by Sean, staff writer of japan-guide.com
2013/01/02 - Tokyo New Year Report
A very Happy New Year to all. Wishing everybody a 2013 blessed with health and happiness.
Another exciting year begins here at japan-guide. You might have already noticed, but we have marked the start to this year with a new layout for our website. Here's to more good times of sharing about Japan together.
My first entry this year is about my trip to Tokyo today. Traditionally, the capital is much less crowded than usual over the New Year holidays, as many Tokyoites return to their hometowns to celebrate. Stores and attractions may be closed over the period for a varying number of days, although it is an increasing trend that large stores open even on January 1.
Arriving at Ikebukuro before 9am, I immediately noticed significantly less packed trains, despite it being what would be the usual rush hour. Hundreds were queuing up outside the multiple entrances of Tobu department store, waiting to enter and take part in its New Year sales. January 2, I heard, is a great day for shoppers as stores offer good bargains to kick off the year.
January 2 is also special because it is only one out of two days in a year that the inner grounds of the Tokyo Imperial Palace are open to the public. I found myself outside the palace's moats before its opening time at 9:30, but there were already thousands queuing up before me. The queue was however as usual orderly, efficient and smooth. It took about an hour before I arrived in front of the podium, where the emperor makes several appearances on this day. Waiting amongst the excited masses, I felt anticipation built up as time ticked towards the scheduled appearance; then, his majesty graced with his presence, to an eruption of cheers and a sea of fluttering rising suns.
While scores of the working population in dark suits seemed to have disappeared from the city on this day, those that remained seemed to have transformed into the shopping population, as jovial crowds hit the streets at Harajuku and Omotesando. Most stores have already reopened, starting the year with sales. Fukubukuro (fortune/lucky bags) were offered by many merchants. These are goods packaged together and sold at a huge discount off their usual individual prices.
Hatsumode is one's first visit to a shrine or temple in the year. My hatsumode this year was to Meiji Shrine, said to be the most visited shrine over the New Year period in all of Japan. Judging by the number of fellow visitors, it is definitely no exaggeration when they say about three million people visit this shrine on the first three days of each year. Everybody was in good spirits, and there was a lot of activity going on besides the usual prayers: people were drawing fortune lots, writing their wishes on wooden tablets (ema) and purchasing lucky arrows.
I made my way to Ginza next, known to many as the most upmarket shopping area in Tokyo. There was a lot of shopping activity going on here too, as huge department stores and other retailers were holding sales of their own. Like at Harajuku, most of the shops have reopened, although some have slightly shorter than usual operating hours today. Almost every retailer offered some kind of fukubukuro - even a fast food restaurant had one with fast food coupons and some merchandize.
Sensoji Temple at Asakusa is also a popular destination for hatsumode. I heard that since the opening of the Tokyo Skytree last year, more have turned up this year after sunset because they can view the illuminated Skytree as well. I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere at Sensoji today: the buzz at the Nakamise Shopping Street, the festive lighting, and the enjoyment of observing what others were doing at the temple grounds.