New Year’s in Japan: Practical Tips

New Year’s means a lot of things to lots of different people. For some, it means going out with friends and seeking out a party. For others, it’s relaxing at home and watching the countdown/fireworks on the television. For yet others, it means a chance to go to bed early and sleep in the next day.

Japanese New Year’s is similarly flexible- to an extent. You’ll find any number of posts floating around about which shrine or temple to visit at midnight January 1st; what kind of soba to eat; whether you should shell out for KFC’s Christmas chicken or not. (Spoiler: Family Mart Chicken is cheaper and a great alternative.) But there’s something I’ve noticed missing: the practicalities.

So here, I’d like to introduce to you How to Survive New Year’s in Japan.

Let’s start with the most important thing:

Money. While ATMs are getting better and better by the year, many banks close for several days around New Year’s, so make sure you have enough cash on hand to do everything you want/need to between, say, Dec. 29th-Jan 3rd. This will allow you to prepare via…

Shopping for necessities. Like banks, many grocery stores will be closed for a day or two around New Year’s. If you’re a conbini junkie, this won’t be a big issue. If you prefer cooking at home, however, get yourself to a grocery store early and stock up on things for a few days so you don’t have to worry about food. That way, you can save your money and time up for…

Department stores. One change in Japan is how the department stores have recently begun opening earlier and earlier in the year. Whereas once upon a time they would stay closed until the 3rd (or even the 4th!), they’ve begun opening as early as Jan 2nd so that shoppers can go nuts, particularly with the Lucky Bag Campaigns. This is great if you’re intent on getting your hands on bags o’ random stuff (beware if you’re anything bigger or smaller than a size M, though, since 99% of the bags will contain M-sized clothes). While this is great for people who want to get some New Year’s sales (which can be pretty great), this is rough on the salesclerks, who don’t get as much time off to spend with family. So if you opt to go, be prepared for crazy crowds and tired clerks! Which reminds me…

Crowds. Oh boy.. If you intend to go to shrines or temples, dress warmly and be ready to wait in lines a lot. Bring something to entertain yourself with- a warm drink, a fully charged phone, a book, a deck of cards to play with the other people in line (I’m half kidding)… whatever will get you through an hour or two of waiting. Watch for bathroom stops and bring your own tissues. If you have any issues with crowds, you might want to wait a couple days before going out. They’ll be in all the hopping places in town, including…

Restaurants. It’s a good idea to book a place for New Year’s Eve or New Year’s in advance. Get a Japanese-speaking pal or your hotel to do it for you, but this will save you some stress while enjoying the holiday.

O-sechi. Want to try out Japanese New Year’s food? Hit up those busy department stores! They have pre-made bentos you can pick up sans reservation that’ll give you a taste of what Japanese folks often eat. It’s funny because most Japanese people I talk to don’t actually care for it; when I ask them, they suck breath in through their teeth and say, “It tastes…. so-so.”

And last, but not least:

Staying warm. While the department stores and trains will be blasting their heat to the point you’ll want to shed layers, the cold will sink into you literally anywhere else. Wear warm socks if you intend to enter temples or castles, because chances are you’ll need to take your shoes off. Pick up some heat-tech at Uniqlo or some heat pads to stick under your coat during those long waits in line. Get some hot drinks or oden at a convenience store, too.

Do you have any tips for surviving New Year’s in Japan or, conversely, in your area?

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