Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing is perhaps the busiest pedestrian street crossing in the world. Thousands of people simultaneously cross the street under the glow of stories-high neon lights and flashing billboards, pausing for traffic only until the lights change and release them back into what is affectionately called the “Shibuya Scramble.” When we visited in 2015, we stood in the window of a nearby building and watched, mesmerized, as the intersection swelled with people before emptying out again. At 10:30 PM on New Year’s Eve in Tokyo, we found ourselves in the midst of the pulsing crowds—but this time, the intersection stayed at capacity as 70,000 people took over the streets to countdown to the new year.
For a few years now, our tradition has become traveling during New Year’s Eve, experiencing how different corners of the world say goodbye to one year and hello to the next. We’ve counted down in Cape Town, watched fireworks explode over Porto, huddled by bonfires in Reykjavik, and sang in the streets of Bruges. When we found a good flight deal to Japan’s capital city just after the Christmas holiday, New Year’s Eve in Tokyo emerged as this year’s celebratory destination. We visited Tokyo once before, during a whirlwind extended layover on our way to Kuala Lumpur, and it left us feeling like we had barely scraped the surface of things to see and do in the city. New Year’s Eve provided the perfect opportunity to answer that question—and learn how one of the world’s great cities throws a party.
If you are thinking about spending New Year’s Eve in Tokyo, here’s how we filled a few fast-paced days—and a few tips for making the most of your experience.
What to Expect on New Year’s Eve in TokyoWhen you decide how you will spend your New Year’s Eve in Tokyo, you will have one big choice to make: do you want a more reflective evening, or do you want a party atmosphere? Whether you’re hoping for a classic party or a night steeped in tradition, the city has plenty to offer.
While New Year’s Eve is an important holiday around the globe, it has a special significance for many people in Japan. Unlike most cities, where New Year’s Eve is synonymous with champagne and fireworks, most of Japan celebrates the passing of the old year as a more solemn affair. The New Year is traditionally a time spent with family, when many people enjoy vacation time and domestic travel peaks as people reunite with loved ones in their hometowns. Sure, there are plenty of parties—and we certainly found the biggest one in Shibuya—but many locals enjoy a quieter celebration.
Whether you’re walking to a huge gathering or a quiet temple, the spirit of the new year can be found throughout the city. Most buildings are adorned with traditional Japanese new year decorations called kadomatsu. Made up of three pieces of bamboo, straw, and pine branches, and often decorated with plum flowers, the kadomatsu is meant to honor the spirits and welcome happiness and prosperity in the new year. Homes and buildings will often place the decorations outside their entrance just after Christmas and leave them on display through January 7th, when they are burned. We found the kadomatsu made the city feel especially festive in the days leading up to and after New Year’s Eve.
Visit a Temple for New Year’s EveFor a very different type of celebration, consider ringing in the new year with actual bells at a Buddhist temple, where you’ll hear bells ring 108 times ending at midnight. In Buddhism, the number 108 is significant: it reflects the number of earthly desires humans face on earth. By ringing a large bell 108 times, Buddhists believe their souls can be cleansed for the new year. The bells will begin ringing on December 31, with the final bell sounding at midnight on January 1—a sign that the challenges of the previous year have been left behind.
Some of Tokyo’s most famous and important temples are great places to take part in this meaningful ritual, but they are also great places to experience significant crowds. If you are interested in joining the thousands of people who trek to Senso-ji or Zojo-ji, some of Tokyo’s most popular and well-known temples, consider going early in the evening (it may be hard to fully enjoy the experience if you arrive close to midnight). Smaller temples may provide a better, less claustrophobic experience, so don’t be afraid to seek out a lesser-known or visited temple instead. This tradition, known as the Joya no Kane ceremony, is a wonderful opportunity to incorporate some reflection and peace into your New Year’s Eve in Tokyo.
New Year’s Eve at Shibuya CrossingFor us, the main draw to New Year’s Eve in Tokyo was being part of the action at Shibuya Crossing. Similar to New York City’s Times Square, Shibuya is constantly alight with neon signs and flashing advertisements. It’s much more of a Western-style party rather than a traditional Japanese experience, but in recent years plenty of locals have joined tourists and expats for a few hours of entertainment as crowds stand shoulder-to-shoulder awaiting midnight.
