5 Things I Didn’t Know About the Holiday Season in Japan

New Year’s is A Lot Like Western Christmas

In Japan, New Year’s is one of the most important holidays of the year, and it couldn’t be more different from the typical Western champagne-popping New Year’s celebration: People return to their hometowns, and families come together for a special meal, send greeting cards, and pray for health and happiness – more like a traditional Western Christmas.

japan christmas santa

Christmas, on the other hand, is not a national holiday in Japan. With Christians making up only 2% of Japan’s population, Christmas is celebrated as a secular – almost novelty – holiday. Shops across the country capitalize on the fad, setting up elaborate light displays and Christmas trees.

On the surface, all the holiday songs and decorations make it feel a lot like the Christmas season in Canada; however, Christmas doesn’t really enter people’s homes the way it does in the West. There are no presents piled under family Christmas trees, turkey dinners on Christmas Day, or children leaving cookies out for Santa Claus. Also, Japanese friends and family typically celebrate and exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is considered to be a very romantic date night for couples, a lot like Valentine’s Day.

Everyone Eats Soba Noodles on New Year’s Eve

soba noodles japan new year's

On New Year’s Eve, Japanese families traditionally eat a special kind of soba (buckwheat noodle) dish, called toshikoshi soba. The word “toshikoshi” describes the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new one, while the long soba noodles symbolize longevity in the year to come. Soba noodles can usually be eaten hot or cold, but on New Year’s, they’re typically eaten in a warm broth. The meal usually happens late on New Year’s Eve, as families wait for the arrival of the New Year.

Christmas Cake is Totally Different

japanese christmas cake

When I was a kid, Christmas cake was a dark brown lump that sat mostly untouched, paling in comparison to all the other delicious Christmas treats. In Japan, however, cake is a huge part of the Christmas Eve tradition. Instead of a fruit-filled loaf, Japan’s version is a vanilla sponge cake topped with icing or whipped cream. It looks a lot like a birthday cake, except it’s usually decorated with little Santa Clauses or holiday greetings.

Mochi “Flowers” are Decorations

A few days ago, one of our students brought us a bouquet of branches decorated with pieces of white and pink mochi, which is a chewy rice cake.

mochi flowers japan new year's

The result looked a lot like small blossoms flowering on the branches. It turns out that these mochinbana are a popular New Year’s decoration in Japan. Flowers don’t naturally grow in the cold, snowy regions during the winter, so mochibana were made as substitute, bringing a little of spring’s prettiness to homes during the sometimes dreary Japanese winter.

christmas in japan holiday

Parties are About Forgetting

In place of the slightly-forced office Christmas parties I remember from Canada, Japanese businesses hold bonenkai, which means “forget the year party”. Every Japanese company holds at least one bonenkai for their employees in December. Much like Western Christmas parties, it’s a time when co-workers can relax their usual formalities, forget their problems, and hope for success in the next year – like most parties in Japan, this involves a lot of heavy drinking. Parties often take place in izakaya, and ours involved being treated to a nomihodai, which is a popular all-you-can-drink deal offered by many Japanese bars .

What are some interesting holiday traditions you’ve witnessed around the world?

 

18 Responses to 5 Things I Didn’t Know About the Holiday Season in Japan

  1. Kiki December 19, 2013 at 4:18 am #

    How interesting I love learning about how different countries and cultures celebrate the holidays.

  2. Beth December 19, 2013 at 7:37 pm #

    Make sure to visit a temple for Oshogatsu! It's an interesting experience :)
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  3. agnesstramp December 19, 2013 at 10:10 pm #

    It is going to be so weird for you to eat the noodles on New Year's Eve! Chinese is pretty the same so I can totally relate to this post.
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  4. Steph (@20YH) December 20, 2013 at 3:34 am #

    Very cool! it's always interesting to see how different countries, even those that aren't predominantly Christian, celebrate the holidays at this time of year. I'm surprised that you didn't mention how popular it is for Japanese people to have KFC for Christmas dinner! We were just reading about Xmas traditions in the in-flight Air Asia magazine yesterday and there were TWO paragraphs devoted to the Japanese KFC Christmas tradition!
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    • waysofwanderers December 20, 2013 at 5:28 am #

      I heard about the KFC thing! There isn't a franchise in our area, so it isn't something I've experienced first-hand. I've heard a lot of families around here cook fried chicken at home on Christmas Eve, though. So bizarre!

  5. Tim M December 20, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    Sounds interesting. It's slightly more festive here in Korea. But it still doesn't feel like the US, which is okay with me.
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    • waysofwanderers January 5, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

      Yeah – the Christmas routine in North America is so familiar, it's nice to celebrate it somewhere completely different.

  6. Zara @ Backpack ME December 24, 2013 at 1:01 am #

    “forget the year party” sounds like such fun!!
    Nice to learn these cultural nuances of the holidays in Japan – thanks for sharing and happy holidays for you too! :)
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  7. theroamingcoconuts December 28, 2013 at 10:51 pm #

    Haha I spent two years in Japan and the holiday season was always the weirdest! Pink heart covered Christmas trees? Adorable of course. This post totally brought me back!
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    • waysofwanderers January 5, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

      Of course – you can count on everything Japan does to be adorable.

  8. Deia @ Nomad Wallet December 29, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

    Just dropping by to say those noodles look delicious! :D And I'd even be really tempted to eat the mochi flowers.
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    • waysofwanderers January 5, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

      We weren't sure if we were supposed to eat them at first, haha!

  9. Heather January 1, 2014 at 1:13 pm #

    It's so interesting to see how other countries celebrate holidays! Shanghai put up some over-the-top Christmas displays, but it was more about the commercial aspects than a real understanding of the season. I've so enjoyed being back in the States and immersing myself in the holiday. Though I do miss some of the quirky things I saw, like a giant tree covered in Mini-Coopers :-)
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    • waysofwanderers January 5, 2014 at 6:59 pm #

      It's definitely about the commercial aspect here too – it's weird because so many people complain that Christmas is too commercialized in North America, so it's interesting to see what it looks like when it's truly just for show.

  10. Grace January 5, 2014 at 7:38 am #

    The Christmas cakes in Japan is not cheap but I love them and had them every year when we lived there! Now, Christmas in Dubai is much different. I want to be able to spend Christmas in a country where it is genuinely celebrated.
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