Ōmisoka is celebrated on December 31 in anticipation of the new year. Often confused with the bonenkai, which are celebratory parties held towards the end of the year, Ōmisoka usually entails intimate gatherings of friends and family to partake in traditions and share hopes for the coming year. In fact, the name itself is derived from “the great 30th day, but it is also known by the more archaic ōtsumogori (“the last day of the month”). In Tokyo, the holiday culminates in the especially high-spirited joya night, with people from across Tokyo spilling into Shibuya, along with other urban hubs, in effervescent conversation and spirited cheers. Although Ōmisoka is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, and has strong ties to Shinto and Buddhist spiritualism, many modern interpretations have been embraced. So, expand your cultural palate by partaking in celebrations both old and new to sound off the new year!
History and Traditions
“Buddhism has a lot of very sweet, gentle things about it too. Like the New Year’s bells. If you keep dividing up all the different bonnou into smaller and smaller categories, you end up with a hundred and eight… So they ring the bells that many times to free the listeners to each one.”
—Ryū Murakami, In the Miso Soup
Ōmisoka dates back to the Heian era, when preparations would be made in anticipation of the coming year, involving house-cleaning and offering rice cakes to Shinto gods—principally Toshigami, the kami (god) associated with the harvest and ancestral spirits.
Feasting on toshikoshi soba noodles until the bowl is polished clean is customary during Ōmisoka. This practice is believed to have started during the Edo era, based on the concept that your life should be long, like the noodles, as well as to cut away the bad luck from the past year, in keeping with the way that soba noodles are cut.
Joya no Kane
At around midnight, the crisp winter air reverberates with the sound of bells, which are rung 108 times. The tradition is derived from Buddhist beliefs, and each chime liberates people of a single earthly desire, or bonnou. As one of the most well-known and anticipated traditions in Japanese new year festivities, the bells can be heard practically everywhere as the rituals are carried out at almost every Buddhist temple.
After a new year’s feast and an evening with family and friends, some Japanese people congregate at a local temple in prayer during the sounding of the bells, and pay their first temple visit of the year, known as hatsumode.
Learn more about hatsumode here: https://goconnect.jp/stories/first-visit-of-the-year-to-a-shrine-or-temple/
An embodiment of the Japanese proverb, “there is fortune in leftovers,” fukubukuro are small “lucky bags” sold by stores across Japan, containing items whose total worth can often be more than the list price of the bags. They can be found at major retail centers including Seibu, Matsuya or Ito Yokado—and even Apple. This tradition has roots in the late Meiji era, and was pioneered by the Ginza Matsuya department store, here in Tokyo.
These new year’s cards are sent to friends, family and coworkers, and communicate good wishes for the holidays and a prosperous new year. They are often stamped with an insignia of the next year’s zodiac animal.
These are special decorations exhibited on each side of the front door of homes during Ōmisoka, and are intended to welcome ancestral spirits or the Shinto kami, particularly Toshigami. They are arrangements of bamboo and pines, often with individual touches. On January 15, in the new year, they are set aflame to appease the kami.
At holy sites, Shinto straw rope can be seen tethered to trees, bushes, and shrine entrances. They are meant to separate sacred areas from the outside world. They have a fascinating history that dates back to early Japanese history, when shimenawa were tied to old trees, warning woodcutters that if they chopped down the tree, they would have to face the wrath of an angry spirit. During the new year they play an especially important role, suspended over entrances of shrines and holy sites to ward off demonic spirits.
Enjoy Joya no Kane at Temples and Shrines in and around Tokyo
Although it is actually more difficult to avoid the bells than it is to seek them, these are some of the notable locations where you can partake in hatsumode.
This noteworthy temple offers the opportunity to do your hatsumode under the spectacular illumination of Tokyo Tower. Dating back to 1598, this is the main temple of the Jodo-shu Buddhist sect, and comes alive during major holidays. If you intend to visit this temple, make sure to arrive early—it’s very popular!
Located in Nagatachō, Chiyoda Ward, this shrine is dedicated to Oyamakui no Kami, the son of the exalted Toshigami in Japanese mythology, who plays a prominent role in new year’s festivities. The shrine is spectacular, with its beguiling contrast of deep red lacquered columns and cyan-tiled roofs. A popular location for people to pray for healthy children and successful marriages, Hie Shrine attracts visitors every year.
Oji Inari Shrine
Located in Kita Ward, this shrine was established during the Kamakura era and has been designated as the “Northern Protector Shrine.” Beautifully ornate, the shrine is best known for its fox parade procession during Ōmisoka, along with its 600-year-old gingko tree. Both are connected to a riveting legend of Japan’s foxes who, as legend has it, make a pilgrimage to the shrine and congregate under the tree at the end of every year.
Kawasaki Daishi Temple
Founded near the end of the Heian era, the Kawasaki Daishi Temple follows the Chizan School of Shingon Buddhism, and remains as one of the most popular destinations around Tokyo for Ōmisoka. At this temple just outside of Tokyo in Kawasaki, visitors arrive for the Joya no Kane as well as Goma-Kito, an esoteric Buddhist ritual burning of consecrated wooden sticks and sutra chanting during the new year.
At the heart of the famous shopping area in Asakusa is Sensōji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. It’s an extremely popular spot, but you’ll be able to pass the time checking out the many items on sale at the lines of stalls leading up to the temple. Once you arrive, make sure to make an offering of a 5 yen coin—and a wish for a prosperous new year!
New Year’s Events in Tokyo
In the leadup to the new year, Tokyo becomes animated with cheer and lively activity. There are plenty of cultural events and parties to attend and partake in, from the cultural to the more rowdy. GoConnect has compiled a short list of events to help you welcome in 2024.
Oji Inari Shrine Fox Parade
According to a popular Japanese legend, foxes voyage from across Japan to congregate under a large tree at the Oji Inari Shrine in human form. In keeping with the legend, the shrine’s hatsumode celebration involves an animated masquerade with people disguised in fox masks.
Date & Time: December 31–January 1, 9:30pm–2am
Location: Oji Inari Shrine
TKNC Countdown Week
Unlike the more traditional events on this list, TK Nightclub in Shibuya hosts a countdown week leading up to 2024. Enjoy the coming new year with a bang, plenty of cocktails and dancing to EDM.
Date & Time: December 28–31, from 11pm
Location: TK Nightclub, Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku
Countdown Japan 23/24
This new year’s festival includes four nights of partying and boasts an attendance of 200,000 people. Featuring some of Japan’s most famous performers, this is truly an unforgettable event for starting off the year!
Date & Time: December 28–December 31
Location: Makuhari Messe, Chiba
Jake Benjamin Roiter