Traveling in Japan over New Years can be exciting… and horrible. The New Years holiday in Japan is similar to Christmas in the West – a time of visiting family and resting from work. However, transportation overcrowding and holiday closures of shops and restaurants can be a headache, especially for disabled travelers.
But don’t let that discourage you! It is a great time to catch a glimpse of events that only happen once a year. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Travel and Closures
While count-down parties are gaining in popularity among younger Japanese, traditionally, in Japan New Years is a time to gather with family. In the past when most people lived near their family, this would mean a relatively quiet holiday with little travel. However, as people move further and further away from relatives, returning home for the New Years can mean traveling long distances by train or by plane. Over the holidays the Shinkansen, major train stations, and airports are absolutely packed with travelers. This can be an extra challenge for travelers with disabilities as staff are not able to help with ramps or guiding people with wheelchairs through the station as quickly as they normally can. The crowds can be hard to maneuver with a disability and trains can be uncomfortable. This usually happens in two phases – a few days before New Years Day, and a few days after. So, plan your long-distance travels accordingly.
Another frustration for travelers is that many stores and restaurants close during the holidays. Smaller shops may close a few days, but even bigger ones usually close on January 1st – eliminating shopping and even making it difficult to find a place to eat.
More importantly, many tourist attractions close for the holidays – some for up to a week! Be sure to check out the days the tourist attraction you want to go to will be open.
On the other hand, shrines and temples are definitely open during the New Years holidays. This is because Most Japanese people go to a shrine or temple during the first 15 days of January for hatsumode – a first visit to prayer for the year. From midnight on December 31st, many people are already lined up at local places of worship and their is an air of festivity as people burn their lucky charm from the past year, buy new ones, and converse with family and friends while they drink sweet rice wine as they line up. Many larger shrines and temples even have food stalls operating where you can buy something warm and tasty. Trains in major urban centers run all night on December 31st, and some shrines and temples see over a million visitors within the first few days of the new year!
These events are open to foreigners as well and can be a unique experience when visiting Japan. Many larger shrines are accessible and have ramps at the main hall, but are incredibly crowded and it may be difficult to move around and overwhelming for some people. Smaller shrines and temples are also open 24hrs for hatsumode but tend to be less wheelchair accessible. Even if you chose not to participate with the crowds, it can be a great experience to watch.
The best way to think about traveling during New Years in Japan is to think about traveling during Christmas in the West. Long distance travel is crowded and difficult, and restaurants, stores and attractions are closed – but there is a unique, once-a-year atmosphere of excitement and special cultural events. It can be fun and rewarding, but know what you are getting into!
May you have an incredible and exciting 2020! We hope to see you here in Japan!
The Accessible Japan Team