Ōmisoka, New Years’ Day, is the second most important day of the year in Japan. There are a few reasons for this, the largest being that it is the final day of the year and precedes the most important day of the year.
Like in many places and for many holidays there are some common traditions people have for this day. Here are a few:
Ōsōji (big clean up)– In Japan in preparation for the New Year it is customary to clean basically everything; your house, your office on the last day of work before the New Year break, and yourself. This has, in part, to do with Shinto belief in which cleanliness is the most important virtue and signifies a fresh clean state for the New Year. People in Japan also attempt to settle all debts, obligations and problems in relationships to start clean in the New Year.
Decoration – Many people in Japan decorate for the New Year. Common decorations are Shimekazari (rope of straw with dangling strips of paper) which are said to prevent malevolent spirits from entering the building and Kadomatsu (pine boughs, bamboo and bamboo grass) which is said will bring good luck throughout the year. In Shinto they bring good luck because Toshigami (a god of the New Year) bless clean buildings that have Kadomatsu.
Food – It is tradition to prepare the New Years’ Day feast (Osechi ) on New Years’ Eve. On New Years’ Eve at around 11:00 PM people eat toshikoshi-soba or toshikoshi-udon (Long thin Buckwheat noodles). The reason for this is Toshi Koshi means crossover year noodle and long noodles represent long life.
Kōhaku Uta Gassen (Red vs white singing contest) – Many people tune into NHK in the evening on New Year’s Eve to watch this program. The show is a singing contest, popular singers from the past year are gathered together and divided into teams. Female singers are grouped in the Akagumi (Red team) and male singers are grouped in the Sirogumi (White team). Both teams alternately sing until around 11:30, then audiences and selected judges cast their votes on which side sung better. The winning team gets a trophy and a flag. Program ends at around 11:45, various midnight celebrations are then shown.
Ninen-mairi (two year travel for prayer) – Many people go to shrines or Buddhist temples on New Years’ Eve. Shinto shrines (and some Buddhist temples) prepare amazake (sweet Sake) to pass out to crowds that gather to say prayers, make wishes, etc. The shrines sell charms and people bring in last year’s charms for disposal.
Joya-no-kane – A Buddhist tradition, that is thought to have originated in China first done in Japan during the Edo period, is to ring giant bells (kane) 108 times on New Years’ Eve. The ringing of the bells starts at different times at different places, some have it at say 11:00 and it finishes just after midnight. The reason they ring the bells is because in Buddhism, it is said that humans have 108 earthly desires that are the source of all sufferings, and each toll of the bell helps people rid themselves of one of these desires; therefore people will start the New Year with a pure mind. Many Shinto shrines follow this practice as well.