Japan and China have a long history of exchange. The countries share many cultural traditions, and today there are areas where you can find large numbers of Chinese migrants and their descendants living in enclaves such as the Chukagai (Chinatown areas) of Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagasaki, as well as modern settlements in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district.
In recent years there has also been an uptick in Chinese tourists coming to Japan to shop until they drop, and so in advance of this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations, companies are doing more than ever to make everything easier for Chinese visitors – for example, convenience store chain Lawson will start accepting payments through Alipay, the mobile wallet app from Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
Although Chinese New Year isn’t a holiday in Japan, it does not pass unmarked! For example, in Yokohama there is the 15-day Chinese Spring Festival where you can see the Lion Dance, catch the Celebration Parade and see thousands of lanterns on the final day of the festival.
For those not too familiar with the Chinese Lunar New Year, it is a celebration that takes place from the first new moon between mid-January and the end of February. It’s a festival that honors old traditions and family ancestors, as well as celebrating the coming spring. There are a number of customs, traditions, and superstitions attached to New Year’s celebrations that call back to early Chinese legends.
Chinese New Year Customs
One thing you might notice from Chinese friends and areas like Chinatown is that everyone starts cleaning. People traditionally clean their homes before the New Year so that they can start the New Year afresh, it is something like spring cleaning in the West—but whereas in the West it is just a matter of cleaning, in China it’s believed that cleaning will also clean out any bad luck from the past year and make room for good luck to come in.
For this reason you will find that doors and windows are open during this time as everyone wants to encourage good fortune into their home. It is also important to know that the cleaning has to be done by the New Year otherwise you may risk sweeping away the good luck of the New Year.
Another Chinese New Year custom that is similar to New Year in Japan is the practice of visiting family and friends and giving money to children. During this time, elders typically give lucky red envelopes containing crisp bills of cash to children as well as unmarried adults younger than them.
Food for Chinese New Year
On Chinese New Year’s Eve, families gather together for a large reunion dinner where they eat a special meal full of dishes believed to bring good fortune. It is a time to unleash your appetite and eat a lot. Dumplings and spring rolls are said to bring wealth, while fish is said to bring prosperity. Chinese New Year is also a time to eat sweet dumplings and desserts such as sticky rice cakes. After the reunion dinner, family members try to stay up as late as possible on the first day of the new year, a practice called “shou sui”. Tradition states that staying awake longer will bless your parents with longevity.
Chinese New Year Superstitions
Besides windows and doors being open at this time of year, you might also notice the color red appearing everywhere, it is no coincidence though! Many people will put up festive decorations around the house that are colored red due to an old Chinese legend in which red paper hangings scared away an evil beast. It is believed that this color is a symbol of good luck and believed to ward off evil.
There are also a number of taboo activities around New Year—for example, buying shoes is strictly off-limits, as the word has a negative meaning in Chinese. At the beginning of the New Year having a shower or getting your hair cut is not a good idea as it is believed that washing may lead to any good luck also being washed away, and any good fortune that has attached itself to your hair will be lost if it gets cut.
As explained before there are a number of public events held to celebrate the Lunar New Year such as those that take place in Yokohama. These festivals typically feature live music, dancing, acrobatic performers, firecrackers, parades, and fireworks. The lion dance is an important Chinese New Year tradition, which varies in style from cute and comical lion dances to exciting demonstrations of martial arts.
How to Celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year in Japan
Historically, Japan used to celebrate the New Year according to the traditional lunar calendar just like China. However, during the Meiji Era, the Japanese government moved towards Westernization and adopted the Gregorian calendar with the New Year beginning on January 1.
Still, the symbolic importance of Chinese zodiac animals has continued, with the animals being incorporated into Japanese New Year celebrations. Furthermore, Chinese New Year festivities are still celebrated in Japan due to the large number of Chinese migrants and their descendants who keep this important holiday alive, both for themselves and the tens of thousands of visitors to the festivals.
In Japan anyone can celebrate the Lunar New Year in Japan by simply following the customs listed above and visiting a festival or public event. You just need to find out where your closest Chinatown is.
- February 16 (Dog)
- February 5 (Pig)
- January 25 (Rat)
- February 12 (Ox)
- February 1 (Tiger)
- January 22 (Rabbit)
Chinese New Year Events in Japan
Yokohama Chukagai (Chinatown) is one of the best places to enjoy Chinese New Year celebrations in Japan. (It's also quite close to Tokyo: just about 40 minutes away from Shibuya via the Tokyu Toyoko Line.) Festivities include lion and dragon dances, musical performances, acrobatics, a parade featuring traditional clothing, and fireworks.
Kobe Chinatown, called “Nankinmachi,” also features live performances, tai chi demonstrations, and firecrackers. Stalls selling food and other goods line the streets.
Shinchi Chukagai, established in Nagasaki during the 17th century, is the oldest Chinatown in Japan. The district holds a massive lantern festival, just like in Yokohama, to celebrate the lunar New Year, with over 15,000 gorgeous Chinese lanterns on display, from small intricate designs to massive lanterns in the shape of Chinese zodiac animals.
As with most festivals there is certain foods to be enjoyed at this time of year, in particular Chinese cakes, but also Japan being Japan other sweets are enjoyed during Lunar New Year. Japanese patisseries and bakeries will celebrate the New Year with wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) fashioned in the shape of the Chinese zodiac animal of that year or with tiny cakes in the shape of the New Year’s animals.
Celebrate Chinese New Year in Japan for an Entertaining & Enriching Experience
Whether you’re visiting Japan and want to celebrate the Lunar New Year during your visit, or you’re simply interested in learning more about how this important holiday is celebrated in Japan, the Chinese New Year festivities are a sight not to be missed.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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