A Special Kyoto New Year Celebration

Profile picture of
Helen Winter

View Profile All Posts
Written by: Vicki Holman

As the last few minutes of last year slipped by, throngs of people and snowflakes collected together in the streets of Gion. Bustled along by the crowd and the atmosphere, my friends and I were eager to reach the lantern-lit Shinnyo-do temple in Kyoto, Japan for the stroke of midnight. It almost reminded me of a New Year’s Eve when I was a teenager in Guisborough, where everyone in town would crowd together under the market cross; though I didn’t see anybody climb up the temple and display a token pasty bum, as some juveniles were prone to in my home town in the UK’s northeast.

The new year food

With the practice of ‘hatsuhinode’ (seeing the first sunrise of the year), Kyoto – the old capital of Japan – felt like a good place to see in the new year, Japanese-style. Where the festival was once only for families, it is now slightly westernised in its appeal for young people and couples, as an opportunity to go out and celebrate in the city.

Traditional practices are still very popular though, when many families spend time together and eat a variety of symbolic foods. In the week before new year’s eve, intensive ‘spring’ cleaning and life laundry ensues. Special new year dishes, such as osechi ryoori, are prepared, preserved with strong flavours, and packed into ornate bento boxes that will last for those few special days when housewives are released from cooking duty. Sweet boiled black beans, shrimp, stewed vegetables and sea bream are popular in osechi boxes, whilst soba noodles, inventively called ‘year crossing soba’, are also symbolic of long life.

Our New Year’s Eve meal was a little different. After phoning almost every restaurant in Kyoto, we found ourselves at a tiny, Japanese eatery, where we had a set meal of meat and vegetable nabe, which is like a kind of stew. Unfortunately for the frugal backpacker, due to New Year’s typical price inflation, the compulsory set meal was expensive enough to make a girl cry, head down on the table, while the waitress scarpered into the kitchen. In fairness, our friend was under unrelated stresses that day, and our explanations of, ‘Well it is NYE, and you’d probably pay more at home,’ did little to quell the emotional avalanche. On the upside, the food was delicious.

The ringing bells

Later on, in the lively hub of Gion, where streets were lined with stalls of noodles, Japanese rice cakes called mochi, hot chocolate, and cans of beer. We decided to pick up an alcoholic beverage and look for the temple. The crowds that extended the entire width and breadth of the streets were high spirited and approachable. We asked two random guys, who we soon learned were called Hiro and Tomo, for directions, and found ourselves with escorts for the evening.

A few minutes later, we realised there was only five minutes to go till midnight. Unthinkingly I grabbed Hiro’s hand and began to run towards the temple. Running and weaving through the masses, somehow dodging everyone and picking up quite a pace, Hiro suddenly pulled my arm and pointed to his watch. I glanced around and all of the people had stopped walking, and were now hugging and cheering. I could hear the bells ringing at the temple but I couldn’t see my friends any more. Feeling a bit silly, I gave Hiro a quick hug, then we began to walk back to find my friends and wish them a happy new year.

In the distance we could hear the repeated tolling of the bells at the temple, ringing out to deliver everyone from the 108 evil passions humans suffer, such as hate, greed and jealousy. As the joya no kane- the bells of New Year’s Eve – began to toll, the atmosphere altered to a subdued hush, crowds walking more slowly now, though continuing to the Shinny-do temple, to ring the bell of good fortune.

The karaoke bar

Nipping into Starbucks to use the loo, queuing in the freezing cold streets and drinking beer from a can, was not quite the ‘Japanese cultural experience’ we had anticipated, but was probably quite close to the New Year’s Eves of many young Japanese people; there were certainly plenty there. Eventually tiring of queuing we gave up and went in search of a notorious karaoke bar. Although anywhere out of the cold would have been perfect.

Though very nice, Tomo and Hiro were not gifted with directions. After circling the same block for some time, they enlisted the help of another guy, who helped us locate a karaoke bar and joined us for songs and nomihodai (unlimited drinks).

A fantastic couple of hours spent singing and being silly suddenly became soberingly expensive when we had to leave. Our friend, having not been in a tremendous mood earlier in the evening, returned to being mildly hysterical, convinced we were being ripped off by the ‘helpful’ newcomer. It seems likely that he did pocket a few extra yen that evening, which is completely uncharacteristic of the Japanese people we had met previously.

