Decorations are an important part of the holiday. There are many kinds to help you welcome in good luck during the new year. But when should you put them up? Well, most people start decorating after Christmas. But you can't wait too long! If you decorate the day before, on the 31st, that's called Ichiya-kazari 「一夜飾り/ one night varnish」 and considered bad luck. But you can't do it on the 29th either, because the number nine has the same sound as suffer 「く・苦」. So it's best to put up your decorations some time between the 25th and 28th. Traditions vary by region, but generally you should take your decorations down on Janurary 7th. From the 1st to the 7th is called Matsu no Uchi and is the period when Toshi-gami (the new year spirits) visit world. So once they leave, you can start to take things down. (Information from this website) The exception is for certain decorations you buy at a shrine during your first New Year's visit, such as kumade and kaburaya. These you can keep in your house for one full year.
Kagami mochi 「鏡餅」
Kagami mochi are two large stacked pieces of mochi with a daidai (citrus fruit) on top. You should display this on a Buddhist or Shinto shrine in your home until the day of kagami biraki on January 11th. The mochi serves as an offering for the visiting kami during the start of the new year. Usually, most people buy packaged mochi displays at the store. They come in tradition and modern styles. These have mochi sealed in a plastic container that you can open on the 11th to eat.
Shimekazari are decorative rice straw ropes. They are placed on the door or gate and are thought to keep away bad spirits. Shimekazari will often have the iconic zig zag shaped paper strips called shide.
Often you will see these outside businesses.
A kadomatsu has three shoots of bamboo, pine, and ume (plum). The represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness, respectively. Kadomatsu are thought to be temporary houses for toshikami 「年神」. These are placed at the front entrance, usually with one on either side. This is another decoration often associated with businesses.
Kumade is the Japanese word for rake. But these rakes are definitely not for leaves. These are decorative rakes covered in good luck symbols meant to rake in success. Because of this, they are very popular with businesss owners. But they can be very expensive, ranging from around ¥2000 to ¥50000 or more. I guess what they say is true, you have to spend money to make money. Read more about kumade here. You can display these for one year before they need to be replaced.
A kaburaya is a whistling arrow that was used in ritual archery exchanges before a battle. On New Year's, temples and shrines will often sell decorated ones to ward off evil spirits during the new year. You can display these for one year before they need to be replaced.
This is a less common decoration. Hagoita are wooden paddles used to play haetsuki, a traditional New Year's game. But when displayed on New Year's, they are heavily decorated and considered auspicious symbols that bring good luck.
Traditionally, you're not supposed to do work on New Year's Day. So many people either preorder their food, or make it themselves on the days leading up to January 1st. It is traditional to eat Toshikoshi soba on New Year's Eve and Osechi Ryori and Ozoni on New Year's Day. But more on that later.
Because of the importance of mochi for New Year's, you'll also probably see mochi pounding ceremonies around this time. These ceremonies are called mochitsuki 「餅つき」and are a really fun way to make mochi the traditional way. It's a lengthy process that usually starts the night before, but the most fun part is when you pound the mochi using a large mallet while someone else deftly flips the mochi in between hits.
A very popular tradition in Japan is to send New Year's postcards to your friends and family. If sent to the post office within a certain time period (usually mid-December to late December) and marked with New Year's Day 「年賀おう」 then the post office gaurantees to deliver it on New Year's Day. These cards often have the zodiac animal for the year on them and can be quite ornate at times.
New Year's Eve
Toshikoshi Soba 「年越し蕎麦 」
On New Year's Eve, it's common to eat Toshikoshi Soba, or year-crossing soba. The noodles symbolize cutting off the misfortunes from the previous year as you cut through the noodles with your teeth. Many people also believe that the long length of the noodles symbolizes a long life. You should eat this dish for dinner or as an evening snack on New Year's Eve.
Every year since 1959, the NHK has broadcast a singing competition / New Year's concert, Red and White Song Battle! This year, the program is being shown from 19:15 - 23:45 JST. At the end, the audience and judges will vote on the best team. It's a star studded New Year's extravaganza and a part of many people's yearly celebration.
New Year's Day
Joya no Kane - Ringing the Temple Bell at Midnight 「除夜の鐘」
In stead of waiting for a ball to drop in Times Square, many people in Japan will go to a Buddhist temple for joya no kane. Many temples ring in the new year by ringing a bell 108 times at midnight, to symbolize the 108 desires that cause human suffering. I have heard it said that some temples even let onlookers join in and ring the bell. Because of this tradition, in the big cities, trains will run all night from New Year's Eve until New Year's Day. But be careful! There are many temples that start early, around 11pm. So check with your local temple before going.
Many people like to celebrate the first time doing certain things. One of these is the first sunrise of the new year. Places like the Tokyo Sky Tree will be open as early as 5am to host hatsuhinode viewing events. Other people will hike to the top of mountains or sit on the beach to watch the sunrise.
Hatsumode - First Shrine Visit 「初詣」
Another important first is your first visit to a shrine. This is an increidbly popular activity and most shrines and temples will be packed on New Year's Day. Generally people will try to visit between the 1st and 3rd of January. Often people will bring their old decorations and omamori from the previous year to be burned at the shrine or temple.
Osechi Ryori 「お節料理」
On New Year's Day, the classic food to eat is ozōni (a type of savory soup) and osechi (traditional new year's food arranged in stacked boxes). You can often find these kinds of foods at convenience stores if you're looking for a cheap fix. But most people will preorder expensive sets long before the holiday. Some people even make their own!
New Year's is a holiday that is traditionally spent with the family. So on New Year's Day, there are a few classic games that families can play together. These activities include hanetsuki (similar to badminton), takoage (kite flying), koma (a spinning top), sugoroku fukuwarai (similar to pin the tail on the donkey, but with parts of a face), and karuta (classic poetry card game).
On New Year's, parents, grandparents, and sometimes aunts and uncles will give children smal envelopes filled with money. This is very similar to the Chinese tradition of giving out money envelopes on New Year's. The amount of money varies depending on the age of the child. You can read more about it here.
After New Year's, you'll see many stores having New Year's sales or selling red lucky bags called fukubukuro. These bags contain an assortment of goods, usually for drastically reduced prices. It's a great way for a store to get rid of last year's goods. But be careful, you never know what you're going to get. For bigger stores, people will line up hours before stores open on New Year's Day.
Putting Away the Decorations
As I mentioned before, you should start putting away your New Year's decorations during the second week of January. There are a few exceptions. Because you buy kaburaya and kumade during your first visit to the shrine, of course you don't have to throw these away just yet. You can keep these up for an entire year and bring them back to a shrine or temple for your first visit.
Kagami Biraki 「鏡開き」
As I mentioned before, January 11th is kagami biraki, so you should break up your kagami mochi, roast it, then eat it in zōni, a traditional new year's soup, or shiruko, red bean soup with mochi. But, you should never cut the mochi into pieces. This is bad luck, as is symbolizes cutting ties. You should always break the mochi by hand or use a hammer. You will also see this ceremony being performed at weddings, sporting events, the opening of new companies, or other significant events.
Throughout the New Year season, shrines will light a ceremonial bonfire and burn all the decorations and good luck charms from the previous year. This ceremony is called otakiage. Many are held around January 15th, and this marks the official end of the New Year's season. But you will often see shrines burning smaller fires almost every day. Sometimes, the shrine will let people roast dango in the fire from the burning decorations. When they do this, it is called dondoyaki. It is said if you eat the dango roasted in this fire, it will bring you good health. Read more about it here.