Millions of people will visit temples and shrines in Japan on Saturday night and Sunday morning, return to their home towns to be with their families and watch the New Year variety show “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (Red and White Song Contest) on NHK as part of the annual New Year celebration.
Shrines are expected to be crowded on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, in particular, welcomes a huge wave of worshippers each year on Dec 31 and Jan 1. The gigantic shrine expects three million visitors in the first three days of the new year. Smaller neighborhood shrines throughout the country also receive a steady stream of visitors.
For those staying at home on New Year’s Eve, NHK’s popular variety program “Kohaku Uta Gassen” will air from 7:15 p.m. Though it has lost some of its luster in the past 10-15 years, “Kohaku” is still considered the most prestigious TV music program to be invited to appear on. Up to 35% of Japan’s TV audience is expected to watch the four-hour program, which features established 51 acts and J-pop stars. This year, the program will not feature SMAP, one of Japan’s longest-lived pop groups, who announced in late August that they would disband in December. Although NHK tried desperately to get them to bow out on “Kohaku,” the group opted instead to make their farewell on the Dec 26 final episode of their long-running variety program, “SMAP X SMAP.”
Although parties and countdown events aren’t as popular in Japan as in Western countries (think of New Year’s Eve in Japan as akin to Christmas Eve in the West), there are big events planned at some of the 5-star hotels, clubs, pubs and restaurants in the major cities.
In Tokyo’s Shibuya district, traffic will be prohibited from entering the famous scramble crossing from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. so that the thousands of revelers can gather in relative safety. For the past three years, police restricted pedestrian access to the intersection but the crowds have been increasing each year, causing massive traffic jams and pedestrian congestion.
If you’re out and about, you’ll hear lots of bells. At midnight, temple bells will strike 108 times—a ritual known as “Joya no Kane.” According to Buddhist beliefs, the number 108 corresponds to the number of evil desires that we suffer from. It is believed that by listening to or ringing the bell 108 times, you can get rid yourself of those evil desires.
Getting home won’t be a problem in Tokyo. Subways and trains in the nation’s capital run throughout the night—the only night each year they do so.
Meanwhile, markets and malls across the nation were packed with shoppers on Saturday, looking for last-minute bargains. If you missed out, don’t worry. Many department stores and other retailers will open on New Year’s Day, offering huge discounts, to take advantage of families and their children who wish to spend their “otoshidama” (monetary gifts from parents and grandparents). Shibuya’s famous 109 store is a magnet for young women, many of whom line up hours before the stores in the building open. They can often be seen outside the store afterwards, offering to swap the contents of their “fukubukuro” (lucky sealed bags containing items generally worth double the value of the purchase price).
If you’re in Tokyo on Jan 2, the imperial palace will be open to the public. The emperor, empress and other members of the imperial family will greet well-wishers from the balcony three times during the day. Tens of thousands of people usually attend these greetings each year.
Many other cultural events continue at least until Jan 6 in most prefectures.
See related story on traditional New Year customs here.