Our New Year’s Eve experience took place on a cold, clear, and very windy night; we arrived at Shibuya via subway around 10:00 PM in an effort to be early enough to secure a good spot in the crowd while minimizing the amount of time we spent tolerating freezing wind gusts. Shibuya was already alive with the kind of electricity you only find on New Year’s Eve, and we quickly found a spot just on the outskirts of the famous crosswalk. While the roads were completely shut down for vehicle traffic, the crossing itself was largely void of partygoers; dozens of police officers still directed pedestrian traffic, and two large stages had been erected in the street. At 10:30, the police moved out of the way and the crossing was overwhelmed with people rushing into the street, vying for the perfect spot.
Our position close to the crossing ended up being great from a viewing perspective; we had a terrific view of the huge screens projecting images of the entertainment interspersed with advertisements, primarily for Coca-Cola (the event’s sponsor). There was less entertainment than we expected; the stages were largely empty until close to midnight, when representatives from Coke welcomed the 70,000 people gathered in the area and led a brief countdown that started 10 seconds before midnight. When midnight finally arrived, the crowd erupted into cheers—and then the crossing began to empty as if the walk signs were flashing red as people scattered in all directions towards bars, clubs, and hotels to keep the party going (or simply find a warmer place to be!).
Overall, New Year’s Eve at Shibuya Crossing is festive and a fun way to simulate the kind of huge, Western-style New Year’s event many people seek out to start the year. We were glad to experience it; it was by far the largest New Year’s Eve crowd we have celebrated with in our travels. Still, it didn’t offer the kind of entertainment you may expect from an enormous street party. There are no fireworks, no glittery ball drop, and limited performances to help you pass the time. After all, New Year’s Eve in Tokyo isn’t about the flashy celebrations; if you are looking for that kind of experience, Shibuya Crossing may feel a bit underwhelming. With properly set expectations, though, it can be a fun evening.
Tips for New Year’s Eve at Shibuya Crossing
Go early. With 70,000 people in attendance, you’ll want to arrive on the early side if you’re hoping to stand in a specific area in Shibuya Crossing. Consider arriving at least two hours before midnight to be sure you are close to the action. Additionally, we noticed the police shutting down many entrances to Shibuya Crossing as the streets became overwhelmed with people, and you’ll want to be onsite early so you don’t wind up on the wrong side of the barricades.Prepare for crowds. 70,000 people sounds like a huge crowd—and it is. While many people were well-behaved, we found ourselves almost constantly jostled and bumped as people walked by. The city has some great crowd management techniques, but the sheer volume of people on the sidewalks attempting to find friends or a great viewing spot may produce some anxiety if you’re expecting personal space.
Dress for the weather. Once you’re in Shibuya Crossing it will be hard to leave to find a place to get warm, so be sure to take gloves, a hat, and a scarf with you. Our experience took place on a very windy night, and we were glad we dressed in layers—even though the temperature hovered around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Eat first. Finding something to eat will be difficult; most neighboring restaurants were closed, and once we found a spot in Shibuya Crossing it would have been challenging to move from it. Take a couple of granola bars or have a larger meal in advance, and take a bottle of water or two to stay hydrated.
Plan your exit strategy. New Year’s Eve in Tokyo is a big event, and we found everything took longer than expected—especially leaving Shibuya Crossing when the countdown was over. It took almost an hour for us to navigate the crowds and shuffle from the crossing to the exit, which was jammed with people also trying to get out. While it was a bit of a frustration to us, exiting the area was organized, and when we finally got beyond the barricades the crowds all but evaporated, leaving us with plenty of space to breathe.
New Year’s Eve in Tokyo: Where to Find Fireworks
Fireworks are not a major part of New Year’s Eve in Tokyo, and you won’t find them at Shibuya Crossing (and certainly not at the temples!). If you are really hoping to catch a glimpse of them while in Tokyo, there are two spots to check out—and you’ll need to leave the city for both of them.
► Ushiku DaibutsuStanding at almost 400 feet tall, the Ushiku Daibutsu is a towering Buddha statue in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture. You’ll need a rental car to visit (it is possible to journey there via train and bus, although it may take quite a while if you are planning a midnight visit due to reduced schedules), but the annual fireworks provide a unique backdrop against the huge statue, which until 2018 was the tallest in the world. By car, Ushiku Daibutsu is about a one-hour drive from Tokyo.
