Lining up for the first prayers of the year. (Tokyo Metropolitan Government)
January 1 is New Year's Day, a national holiday and one of the biggest events on the calendar of annual festivities in Japan. Schools close for about two weeks of winter holiday before and after New Year's, and most companies also shut down for New Year break from around December 30 to January 3. Many people who've moved to big cities return home for the holidays to be with family and friends.
From well before dawn on New Year's Day, people flock to shrines and temples to pray for a healthy and happy year. This is called hatsu-mode and is one of the most important rituals of the year. When we greet our acquaintances, moreover, we say "Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu" (a happy new year) to convey our wishes that the year to come will be full of hope and good health.
New Year's dishes filled with "good luck-bringing" foods
Special meals called osechi ryori, prepared at the end of the year before, are eaten on January 1-3. They consist of traditional dishes like boiled beans, broiled fish, and su-no-mono (sliced vegetables and seafood dressed with sweet vinegar), and it's served in a nest of boxes. The reason boxes are used is because they can easily be preserved by stacking, freeing people from the need to do any cooking over the holidays.
Until about a few decades ago, kids spent New Year's engaged in such traditional pastimes as flying kites, koma (spinning tops), and playing iroha karuta (a traditional Japanese card game), hanetsuki (a type of badminton played with wooden paddles and shuttlecocks), fuku warai (a contest where blindfolded players take turns arranging parts of a face), and sugoroku (Japanese variety parcheesi). None of these pastimes are played very much by kids these days, though.
One thing children look forward to doing on New Year morning is reading nengajo (New Year greeting cards) from friends and acquaintances. But the biggest treat, no doubt, is receiving otoshidama (money given as a gift at the beginning of a year) from parents, relatives, and other adults they meet during New Year.