Japanese New Year survival manual

Japanese New Year survival manual

Confused about Japan's multitude of New Year's traditions? Here's everything you need to know to survive, and thrive, during the holiday season
Japanese New Years traditions
Half of the appeal of osechi cuisine is the visual impact. It almost makes you feel guilty for partaking.

The new year is arguably the most important and sacred holiday of the Japanese calendar. The entire nation completely shuts down for a few days so that everyone can head back home to spend time with the family.

Here is your guide to the three biggest Japanese New Year traditions during the brief holiday: sato-gaeri, hatsumode and osechi cuisine.

Sato-gaeri: Planes, trains and automobiles

What is it? As long as there have been New Year's celebrations, there has been sato-gaeri. The annual mass-transit rush that occurs now, however, is a truly modern phenomenon. Whether it be by plane, bullet train, automobile or (if you're lucky enough to live close by) one's own two feet, returning to one's childhood home to spend time with family is a hallmark of Japanese New Year celebrations.

How to cope: Just prepare yourself for more hassle than usual at train stations and airports, especially at the beginning and tail end of the holiday. The notorious "U-turn rush," when hundreds upon thousands of people return en masse from their holiday, is the stuff of legend (and countless breathless news reports).

Hatsumode: We've got the whole world, in one temple

What is it? The first visit to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple is the traditional kick-off to the New Year's holidays. Hardier souls aim right for the stroke of midnight on January 1. The more popular shrines are positively mobbed, with interminable waits to get to the altar. To give you a sense of the orderly chaos, more than three million worshippers paid a visit to Harajuku's Meiji Jingu shrine in 2006.

How to cope: 
If you don't feel like fighting through a sea of humanity in the middle of the night, drop by the temples or shrines on the next day, or even the day after that, once the crowds have died down. Contrary to popular belief, the gods are not so hung up on punctuality.

Osechi cuisine: A preserved tradition

What is it? While Christmas Day may be the main winter holiday event in the Western world, the Japanese focus their energies on New Year’s Day. That's when the Toshigami, the Shinto god of the New Year, is said to visit, bearing prosperity for the coming year. The Japanese decorate their houses, prepare feasts and break out bottles of sake.

After the traditional New Year's morning toast with special toso sake to purify and invigorate the body, out come the osechi, stacked boxes of artfully arranged preserved foods specific to the holiday season. Traditionally this is eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner for the following three days. (In modern times, many families restrict it to just a single meal, or bring them out as an accompaniment to a more varied feast.)

How to cope: If the prospect of eating the same hardcore, old-school Japanese foodstuffs for days on end gets you down, focus on the story behind the foods. Everything in an osechi box is there for a very specific reason. Kuri-kinton (sweet chestnuts) represent gold. Kazunoko (herring roe), fertility. Kobumaki (kelp roll) is play on a word for "happiness." The list goes on.

Bonus trivia to impress your Japanese friends: Know why the meal comes in two or more tiered boxes instead of a single plate? To double (or triple) your luck!

Hiroko Yoda runs AltJapan Co., Ltd., a Tokyo-based entertainment localization and translation company. She is the author of many books about Japan, including "Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide," "Ninja Attack!:True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws," and "Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide."

Read more about Hiroko Yoda