► Tokyo Disneyland
Visitors looking for an outstanding fireworks display may want to consider Tokyo Disneyland, which is just 45 minutes away by train or metro from the center of Tokyo. While tickets can be expensive, Disney fans will especially appreciate the hospitality, entertainment, and attention to detail that goes into providing an evening that mixes tradition with Western celebrations. Midnight fireworks are a staple in their annual events; we even heard about them during our visit to the Japan pavilion at Epcot.
Things to Do in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve
With many people taking time off during the end of the year (and into the beginning of the new year), you may be asking yourself what there is to do on New Year’s Eve in Tokyo. Despite many places closing for the holiday, Tokyo is still a major world city, and there are plenty of things to do and experience. Here are a few of our favorites.
► Nakamise Shopping StreetThe most famous street in Asakusa is open for business on December 31 and January 1, so take a few hours to walk through the massive crowds and explore the souvenir shops and snack stands that line the street. You’ll find just about anything you are looking for in the shops; from specialty treats like rice crackers and chocolate to paper fans, jewelry, and samurai swords, the shops are a fun place to spend time before New Year’s Eve in Tokyo. Don’t miss the vendors preparing fresh food; from delicious yakisoba noodles to dorayaki (a red bean cake filled with savory sweet potatoes or vegetables), it’s a great place to find some inexpensive but filling local snacks.
► Imperial Palace
Tokyo’s Imperial Palace is largely closed during New Year’s, but on January 2nd it is possibly to not only see the palace but catch a glimpse of the emperor and empress in the east court! The emperor and empress greet the public five times on January 2nd from the balcony of Chowa-Den Hall. It’s a very popular event, and lines begin to form exceptionally early in the day. If you are interested in taking part, we saw lines stretching all the way to Tokyo Station when we arrived to catch a train to Kyoto. If your visit to Tokyo extends into the new year, it can be a very unique opportunity to take part in a local experience.
More Information: JapanTimes.co.jp
► Samurai Museum
Samurai have been part of the Japanese culture for centuries, and the Samurai Museum in Shinjuku is a great place to learn about their history and significance. The museum is small but educational, with artifacts like armor and swords on display. The museum typically has holiday hours that make it accessible on New Year’s Eve in Tokyo as well as the days before and after, and it can be a worthwhile addition to your itinerary.
More Information: SamuraiMuseum.jp
► Hachiko StatuesOne of our favorite Tokyo stories is a famous one featuring a dog called Hachikō, who famously walked his owner—a professor at the University of Tokyo—to Shibuya Station each day and greeted him there when he returned home. When Professor Ueno passed away unexpectedly while at work, Hachikō continued to make his journey to Shibuya every day to wait for him until his own death almost a decade later. Hachikō’s loyalty is honored with a statue outside of Shibuya Station, which is a popular tour meeting point and is often crowded with tourists taking photos. Another statue at the University of Tokyo depicts Hachikō greeting Professor Ueno; because the statue at the university does not typically have the same crowds, we preferred it over its more centrally located counterpart in Shibuya. Hachikō’s can be found throughout the city; street art, grocery stores, manhole covers, and even some bottles of Coke feature his image.
► Godzilla Statues
Plan a bit of a scavenger hunt for your New Year’s Eve in Tokyo and seek out the city’s Godzilla statues. Our favorites are the full-size Godzilla statue near Yurakucho station, which looks especially menacing at night, and the huge Godzilla head peeking out over the Toho Cinema in Shinjuku. If you are a fan of the iconic monster movies, finding a statue or two of Godzilla while in Tokyo can be a fun way to both explore the city and find a few reminders of the King of Monsters’ presence in the city.
Places to Eat on New Year’s Eve in Tokyo
Traveling during the holidays, especially when the holidays involve restaurant closures, can be tricky. Here are a few ideas for keeping yourself fueled—including a few that might add a little fun to mealtime!
