Living in Japan: IV Japanese New Year

Land of Rising Sun

Japanese New Year

During our first few months of living in Japan, I had heard of a local tradition of groups of people getting up before sunrise on New Year's Day and climbing small hills in order to greet the rising sun in song. I was determined to perform this same mystical ritual no matter how cold it might be.

My family and I invited our neighbors over for a New Year's Eve party when we served seaweed rice crackers, dried shrimp and sun-dried squid (ika) and hot sake in wee sake cups. We all had a great time chatting about Japanese traditions and the sacredness of the New Year. In fact, all the local shops had been closed for several days to honor this tradition and so everybody had to stock up in advance of this very special celebration.

Setting the Alarm for New Year's Morning

Well, by the time our guests had left a little before midnight and we had gone to bed on our foutons, I had had a little bit too much sake and my head was swimming. But I did manage to set the alarm for 5:30 am and just knowing that the alarm had been set so early, I had a very restless night's sleep, and when the alarm finally buzzed, my headache still lingered.

I peeked out the window while the rest of my family slept soundly. It must have snowed during the night as the ground had a light dusting of white powder. It remained very very dark. In back of our traditional Japanese home in Nigawa Takarazuka-shi rose a moderate-sized hill densely forested with pine trees but with a cleared summit.

As much as I hated to get dressed and put on a heavy overcoat, something compelled me to honor my self-imposed commitment. As I opened the squeaky front door, my Irish wife suddenly asked, "Where on earth are you going??"

"To climb the hill out back to greet the rising sun of the New Year."

"Are you crazy?"

"Yes," I said as I left the house into the icy air. Quickly I walked to the back and proceeded to climb the short trail up the pine-clad hill through a dusting of snow. Man, it was cold and so very dark.

It took me less than five minutes to climb the hill, and I soon stood at the very summit in total silence. How long would I have to wait for the morning's light? Was I crazy to do this? I was half tempted to return to our warm bed. But no, I would hold my ground to stay up here in the martian cold. I day dreamed a little and thought about the classes I would teach at Osaka University in a few weeks. Then I thought of our children going to school at the Canadian Academy in Kobe. Hopefully they would continue to enjoy their experience.

Singing to Greet the New Year

And voila, the sky slowly slowly lightened until at last the rim of the rising sun appeared! I must have been up there for nearly an hour! But I could see that I was not alone. On each little surrounding hill stood small groups of people. They all began to sing heart-warming Japanese songs, some in the distance, some nearby. I sang silently words of my own making. They all sang around me for nearly ten minutes greeting the splendor of the rising sun in the gentle and soft beauty of a New Year. If only for a brief moment, standing in the cold, I very much felt part of a ceremony that I still remember vividly almost thirty years later.

The best thing I remember about the Japanese New Year is waking up at 5:30 a.m. and getting warmly dressed to climb a high hill behind our house to witness the rising sun a bit later and to see Japanese people clustered together on other hilltops to sing to the rising sun.


New Year's Day in Japan is a very sacred Shinto-Buddhist holiday.

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Comments 5 comments

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

That must have been some unforgettable experience. Thank you for sharing.


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

What an awesome experience, juneaukid. Thanks for sharing it with us. I didn't know about this tradition until now.


juneaukid profile image

juneaukid 6 years ago from Denver, Colorado Author

Thank you Hello,hello and Dohn121. It's a great tradition


kikalina profile image

kikalina 4 years ago from Europe

very interesting read. ty voted up


juneaukid profile image

juneaukid 4 years ago from Denver, Colorado Author

Thanks so much!

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