Chome-18-18 Minamiikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo-to 171-0022, Japan
Phone: +81 3-3971-4383
Address: 3 Chome-5-17 Minamishinagawa, Shinagawa, Tokyo 140-0004, Japan
Phone: +81 3-3474-3495
You may wonder why the famous Senso-ji in Asakusa is not in this list. Well, they do hold the ceremony of Joya no Kane but it is not open to participation by visitors. Nevertheless, you can still visit Senso-ji to listen to the ringing of the bells.
Note: Joya no Kane is not open to participation by visitors.
Address: 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito, Tokyo 111-0032, Japan
Phone: +81 3-3842-0181
(3) Hatsumōde – Pay a First Visit to a Shrine on 01 January
Similarly to Asian Chinese who visits temples during Chinese New Year festival, Japanese too visits a temple or shrine to obtain blessings and good fortune. The first visit to a temple or shrine in a new year is known as Hatsumōde. In fact, many Japanese chose to countdown and literally visit the shrine/temple as the clock strikes into 1 January.
If you are in Tokyo, you may like to follow my personal experience of counting down at Meiji Shrine.
- Alight at Tokyo Metro Meji-jingumae Station.
- Savour street food at rows of food stalls set up right outside the station all the way to Harajuku Station. Note it’s free standing style, similar to our Asian’s food pasar malam.
- After snacking, you may stroll to Meji Shrine for countdown.
- After countdown, continue to soak in the joyous new year atmosphere with sumptuous supper at the outdoor food compound set up near the souvenir shops. There are two areas: the smaller one just next to the souvenir shop and the bigger one further in. Again, there are many food stalls selling warm food such as Miso Zoni, Kani Ramen and Toshikoshi soba as shown in the videos below. Enjoy the extraordinary heartwarming experience of consuming warm food in the winter cold, surrounded by a happy local crowd.
We did not eat the Toshikoshi Soba but I later found out that this dish is especially significant as soba symbolizes good fortune and longevity. There is also a traditional belief that the easy chewing of soba helps one to forget hardship and overcome disaster. Hopefully, I can try it on my next visit!
(4) Countdown at Home/Hotel/Airbnb with NHK Annual Music Show – Kōhaku Uta Gassen
If you do not quite fancy crowds and prefer a quiet countdown, perhaps you can follow the traditional activity of stay-at-home Japanese: watch the highly-respected annual music show – Kōhaku Uta Gassen (commonly known as Kōhaku) on NHK channel. It’s quite unbelievable but Kōhaku music show has been broadcasting yearly since 1951! It runs for approximate 4.5 hours from 7.15pm to 11.45pm. What make this music show unique are its generally unchanged programme style and participating criteria throughout the past 66 years. During the show, popular music artistes compete within two teams – Red Team for female artistes and White Team for male artistes. The selection of performing artistes and their performing songs are strictly selected by a committee and by invitation only. Due to the high viewership and wide reach of Kōhaku throughout Japan, it is an honour and a career highlight for music artistes who have performed on this music show.
That’s all I have! I hope these travel tips can help you to plan for an extraordinary and enjoyable countdown experience in Japan! Stay warm!