► RamenLocal ramen shops dot just about every street in Tokyo’s neighborhoods, and they provide a quick, filling lunch or dinner option that will sustain you as you sightsee and prepare for New Year’s Eve in Tokyo. We found that most shops were open on New Year’s Eve, many with lines out the door, but ramen is intended to be slurped down quickly—so the lines often move quickly, too. Look for pictures in menus or by entrances so you can identify the type of ramen you want; most people were eager to help us get just what we were hungering for despite language barriers. Also, many of the ramen spots we checked out were cash only, so be sure to have some yen available to pay for your meals; payment is often settled before you start your meal. We especially liked the ramen at Kyushu Jangara Ramen in Harajuku, where the broth was delicious and the service was quick and efficient.
► Fast Food
We’re not big proponents of eating fast food over more local choices when we travel, but during the holidays places like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or KFC may be both convenient and open when other restaurants are closed. A benefit to trying familiar fast food in places like Tokyo is checking out the regional selections, like the teriyaki burger at McDonald’s that we haven’t seen on menus outside of Japan. In fact, it can be fun to peruse the menu even if you don’t intend to order anything; fast food restaurants often customize selections based on local preferences, which means you may see items that are very different from what is offered at the same restaurant in another part of the world.
► Check out an animal café
Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood has become a hot spot for animal cafes, and the types of creatures you can visit have expanded way beyond the cat cafes that were once all the rage. Animal cafes are typically open on New Year’s Eve to accommodate the influx of tourists and locals using vacation time, and while the main draw will certainly be the animals many of them serve drinks and snacks as well.
Before committing to an animal café, it’s always a good idea to do some homework on the places you will visit and how the animals are cared for and treated. We skipped several cafes that looked interesting because of concerns over the safety and treatment of the animals residing there. One café that we did visit, Mipig, ended up being a highlight of our time in Tokyo. Mipig caters to piglets; the tiny pigs will eventually grow to be upwards of 100 pounds when they reach adulthood, but before they grow up they cuddle with visitors in an adorable café setting. We ordered coffees and sat on the floor, and within 30 seconds I had four pigs vying for position in my lap. The pigs were well-socialized, very friendly, and a ton of fun to hold, and we appreciated that the staff was honest about the fact they are not “mini pigs”—they are babies who will soon grow into full-sized pigs.
Research your options and pick an animal café experience that aligns with a positive environment for the animals just as much as the people who are visiting them.
More Information: mipig.cafe
If you like seafood, it’s hard to imagine a trip to Tokyo that doesn’t include sushi. One of our favorite meals was at Sushizanmai, which has a few locations in the city. We sat at the counter and ordered a round of beers and some sushi favorites, and it was one of our best meals in Tokyo. The tuna is superb—the red tuna was the best I have had, and the fatty tuna and medium fatty tuna melt in your mouth. The California rolls and cucumber shrimp rolls were also fantastic. Sitting at the counter was especially fun; we got to watch the sushi chefs work their magic, and the ambiance was energetic and fun. They have menus in several languages, but like most restaurants in Japan the staff doesn’t speak great English, so it’s helpful to simply point to what you want to eat. Our order came out just as expected, and most importantly it was delicious.
► CrepesCrepes have taken Tokyo by storm, and the quick, cheap, portable snacks are a delicious treat to enjoy on New Year’s Eve in Tokyo. Dozens of shops can be found throughout the city, and for just a few hundred yen you can order a crepe filled with fruit, whipped cream, ice cream, cheesecake, or even salad and rolled into a cone shape for easy transport.
► Themed Restaurants
Tokyo is home to plenty of quirky, themed experiences, and restaurants are chief among them. From robot restaurants and colorful monster cafes to ninja dining experiences and vampire cafes, themed restaurants often cater to tourists and therefore have availability during holidays like New Year’s Eve. They can often be expensive and may require you to purchase a multi-course meal instead of a single entrée, but if you’re hungry and looking for a memorable experience the themed restaurants might be a great choice—and a fun last meal of the year.
► Don Quijote
More of a store than a restaurant, Don Quijote is a small chain that sells groceries as well as snacks and other essentials. If you are traveling on a budget, you’ll find plenty of inexpensive meal options lining the shelves; you’ll also find toiletries and even clothing if you forgot something at home and need to replace it. We went in specifically to search for interesting Kit Kat flavors; Japan is well-known for offering a much wider range of flavors of the popular candy than are available elsewhere in the world, and if you’re looking for a fun treat to share with friends or colleagues back home Don Quijote is a great place to find apple, ice cream, and even wasabi flavored Kit Kats.
