Holidays in Japan getting back to (new) norm

Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi
Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi

Holidays in Japan getting back to (new) norm

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

Much like in the States, the holiday season in Japan is usually the most cheerful and busiest time of year — under normal conditions, of course. We have parties, also known as bonenkai, which are informal year-end celebrations with coworkers and friends. And there are gifts, New Year’s greeting cards, winter illuminations, Christmas markets and more. This time of the year is hectic, but it is also one full of joy.

Last year, this joyous season was another unfortunate victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were no late-night parties with our coworkers or gathering with friends and family for many of us. Many of the holiday events my family and I looked forward to were either drastically scaled back or canceled altogether. We didn’t visit relatives in the New Year as officials encouraged people to stay home in Japan. My family and I couldn’t attend Christmas Mass as we usually do, nor did we head to the big market like Ameyoko in Ueno to pick up fresh seafood for our New Year’s Osechi foods.

Last year’s holiday season was like no other we have experienced. Technology helped us connect to our family and friends, allowing us to celebrate the pleasant season together but apart. My wife celebrated my mother-in-law’s 101st birthday in late November in an online celebration, including my wife’s sister living in Guam and another sister who lives in the States, while I enjoyed a couple of online bonenkai with my friends.

Since the number of the COVID-infected has drastically declined, our society seems to gradually getting back to normal, albeit a new normal that includes masks and social distancing. Since the State of Emergency in Japan was lifted in September, my wife and I traveled to view our country’s beautiful fall foliage and have attended various holiday events.

When winter illuminations around the country started lighting up brightly in November, my wife and I have already joined countless others (with our facemasks on, of course!) to check out the popular illumination attractions in Yokosuka and Yokohama.


While a lot of people still hesitate to gather for parties, I decided to join couple of bonenkai (not online, this time!) this year. I’m thrilled to celebrate with my friends in person again, however I am taking the proper COVID precautions. With that said, I may feel tahe need to tie my necktie around my forehead, an important Japanese custom to signify how much fun we’re having at a bonenkai. 

My wife and I are also looking forward to going to a Tokyo hall to enjoy Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a popular year-end attraction in Japan. The Christmas Eve concert will be our first together since most of performing arts stopped nearly two years ago. On the way to the symphony hall, we plan to drop by a large seafood market street to check out people flocking to buy tuna, lobster, salmon and other expensive foods for New Year’s parties. I’m sure many of Japan’s busier market streets have already come back to life.

Although things are normalizing a little this year, COVID has definitely made its mark on some of our customs.

For my wife and her sisters, their experience under pandemic rules became their new normal – they have continued their daily online gatherings. When their centenarian mother wakes up, a sister in the Philippines invite other sisters through Facebook Messenger for their daily chats. They seem to have found a magic carpet that makes it feel like they are all in the same room.

I feel the pandemic has helped remind me of the importance of home and family. Even though I am going to attend a bonenkai party or two, there’s nothing like gathering with my family at home and sharing laughs and memories. So, on the upcoming last day of the year, my wife, daughter and I stay up late watching the nation-wide “Red and White” singing contest, while also chatting online with our family members around the world. We will be ringing in the New Year with lucky toshikoshi soba and will give thanks to have each other no matter what the future has in store, just like we did last year. 

Happy holidays and Happy New Year to you and your family!



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