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How Japan Rings in the New Year

Photos by Ari Beser Crowds gather at Zojoji Temple in Minato Tokyo to practice the tradition of Hatsumode, the first temple or shrine visit of the year.

Tokyo—“Tokyo’s going to be dead on New Year's,” warned my friend Naoki, a resident of the capital city for the past 30 years and a veteran of its vibrant nightlife. “Everything will be closed, no one will be out, and if your friend is coming to visit you from home, and he’s never been to Japan, he may be disappointed.”

Naoki was only partly right. While Tokyo was far from the post-apocalyptic ghost town he dramatically painted, most of the shops and marketplaces in all but the major areas were in fact closed for the holidays. Japan takes time off for the last and first week of the year in favor of bringing in the New Year at home with family. The vibrant Shimokitazawa neighborhood, famed for its Bohemian atmosphere and trendy hangouts, had all but closed -- except for a latte art café and a few thrift stores. In the major areas only the chain stores in Shibuya, Akihabara, and Shinjuku were open for business; local family owned restaurants had closed.

Tokyo wasn't the only city that had gone quiet. When my friend arrived in Japan, we traveled to Nagano, arriving at night to find only one open restaurant in the vicinity of our traditional ryokan inn next to the famous Zenkoji temple.

For the three days following New Year's Eve, millions of people visit temples and shrines all over Japan to pray for good luck in the coming year. Here is the practice in action at Fushimi Inari Taisho in Kyoto.

A Tokyo new year's eve isn’t the out-of-control party of excess it can be famous for in European hot spots or New York's Times Square, but it is still a vibrant celebration.

Here, the New Year is greeted with the tradition of Hatsumode, the first Shinto shrine visit of the year. Revelers of the Shinto faith, the dominant religion of Japan, line up for hours on the last night of the year, hoping to be among the first to ring the bells from midnight on through the next few days. As the light of the first dawn approaches the lines hold steady and patrons and tourists alike pray to the gods or kami that are housed in that particular shrine. Temples are crowded with visitors for the first three or four days of the new year.

Shrines and temple grounds are also lined with festival stalls selling a variant of street foods filling up the surroundings with smoky scents of grilled treats, both sweet and savory. People as far as the eye can see have come from all over the world to take part in the ancient traditions.

One of the most popular and fun sights to see is the practice of mochitsuki, the pounding of rice into fine and gooey cakes called mochi. At temple grounds with people lined up to bring in the new year, men, usually dressed in traditional hachimaki headbands, circle a giant wooden mortar and pound the rice until the grains have merged into one glutinous ball of sticky rice.

Mochitsuki, or the pounding of rice cakes, is a popular new year's tradition that takes place all over the country, like here at Zojoji Temple in Minato, Tokyo.

Japanese people also clean their homes in the year-end tradition of osoji, a belief that a clean dwelling is more welcoming to the gods of the coming new year. It's a bit like spring cleaning. Those whose households contain omamori charms bring back their amulets to the shrines they were purchased from on New Year's Eve, burning them in a bonfire and replacing them with new ones. Parents also give their young children money called otoshidama, and department stores offer a great way for kids to spend their otoshidama with lucky grab bags called fukubukuro. These are bags with mysterious random contents that may be worth twice as much as the price of the bag.

People travel from all over the world, not just from across Japan, to drink the waters at Kiyomizu Dera, which literally translates to pure water temple. those who drink it are granted a wish.

While the trip wasn't the museum-filled, neighborhood-hopping, live music bar experience my friend from home had hoped for, he and I got something much more unique and unexpected. We experienced a New Year's unlike any we will experience again. We rang in the New Year at Zojo-ji Temple in view of Tokyo Tower; we passed through the spiritual tori gates at Fushimi Inari Taisho and drank the pure wish-granting water at Kiyomizu Dera in Kyoto, and all along the way we practiced, and tasted all of the traditions a Japanese New Year has to offer.

Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.

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