January 31, 2021

How to enjoy Japan in January: The New Year & Nara

Image from Unsplash

In January, it is the middle of winter in Japan. Traditionally, January 5 has been called "Shokan" or "Kan no iri,” the beginning of midwinter, and the 30 days up until the beginning of February are called "Kan no uchi,” the coldest period of the year.

Snowfall increases and some areas even experience heavy snow and extensive snow coverage during this time, leading to falls, traffic accidents, and other snow-related disasters. Enjoy your trip with winter clothes and equipment and make sure to check the weather forecast.

January is a big month for Japanese people! The New Year is full of traditional Japanese culture.

How do you spend the New Year in your country? For Japanese people, January is an important month to welcome the new year in.

The three days from January 1 to 3 are called "Oshogatsu." Family members who usually live apart gather at their parents' homes.

They enjoy having "osechi-ryori,” a New Year's celebration meal, and pray for good health and happiness.

People also pay a visit to the deities and wish for good health and good fortune. If you want to feel the sacred atmosphere of “Oshogatsu,” you should visit shrines and temples at this time of year. We hope you don't mind crowds, though!

Set out on a journey to stroll around precious temples and shrines in the ancient capital Nara in January

Nara Prefecture is the best place to experience Japanese culture in January. Nara used to be Japan's capital, formerly named “Heijokyo,” and prospered as a political and economic center. It is a perfect place for a New Year's visit, with many historical temples and shrines still standing!

Another reason we recommend Nara is the easy access to/from Kansai International Airport and Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe Cities, even in winter when the weather is unstable. You can also enjoy many fantastic views and events exclusive to this season.

Let us introduce Nara in winter, a place full of beauty and amazing things to do!

Attract good fortune by visiting national treasures in Nara!

Many religious buildings and Buddhist statues are preserved as national treasures in Nara and have served as spiritual centers over the centuries, so it might not be too presumptuous to assume that good fortune may lie in the shrines of these deities that have watched over the world for 1,300 years.

Go and see Nara's national treasures for yourself and hopefully the deities will bless you with a little luck!

Horyuji Temple: The oldest wooden buildings in the world

Image by kazukiatuko from PIXTA

Horyuji Temple was the first Buddhist temple in Japan and was built in the 7th century.

It is nothing short of a miracle that the temple’s wooden buildings have survived hundreds of years of wars and disasters and yet still retain the majestic appearance of their time.

The temple was registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site as an architectural embodiment of humankind’s creativity through each era.

It’s hard to imagine, but Horyuji Temple contains more than 150 national treasures.

Buildings are so elaborate and impressive that it is hard to believe they are made of wood stand tall throughout the expansive grounds.

The octagonal round-shaped “Yumedono” with its mystical atmosphere is one of them. In winter, the site is extra picturesque as you can enjoy the beautiful black and white contrast between the snow and the buildings. 

Horyuji Temple

  • Address: 1-1-1 Horyuji Sannai, Ikaruga, Ikoma District, Nara
  • Hours: 8:00–17:00 (22th Feb. to 3rd Nov.)/8:00–16:30 (4th Nov. to 21st Feb.)

Todaiji Temple: Home to the Great Statue of Buddha in Nara

Image from Unsplash

When you visit Nara, the must-see is the Great Statue of Buddha in Todaiji Temple, known as “Nara no Daibutsu” to Japanese people.

The 15-meter high Great Buddha was made over a span of seven years starting in 745 in the hope of protecting people from political turmoil, plague, and disaster and the desire for all living creatures to prosper together.

The Great Buddha has webbed hands so as not to spill a drop of water, representing his hope to save all people and is enshrined in the Great Buddha Hall, one of the world’s largest wooden buildings.

The windows, which are usually closed, open every year for one day from New Year’s Eve toNew Year’s Day, so you can celebrate the New Year with a view of the Great Buddha from outside.

A once-in-a-year peek at a statue who has been watching over people as their hearts join together peacefully for over 1,300 years is not to be missed!

Todaiji Temple

  • Address: 406-1 Zoshicho, Nara
  • Hours: 7:30–17:30(Apri. to Oct.)/8:00–17:00(Nov. to Mar.)

The symbol of Nara: Kofukuji Temple and its five-story pagoda

Image by C7 from PIXTA

The highlight of Kofukuji Temple is the 51-meter high five-story pagoda, the symbol of Nara. The building was first built in 730, but was burned down later, only to be eventually rebuilt in its original image in 1426.

At night, you can enjoy a fantastic view of the lighted pagoda.

“Chu-Kondo,” the Central Golden Hall, is another must-see and one of the most important buildings in Kofukuji Temple.

It was only just reconstructed in 2018 and the original appearance has been painstakingly recreated in detail. All the Buddha statues housed in the building have been restored as well, so you can see everything as it was when the building was first built 300 years ago.

Kofukuji Temple

  • Address: 48 Noboriojicho, Nara
  • Hours: 9:00–17:00

Kasuga-Taisha Shrine: Meet the sacred deer messengers of the deities

Image from Unsplash

Kasuga-Taisha in Nara is the head shrine of 3,000 Kasuga-Taisha shrines throughout Japan. The bright red buildings in the spacious site are reconstructed every two decades. This has happened 60 times, meaning the shrine has been restored and preserved for over 1,200 years so far.