The situation defused, though not entirely resolved, some friends headed to a nightclub with the Japanese guys while others returned to their hotels. I spent two draining hours trawling the streets in search of my friend’s lost money (she had dropped her purse somewhere earlier in the evening), before finally persuading her it was pointless. Heading back to the hotel, it seemed like our good karma had been left in the gutter with her mislaid money.

Final thoughts

One thing I have noticed about new year, wherever I have been, is that high levels of expectation (and alcohol consumption), often lead to a disappointingly fractious evening. Japan was beautiful, different, exciting and fun, but like anywhere else, if you have had a few beers and accidentally mislay your purse, tears are almost inevitable. I would love to return to Kyoto for new year one day, but next time I would definitely ensure I stayed at the temple to ring the bell and enjoy the atmosphere a bit more rather than running around after everyone else.

Check out these top Japan travel experiences

Search

Community Care in Japan

from £2500

180 days

Japan

We offer several caring placement opportunities for volunteers. These are dedicated to helping residents with physical and learning disabilities and...

International Arts Internship In Japan

from £1770

30 days

Japan

Japan is known across the world as being one of the hotspots and birthplaces for the most famous artists and...

Yamabushi 16-day tour of Japan

from £2500

16 days

Japan

Not your average tourist experience, this tour is specifically designed for the nature lovers out there. See a completely different...

Nippon 1-Month Tour of Japan

from £4520

30 days

Japan

From Tokyo's futuristic neon lights and Kyoto's ancient temples, to trekking through the forests of the mountain mystics and enjoying...

Toki 14-day tour of Japan

from £1990

14 days

Japan

From Tokyo's futuristic neon lights and the rice fields of Izumo, to Kyoto's ancient temples and pristine beaches of the...

Backpacking Tour of Japan

from £1599

13 days

Japan

Join our 13 day adventure, starting from Tokyo, and find out why travelers love Japanl! This affordable tour is carefully...

The Southern Explorer

from £3405

From 30 days

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Hong Kong, Japan, Peru, ...

Visit mysterious Easter Island, idyllic Tahiti, explore South America, experience the wonderfully different world that is Japan before finishing up...

Journalism Internship in Tokyo

from £3700

42 - 180 days

Japan

Get ahead in the competitive world of journalism by pursuing a leading internship in Tokyo, Japan’s futuristic capital. Launch your...

International Engineering Internship In Japan

from £1770

30 days

Japan

Japan is one of the most prominent engineering hubs in Asia, which makes this country an attractive destination to pursue...

Trans-Siberian Adventure

from £1099

30 days

China, Japan, Russia

Ever fancied doing the Trans-Siberian railway? Well, this is your chance. These flights are the perfect way to do that...

Search

Myanmar & Thailand: Hike, Bike & Kayak

from £1715

Venture via Yangon to the remote hills of Loikaw, your jumping-off point to the traditional villages and age-old cultures of...

Bali & Lombok: Hike, Bike & Raft

from £1062

Brimming with incredible landscapes and extraordinary diversity, Bali and Lombok are perfect havens for curious, active travellers. Go white water...

Golden Ring of Russia

Experience the treasures of Russian culture, history and architecture on this 8-day journey—wander picturesque towns older than Moscow and marvel...

Bishkek to Ashgabat Overland

from £2819

Strategically positioned along the Silk Route, the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva were famed trading centres for the caravans...

Philippine Adventure

from £2395

Be mesmerised by the magic of the Philippines on this 19-day tour from Manila to Puerto Princesa. See the fusion...

Land of the Maharajas

Legend has it that colour film was invented specifically to capture the vibrancy of India. (Okay, we made that up,...

Highlights of Borneo

from £1449

We believe Borneo is for lovers. (Lovers of wildlife and adventure, that is!) You’ll traverse caves, trek through Gunung Mulu...

Annapurna Sanctuary

from £726

From ancient kingdoms to majestic mountain vistas, trek through the breathtaking Himalayan landscape of the Annapurna Ranges. Pass awe-inspiring glaciers,...

Sumatra Adventure

from £705

Sumatra offers an incredible travel experience for those willing to stray from well-worn tourist tracks. The world’s sixth largest island...

Epic Trans-Siberian Journey

from £2501

Imagine trying to cover ground across Russia far west to far east – a crazy thought, huh? The solution: Get...

Find more Japan travel inspiration

Search
[contact-form-7 id="4" title="Contact form 1"]