Jan 1, 2017

New Year Firsts!

There are lots of firsts in Japan following the new year. Hatsumode and getting omikuji are just an example of common new year traditions in Japan.

There are many more, so let's look at a few of the popular new year 'firsts' to start off your 2017 in Japan.

New Year Firsts! photo


What it means:

This is the one you've probably heard of, if you've only heard of one of the 'hatsu' for the new year. Hatsumode is the first visit to a temple or shrine in the year.

When to do it:

As early as midnight on the new year, some people go and ring the bell at the temple, buy good luck charms, and pray at the shrine or temple of their choice. It's bound to be very crowded the first day of the year, and resembles a festival because there will be vendors selling not only good luck charms, but also festival foods (although cold beer is not something I've seen, probably because it's winter). Busier shrines and temples that are super popular for hatsumode are: Meiji Jingu (Tokyo), Shinsoji (Chiba), and Fushima Inari Taisha (Kyoto). I have been to the shrine (Fushima Inari Taisha, famous for its hundreds of red wooden tori, or gates) in Kyoto on New Year's Day, and although it was crowded, it was a lot of fun because of the extra festival type stalls. If only once a year, maybe it's worth it to brave the crowded trains and wait in line to bow and clap.

Not everyone does this, of course. Plenty of Japanese people don't bother going to shrines or temples at all, and many more just aren't into it enough to go during the most busy time of the year. There is no deadline for hatsumode, so if you end up going in March in time to pray for that new job, you can still call it hatsumode.

New Year Firsts! photo


What it means:

First sunrise of the year.

This one has to be done on the first day / sunrise of the year, and lots of people would rather sleep in than be up all night or wake up early on one of the coldest mornings of the year. If you're able to get somewhere with a great view like Mt. Fuji or a beach with a spectacular view, this is supposed to be really lucky. It's sort of nice to do every once in a while, so why not the first morning of the new year? I'm interested to give it a try this year if I can figure out getting to a decent place. There's a sunrise from just about anywhere, but waiting until it gets over the nearby houses and apartment buildings isn't the same. The best part about just watching from your balcony or inside your apartment is not being out in the cold. We used to go prepared with a thermos of hot coffee and some donuts when I did this as a kid. (That works better when one of the adults has been up all night.)


What it means:

First dreams of the year.

Sort of a weird new year tradition that I like, even though I think it's sort of silly.

There are specific things that are lucky to dream about in the new year, so consider yourself lucky if you have a dream about these three things in the first week of the year.

1. Mt. Fuji: the tallest mountain in Japan, Fuji san symbolizes high aspirations. 2. A Hawk, or Taka: If you see a hawk flying high in your dreams, it means you can achieve the high aspirations too because they are so clever. And 3. An eggplant, or Nasubi: Sort of odd, but the old name for eggplant sounds lucky, like (成す) achieving something great.

PS: I have never heard of anyone ever dreaming about these things. They are sort of weird things to dream about, don't you think?

Hatsu uri

What it means:

First 'buy' of the year.

With sales of 'happy bags' or 'lucky bags' becoming more popular (because you can get some good deals for good products), this is a 'hatsu' tradition, but it starts before Christmas. Maybe the first thing you buy will be days later, after the stores open, but more of the retail establishments are opening on January second or third, even on New Year's Day. Not much of a holiday for the employees, but I guess that proves everything is becoming commercialized.

I think this one's a little funny, because I feel like we should buy something meaningful for the first buy of the year. It's probably something more normal or boring like a hot cup of coffee in reality.

New Year Firsts! photo


What it means:

First writing of the year.

It's not any writing, but the ones done with a brush and ink, or shodo. Students will often do special practice and write something auspicious in January, as part of their kokugo, or Japanese class. The words we write should have a meaning about a new year, dreams, or spring coming. Usually students are given a word or phrase to write for each grade, then they will enter a contest for the area to win ribbons for the best writing. Look for these being displayed around your schools if you're a teacher, or in public areas in your city later in the year.

(In the photo above, I wrote, 'Saitama no Haru' or 'Saitama's spring' which was the kakizome chosen for first year junior high school students that year.)

My final pick is:


What it means:

First onsen bath of the year.

Maybe not so common, but a nice onsen bath at the beginning of the year (or any time) is relaxing and refreshing.

There are quite a few others, maybe not so commonly practiced these days. Tell me about the others you know in the comments! Which firsts do you try to do every new year?



What if whales don't communicate with whale calls & they're just farting?


  • SalarymanJim

    on Jan 5

    This has got me thinking, as I've never really been conscious of the first things I do in the new year. I'm trying to think of the first thing I bought this year and I can't remember. I wasn't out drinking so it wouldn't have been a beer or anything of that sort. It was probably a coffee from a vending machine or something like that. Not very exciting or meaningful. I always look forward to the first snow of the year. For some reason it reminds me of home, in the way that we don't get much snow there, just like Tokyo (where I live) doesn't get much snow so the collective excitement is kind of the same. And there's the chance that you might get a morning off work!! I think there's a term for 'first snow' of the year - hatsuyuki, or something like that.

  • helloalissa

    on Jan 5

    @SalarymanJim Yes, 'hatsu yuki' is a thing in Japan as well, but is starting from the fall or winter season, not the first snow after the new year. That's a nice one to be aware of. My first purchase was using my suica to ride the train I guess. I was joking about all the normal sort of firsts this week: hatsu densha, hatsu furou, hatsu shokuji, etc. I think there is actually a word for the first day back at work, but not sure what it is, shigoto hajime maybe? I guess I feel like the first week of the year can kind of set the mood for the rest of the year, but also thought about the lack of traditions for the first of each month.

  • SalarymanJim

    on Jan 10

    @helloalissa "I think there is actually a word for the first day back at work, but not sure what it is" - 'Awful' maybe?!! Sorry, poor joke, but that's probably the best word for how I feel on that day. Anyway, it's done now. Amazing how quickly the Christmas spirit fades away once you get back into the routine.