It is said that the deity of this shrine came down to Nara on a deer in ancient times. Now, about 1,300 sacred deer live in the grounds of the shrine and Nara Park.

You will also find “Omikuji,” a fortune-telling paper here in the shape of a deer. An English version is also available, so try taking one and see what your luck might be this coming year! That would be great fun!

Kasuga-Taisha Shrine

  • Address: 160 Kasuganocho, Nara
  • Hours: 6:30–17:30(Mar. to Oct.)/7:00–17:00(Nov. to Feb.)

Enjoy winter-only events in Nara

Nara has a lot of events and beautiful scenery that can be seen only in winter. 

Kasuga-Taisha Shrine recommended above, holds a series of Shinto rituals for the New Year. 

“Hatsumode,” the first visit to the shrine in the year, starts with the drumming of Japanese drums at midnight, January 1. 

On the 2nd, they hold a unique ritual that combines Shinto and Buddhism. Buddhist priests from Kofukuji Temple come over to the shine and chant a Buddhist sutra in front of the Shinto deity. “Kagura-Hajime Shiki,” a ritual in which shrine-maidens in red and white pray for peace and happiness throughout Japan, takes place on the 3rd.

They also have another ritual called “Bugaku-Hajime Shiki,” to pray for the safe dedication of dance and music to the deities on Coming-of-Age Day, the second Monday in January. A trip to Nara in January would be a great opportunity to go and see many of these unique events.

The Grass-Burning-Fire Event on Wakakusayama Hill, one of Nara’s most significant winter events

Image by Hiroko from PIXTA

One event that shouldn’t be forgotten is the “Grass-Burning-Fire Event on Wakakusayama Hill'' on the 4th Saturday in January. This ceremony began as a means to pacify the spirits in the graves on the top of Mt. Wakakusa, but now, it has become a traditional event to signal the coming of early spring.

It starts with a ceremony to inherit the sacred fire from the fire festival in Kasuga-Taisha Shrine at 16:45. Then, the torchlight procession heads to Mt. Wakakusa, and the 33-hectare hill is covered with flames simultaneously starting at 18:30.

When night falls, you can enjoy a spectacular view of the winter night sky lit up by fireworks and the hill’s flames. This magnificent combination can be seen from Nara Park and Nara City as well. 

If you meet the demons of Nara, it will be a peaceful year for you!

There is another exciting event in Yoshino, located in the southern part of Nara Prefecture. It is called “Oni Fes,” Demon Festival in English, and is a unique event that is held from the middle of January to early February.

It is related to “Setsubun'', a traditional event to drive away demons and bring good luck into homes in February. The demons show up at Yoshino’s lodging facilities and restaurants to surprise guests and even drink alcohol together. People wish for happiness during this year by communicating with the demons.

So if you encounter demons in Yoshino, it will be a wonderful year for you! 

Find out more about Yoshino Oni Fes here.

The local cuisine of Nara

After enjoying all the culture and history Nara has to offer, fill up with local cuisine!

Try Nara’s tea porridge “chagayu” for a peaceful and healthy year

Japan has a custom of eating “nanakusa-gayu,” a seven-herb rice porridge on January 7.

This is to rest the stomach with soft porridge after the New Year’s feast and to pray for a peaceful and healthy year.

We suggest you try chagayu tea porridge, a local traditional cuisine, when you travel to Nara.

It is a simple dish of rice cooked with green tea or hojicha (roasted green tea) which gives the porridge a distinctive rich aroma. Many restaurants and cafes in Nara City serve it.

It is particularly good to calm your stomach after drinking too much alcohol during the New Year’s festivities.

Don’t miss sushi wrapped with a persimmon leaf!

When it comes to Japan, no food is more famous than sushi!

But have you heard of a special kind of sushi they have in Nara? 

It’s called “kakinoha-sushi,” or persimmon-leaf sushi, which is, as the name suggests, wrapped in a persimmon leaf and contains antioxidants and sterilizing properties.

Image by Rhetorica from PIXTA

This method of cooking was originally developed to preserve seafood in Nara, which lies far away from the sea. 

If you don’t like raw fish, don’t worry! The fish used is salted before it’s wrapped in a persimmon leaf, making it easier for people who do not like the taste of raw fish to eat.

It’s nice to stroll around Nara with its unique restaurants offering “shojin-ryori,” vegetarian food developed for Buddhist monks, and cafes renovated from “kominka” traditional Japanese-style houses.

Nara is the perfect place to celebrate the New Year!

Recently, we have all been experiencing many difficulties, including political turmoil, infectious diseases, and natural disasters.

Perhaps now is the best time to visit the deities in Nara to drive away any evil spirits and wish for good health and happiness for the rest of the year.

May the deities bless you all!

Looking for more information? Let us know!

Feel free to schedule a 15-minute video call with one of our Japanese Culture Experts for questions you may have.

We can translate, explain, and help in any travel situation you encounter during your time in Japan.

The video call conversation is a new feature that we would like to test out.

It's free of charge so please kindly reserve a suitable time from the calendar below and choose your preferred messaging app.

  • Written by Sumire Hayakawa
  • Translated and Edited by Carley Radford & HD Editing Team

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