Celebrating New Year's part I
New Year's is the biggest holiday in Japan and you can count on a holiday atmosphere (including unfortunately closed shops and other places of interest) for pretty much a solid week after the calendar changes. They do a lot of things to celebrate, but people accustomed to rowdy parties and spectacular fireworks displays are going to be in for a shock because that kind of loud, brightly colored and boisterous atmosphere just doesn't seem to be the Japanese way. They celebrate by watching contests on TV and eating large quantities of food. They do some drinking but not like we do.
On the first day of the year, just like we often attend mass on Christmas, the Japanese head for the shrine, clogging the tiny roads which lead to the secluded centers. Once there, they walk through a wide range of food and beverage stalls and approach the shrine. At the one I attended, people stopped at a tree which had a hole in it and tried to toss coins up through the hole. The best coin to use was the five yen piece called the goyyim, whichis known for luck. Indeed, luck is one of the holiday's recurring motifs, as each person draws a fortune hoping for luck. If they want the fortune (written on a small piece of paper not much larger than that in a fortune cookie) they take the piece of paper with them, but if not, they tie it on a rack made for just that purpose. In shrines with tourist traffic they offer fortunes in English as well. You can pray in the shrine but that costs money, and my family chose not to do so. We just kindfo walked around the grounds taking in the sights and visiting with neighbors and friends, also meetin gup with more distant cousins. You might also see people buying arrows with whioch to shoot evil spirits.
I know this tip isn't of too much interest to the casual tourist who in all likelihood will not come during the (very mild) Japanese Winter, but I found that experiencing this holiday with the Japanese taught me a lot about their culture and how they look at the world.