For those of you who have not experienced a Japanese style New Year, you need to be prepared for the closing down of practically everything for at least 2 days. Most stores close down early on New Year's Eve and don't reopen until the 2nd or later. This is much shorter than "in the good old days" when stores were closed down until the 3rd or 4th, but one still needs to be sure to stock up on the basics, such as bread and milk. Of perhaps greater significance in this "cash society" is that the banks will be closed from December 31st to January 3rd, and since the next two days are Saturday and Sunday, they are in effect closed for 6 straight days. The "cash card" (ATM) machines will not be operational on Jan. 1, 2 and 3, and so you need to have enough cash on hand for your expected expenses (plus some for the spur-of-the-moment purchases at the various New Year's sales you'll run across).
A popular tradition in Japan is "hatsu moode", the first visit to a shrine to pray to the local gods for good luck in the New Year. Many try to combine this with a sunrise vigil on New Year's Day. One popular place to do this is on Mt. Tsukuba. Sunrise is at 6:45 am, and the cable railway from Tsukuba Shrine and ropeway from the Tsukuba San Keisei Hotel going to the top of the mountain begin operating at 4:30 and 5:30 am respectively. The Mt. Tsukuba Shrine provides Ama-zake (sweet alcoholic drink made from fermented rice) free of charge to all visitors beginning at 6 am on the first of January and continuing to the third. If you really want to go "gung ho" on the Japanese experience, you can even fork over 3000 yen for a "go-kitou" Shinto New Year's prayer for success in business, health, a passing grade in school or whatever your heart desires! (No guarantees!)
Another popular excursion is to visit Kashima Shrine, located about 75 min. by car east of Tsukuba in the coastal town of Kashima (home of the Kashima Antlers, this years champions of the J-League professional soccer league). Purported to have been founded in 660 A.D., it is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in all of Japan. The grounds of the shrine are spacious, with many interesting buildings and other points of interest, and is worth a visit any time of year. If you go on New Year's Day, be prepared for huge crowds! The Narita Temple is another very popular destination for Japanese wishing for a heavenly blessing, and well worth a trip for those wishing to experience the spectacle.
Another interesting New Year's outing that lets you experience a Japanese tradition is to visit the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to see the emperor and empress (from a distance, of course). The main gate of the palace will open to the public from 9:30 am to 3 pm on the second of January. The emperor, empress and his family will greet the crowds 7 times during the day. And when we say "crowds", we mean just that; so if you're interested, go early! This is just about the only day you can actually get inside the Imperial Palace grounds.
There are plenty of other interesting places within walking distance of the Imperial Palace if you still have time after your royal greetings. And since businesses are generally shut down for the day, the streets (and of course, the trains) are empty. If you've ever thought about driving around in Tokyo in your car, this is the time to do it -- no traffic and easy parking.
Another popular New Year's custom in Japan is the flying of kites. The stiff breezes make this time of year good for getting some really big and heavy kites airborne, with the bigger one taking many people to control.
One good place to see them is at the Toride Tonegawa Dondo Matsuri on January 15. This festival centers around the burning in a giant bonfire the various New Year's decorations (such as "kadomatstu", the bamboo and pine branch decorations used to welcome the New Year). In the coals of the bonfire, people roast senbei (and perhaps even marshmallows these days) on long sticks.
While you are warming yourself by the fire, then, you can watch the kite flying contest on the river bank, far away from power lines and tree branches. For further info, call 0297-74-2141.
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