From Soba to Sunrises: 4 Ways to Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Japan

Spending the New Year’s Holidays (January 1 to January 3) in Japan can be bittersweet. If you’re visiting Japan for the first time, there are many exciting traditions to experience. Long-term residents without familial roots in the country, however, may find themselves feeling lonely and isolated. Normally bustling cities like Tokyo become apocalyptic as large portions of its populace seemingly disappear for several days.

In either case, those who find themselves in Japan for the holidays should be aware that many businesses will be closed for extended periods—especially locally owned and operated shops. (You should be fine with the big chains, though. In fact, you may even be able to score some bargains).

So how can you make the most of this time of year? As someone who usually spends the holidays abroad, I turned to my network, both online and offline, for answers. Read on to hear the top suggestions from Japanese and non-Japanese residents alike.

1. Live like the locals

According to one of my close Japanese friends, “Popular tourist attractions like Sensoji and Skytree should still be open and there are plenty of places to go shopping in Ebisu or Omotesando. Maybe it’s best to do what many Japanese people do: enjoy a movie, eat out, or take a short trip to Hakone or Nikko.”

For a more down-home experience, many locals recommended enjoying toshikoshi soba, a traditional bowl of noodles eaten on New Year’s Eve. The easily cut noodles symbolize the severing of ties to the passing year. Don’t fret if you have trouble finding proper soba—even instant noodles will do if you are a stickler for keeping traditions.

Lastly, hatsuhinode, viewing the first sunrise of the new year is something anyone can participate in. From the urban depths of Tokyo to the beaches of nearby Atami, nothing but poor weather can prevent you from ringing in the new year with a beautiful sunrise.

2. Spend time at a shrine

My LinkedIn network was quick to recommend shrine visits as an enjoyable New Year’s activity. Cassie Easter, a recruitment consultant living in Tokyo shared the following experience:

“I had a great time at a temple in Narita one year. There’s lots of vendors and a fun atmosphere. So many people are there but it’s well organized so you hardly notice… And the express train runs even at night so it’s easy to head back toward Tokyo.”

If you aren’t up for the crowds, Cassie as well as Curtis Richardson, a Nagoya-based writer and analyst, recommended visiting smaller, less famous shrines for a calmer yet equally rewarding experience.

3. Hiking and hot springs

One of many breathtaking views from the top of Mt. Tsukuba.

Daisuke Watanabe, a project group manager living in Tokyo, came up with a unique New Year’s adventure:

“I would recommend a combination of [hiking] Mt. Tsukuba and traditional onsen [hot springs] nearby. I feel sort of solemn at the top of this mountain. Just a day trip would be OK. No worries. There is a cable car up to the top. And, some onsen are open on the holidays.”

4. Party like it’s…

The Park Hyatt Tokyo, located in Shinjuku, is home to exclusive New Year’s Eve events (photo credit: Christoph Theisinger via Unsplash)

Japan is more international than its image lets on, and you’re likely to discover that many of your favorite traditions and customs are alive and well in the land of the rising sun. A good old-fashioned New Year’s countdown is no exception.

Reveling at the famous Shibuya Crossing is a given, however, you may enjoy a more exclusive countdown experience at the Park Hyatt Tokyo instead.

Additionally, Odaiba is filled with many entertaining venues that are open on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. This is an especially great location for those traveling with families.

Find your way

Being in Japan during the New Year’s holidays might be daunting at first, but as you can see, there are plenty of activities that locals and travelers alike can enjoy. If you’re like me, you’ll be relieved by the lack of crowds in the big cities. Taking a leisurely stroll through Tokyo on a brisk New Year’s morning is the perfect way to reflect upon years past and anticipate what the future may bring.

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Writer / Translator

Originally from Riverside, California, I've been living, working, and writing in Japan since 2009. Japan has become my second home, and I'm especially fond of Shinjuku, Tokyo. That being said, I also love getting out into the countryside and exploring the entire country. Through Tadaima Japan, I hope to share the wonders of Japan with a wider, international audience. Check out my articles if you enjoy exploring on foot, convenient cafes, and affordable dining.