Winter holiday season in Japan

Today I would like to introduce the Japanese Winter holidays from a non-Japanese point of view. Working at Mujin as HR&PR, I would like to share some non-work-related information that I could see after almost five years of living in Japan.

December is a time for preparations for the coming New Year, getting kotatsu (electronic heated tables) and humidifiers, buying kairo (pocket warmers, open the packet and rub it to heat it up), getting together with friends for bonenkai (literally “parties for forgetting the year”), and so on. This list may seem endless.

Sparkling lights slowly began to appear in the tree branches, and you might wonder how people in Japan celebrate Christmas and New Year. In a very different way. Christmas is the time for friends and couples to have parties and celebrate as much as they can. New Year is the time when all family members come together, visit the temple, and eat together.

Japanese Christmas

Christmas decorations start to be installed everywhere right after Halloween. Yes, trees are still with green leaves, you have to wait one more month for the beautiful red and yellow leaves, but you already could see Christmas decorations from everywhere: Coca-Cola limited edition with ribbon labels and music, Santa Clause smiling from posters, “Jingle Bells” from every corner and Starbucks Christmas delicious sugar drinks inside the red paper cup. 

Japan becomes bright during the night with amazing mesmerizing illuminations. Although the tradition of putting a Christmas tree at home is not common in Japan, many shopping centers display beautifully decorated trees. In the evening it becomes crowded in popular illumination locations, some of it has local Christmas markets with traditional hot wines and German sausages.

Christmas is the best time for couples: they exchange gifts, go for a fancy dinner and later walk to have a look at the Christmas lights. Like St Valentine’s day number 2. Booking a table on Christmas Eve is a challenge, and the Christmas menu is more expensive than on usual days.

It is also the busiest time for KFC since fried chicken is often eaten on Christmas day. KFC starts taking pre-orders of their popular fried chicken bucket in November. A great example of marketing campaigns. Even if people did not order fried chicken in advance or do not want to spend two hours in a line, they can easily find plenty of fried chicken in convenience stores and supermarkets on Christmas Eve, along with the pre-made roast chicken.

One more symbol of Japanese Christmas is a kurisumasu keki (Christmas cake). It is a kind of sponge cake-based strawberry shortcake with whipped cream filling and frosting, which also should be ordered in advance. 

Japan interestingly takes the Western cultures and traditions and changes them in their unique way.

Japanese New Year

New Year (oshogatsu) is one of the most important holidays in Japan. The entire country has a rest, and some of my colleagues called this time a “Lazy week.” 

New Year’s Eve in Japan is largely a quiet, solemn family event. No noisy revealing, fireworks, or countdown parties. All duties are supposed to be completed by the end of the year to meet a new year with a fresh start. At Mujin, on the last working day, employees are encouraged to clean their desks before leaving the office. We believe it’s important to eliminate the dust and clutter from the passing year and to welcome the New Year with a clean and fresh mental state.

It is time to buy or make by yourself seasonal decorations: kadomatsu (gateway bamboo shoots (prosperity), pine (longevity), and plum branches (steadfastness)), shimekazari (hung above doors, a straw rope (posterity)), and kagami mochi (two round rice cakes stacked one on top of the other).

In Japan, people have a tradition of sending nengajo (New Year’s Day postcards) to their friends and relatives, similar to the Western custom of sending Christmas cards. The post office guarantees to deliver the greeting postcards on 1 January. 

New Year’s Eve tradition for many Japanese is to watch kouhaku uta gassen, a long musical battle on NHK or waratte wa ikenai (absolutely no laughing), a crazy Japanese comedy show Watch it even if you don’t understand Japanese 😉

On the night of December 31st, New Year starts by ringing the bells in shrines called joya no kane. Typically it is a large bell that sounds 108 times to represent the cleansing of 108 world passions. With each toll, one of these passions is moved away, to start the new year with renewed vigor. 

The best way to meet a New Year is to see the first sunrise (hatsuhinode). The most popular spots are on the tops of mountains. And then it is time to go to the shrine to pray or wish for prosperity, safety, and good health (and whatever else comes to your mind) or go to the Imperial Palace, there is a chance to see an imperial family. 

Japanese people eat a selection of dishes called osechi ryori on January 1st. It does take a lot of time and effort to cook. It is a range of dishes with favorable associations and there is no need to cook in the first few days of the year. Many of these dishes are sweet, sour, or dried, so they can be kept without refrigeration. It is because all the stores used to be closed during new years, and they thought out how to preserve dishes. Nowadays you can find supermarkets or convenience stores open even during the holidays, Japanese people still enjoy cooking osechi ryori at home with their families or order it in advance from famous stores. 

Unlike the rest of the world, the Japanese way to celebrate Christmas and New Year holidays is different. For foreigners, these options may be a little unusual and may take some time to get used to it. Japanese culture is rich and unknown to other countries, but very interesting.

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P.S. Mujin Christmas Eve looks like this:

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