Things to Do on New Year’s Day in Tokyo
Because the New Year’s holiday is such an important time for families, many stores and attractions are closed throughout Japan, including Tokyo, in the days leading up to and after New Year’s Day. If you are wondering how you’ll spend your time once the clock strikes midnight, there are plenty of options to make the most of your vacation.
Perhaps the most common tradition in Japan is hatsumōde, the first shrine visit of the year. Traditionally, the Japanese will be sure to make their first shrine visit of the year between January 1-3, when most people are on vacation. Most people will visit a Shinto shrine, but visiting a Buddhist temple is also acceptable. Some shrines are incredibly popular—and therefore crowded—but you may enjoy the festive energy that comes with the hatsumōde visit.
Here are a few shrines and temples that may be of interest to you:
► Senso-ji Temple and the Asakusa ShrineJoin thousands of people with a visit to Sensō-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo—and one of the most festive during hatsumōde. Sensō-ji dates all the way back to 645 AD, when it was founded and dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. Like Meiji Shrine, Sensō-ji was destroyed during air strikes during World War II and was rebuilt when the war ended. Follow the crowds under Kaminarimon Gate, also known as Thunder Gate, and head toward the main temple to pray or make wishes for the new year.
Adjacent to Sensō-ji is the Asakusa Shrine, which was built in the 1600s and dedicated to the men who created Sensō-ji. Unlike the temple, Asakusa Shrine survived the air strikes during World War II, meaning it is an original construction.
► Meiji Shrine
Located in a gorgeous, forested part of Tokyo, Meiji Shrine is by far the most popular destination for individuals participating in hatsumōde. More than three million people visit the shrine during the first three days of the year. Although it may be a more peaceful place to visit outside of hatsumōde, if your travels take you through Tokyo at the end of the year don’t let the crowds deter you from exploring it. The shrine was originally completed in 1921 and dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, but it was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in 1958. The huge complex is a popular wedding location throughout the year (we saw one during our visit in November 2015), so if your time in Tokyo extends past the first few days of the year you just might get a chance to see one as well!
► Gotokuji Temple
There’s a good chance you have seen a maneki-neko, a Japanese white cat figurine with red ears, a red collar, and one paw in the air, sometimes waving back and forth on desks or car dashboards. The image is rooted in a story set at the Gōtokuji Temple, when a man was beckoned into the temple during a thunderstorm by a cat. Today, cats still reign at the temple, where people bring their own maneki-neko to leave on the temple grounds every day.
A short walk from the metro station, Gōtokuji Temple is a great place to visit during the New Year’s Eve festivities. Our visit before heading to Shibuya Crossing found just a handful of people walking around, leaving us to feel like we were the only people there during a busy temple visit time.
We made our hatsumōde visit to Sengaku-ji. Although it is a Buddhist temple, not a shrine, we sought it out specifically because of its connection to one of the most fascinating stories in Japanese history.The Akō incident in the early 18th century is a tale of revenge, honor, and loyalty. During the Meiji era, a feudal lord named Asano Naganori was forced to commit seppuku—suicide—after attempting, but failing, to kill a high-ranking official named Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka who he believed to be abusive and corrupt. More than 300 samurai called Asano their master, but 47 of them refused to allow his death to go unavenged, so they banded together in a plot to kill Kira. Now known as rōnin—a name used in Japan’s feudal period to describe a samurai who no longer has a master—they patiently waited for two years before moving to kill Kira, beheading him in a final act of revenge. After the attack was complete, the 47 rōnin brought his head back to lay on Asano’s grave at Sengaku-ji. Knowing that revenge was prohibited and anticipating punishment for their violation of the law, the rōnin turned themselves in. 46 of the 47 rōnin were sentenced to commit seppuku, and they were buried with Asano. The 47th rōnin was pardoned, as he had been sent to report that the revenge was complete; when he died at the age of 87 he, too, was buried at Sengaku-ji.
Sengaku-ji was very quiet during our New Year’s Day visit, and we were among just a few people at the temple when we arrived mid-morning. If you are hoping to find a temple immersed in local lore with a peaceful vibe, Sengaku-ji is an excellent place to seek out.
Tips for Getting Around Town in TokyoNo matter what you plan to do for New Year’s Eve in Tokyo, getting around should be quite easy—especially if you use public transportation. Trains often run all night, although they are typically on a reduced schedule, so navigating the city after your celebrations are complete is not a difficult task.
Tokyo’s public transportation system is complex and occasionally confusing; there are several different lines (Tokyo Metro and Toei lines are common downtown) as well as intercity options (JR lines, including the Shinkansen bullet trains). Unless you plan to leave Tokyo, the subway will most likely get you anywhere you need to go. With an impressive, extensive network throughout the city, it’s not hard to find a station near you, and while it is very likely you will need to transfer lines once or twice to get to your destination most routes are well labeled. One-way tickets cost no more than a few hundred yen (2-4 USD), and ticket machines have an English option that makes it very easy to purchase them.
For incredibly easy, step-by-step guidance, you don’t need to look any further than Google Maps for help navigating the Tokyo subway system. From your current location, enter your destination and look for public transportation options; for many routes, you’ll find detailed information that includes everything from the platform number your train will depart from to the number of minutes you’ll need to walk between trains if you have to switch lines. Google Maps can work offline if you don’t have international cell service; we often check directions before leaving our hotel room to avoid the need to use our data plans.
More Information: TokyoMetro.jp/en/
Where to Stay in Tokyo
When it comes to planning your hotel stay, your New Year’s Eve plans—as well as your budget—will greatly inform which hotel will work best for you. If you plan on joining the crowds at Shibuya Crossing, a hotel near the action is a good idea; even though the subway will be open, the crowds and lines can be so massive that walking to your hotel is a better option.
During our New Year’s Eve in Tokyo visit, we stayed at the Nihon Seinenkan Hotel, a 30-minute walk from Shibuya Crossing. We really enjoyed our stay there; the 9th floor lobby overlooks the Meiji Jingu baseball park, and it’s just around the corner from the Olympic Museum. Hotel rooms in Japan tend to be small by many standards, but we were comfortable during our stay and had enough space to stretch out even with a couple of suitcases. The hotel is about a seven-minute walk from the Ginza line, which provided a very easy connection to all of the temples, shrines, and sites we visited during our stay.
More Information: Booking.com/Nippon-Seinenkan
Closer to Tokyo Station, where you will find train connections throughout the city, country, and to both airports, we also liked Mitsui Garden Hotel Otemachi. The room we stayed in was a bit bigger, and we found the room to be very comfortable. For a luxurious experience that will resonate with cinema fans, the Park Hyatt Tokyo is a great option; famous for its role in the popular movie Lost in Translation, the hotel is further north in the city but is connected via public transportation to all of the destinations you’ll want to seek out during New Year’s Eve in Tokyo.
More Information: Booking.com/Mitsui-Garden-Otemachi
More Information: Booking.com/Park-Hyatt-Tokyo (the hotel from Lost in Translation)
We found all of the hotels we stayed at on Booking.com, which has become our go-to site for hotel research. We also appreciated that most hotels booked on the site allow you to make changes to your plans and don’t require immediate payment, which was helpful as we shifted our schedule several times during our vacation planning process to accommodate a few days in Kyoto and Nagano. When you’re researching hotels, consider using Booking.com—you may also find a hotel in just the right location!
Mapping Out New Year’s Eve in Tokyo
Tokyo is a big city with a lot to offer! We made a map that shows the locations that are mentioned in this post. It also includes a few more of our favorite spots around town. We hope this helps you plan your own Tokyo vacation itinerary!
Enjoy New Year’s Eve in Tokyo, Japan!
There’s a reason New Year’s Eve is a special night for many people around the globe. The start of the new year represents all things new and promising, a chance to restart or renew and welcome the opportunities and challenges that can enrich our lives. Traveling during the new year is especially invigorating, and whether you’re looking for parties or peace you’ll find them both in Tokyo. Spending New Year’s Eve in Tokyo, Japan is guaranteed to be a memorable experience—and we know you will enjoy it as much as we did!
Do you like to travel for New Year’s Eve like we do? Here are a few more posts to check out!