Night magic: New Year's Eve, Japanese style

New Year's Eve in Japan is a celebration of life and new beginnings. Tamsin Leach discovers the spiritual wonder of the Yasaka shrine and the fun of 'happy bags'

Just after midnight on the last day of the old year, I was standing at the very back of an exceedingly long queue in Kyoto, having just missed the ringing of 108 bells. The queue was so huge that it filled the breadth of the Gion district's wide main street; and so long that our destination, the Yasaka shrine, was barely visible in the distance. I wondered if I'd blown it. Drat the toshi-koshi soba.

New Year is a big deal in Japan. The big deal. A national holiday, the time for families to gather, at least three days off work. That might not sound much, but to the workaholic Japanese, it's a serious break. Even my rebel youth Japanese friends were working up until 10pm on New Year's Eve, shoring up against the potential disaster of leaving work untended for a few days.

Christmas is imported but distorted: young couples give each other gifts to get in the mood, because the birth of Jesus is interpreted as a fortuitous time to conceive. Advent calendars stretch up to 1 January; the post is full of New Year greetings. In place of Christmas trees are shime kazari and kado matsu - hanging and standing decorations rich in symbolism: pine for longevity, bamboo for freshness, twisted straw and white paper as a barrier between the everyday and spiritual worlds.

And, while the build-up to Christmas in Britain is filled with parties, present-buying and obscene amounts of alcohol, December in Japan is spent spring-cleaning, in order to start the new year with a clean slate. You eat toshi-koshi soba on New Year's Eve because the austere buckwheat noodles cleanse the palate and soul for the feasting to come; and bells at temples across the country ring out just before midnight to drive out all the worldly desires and bad habits that make us less than we could be - there are 108 of them, apparently.

One of mine, surely, is poor timekeeping, which is why I was still on the train from a toshi-koshi dinner in neighbouring Osaka when the bells struck 108. Slightly reassuring was the fact that the train was full. There was an announcement, a polite murmur, smiles all round, but no party poppers or whistles. "Ringing the bells is a religious occasion," said the tourist brochure, sternly. "Drunken behaviour and shouts of 'Happy New Year!' will not be appreciated. However, hatsu mode is light and festive."

Hatsu mode was what the queue was all about. In the appropriating, agnostic, strange brew that is Japanese culture, Buddhist temples (ji) have become the locale for funerals and the end of things; Shinto shrines (jinja) serve to celebrate life and beginnings. Hatsu mode is the custom of visiting shrines over New Year. In southern Kyoto, the Fushimi Inari shrine attracts more than a million visitors on New Year's Day, and at Yasaka things kick off right after midnight.

Or they do if you're at the front of the queue. At 1am, I'd moved about 500 metres. All around, toddlers dozed in their parents' arms and diminutive elders tightened scarves in the chill. Groups of teenagers laughed off the cold, and an underdressed girl sprawled against her boyfriend before puking delicately in a bush: the sole act of public disorder I witnessed in a period that lasted until sunrise. Worried-looking policemen needlessly waved neon batons at the utterly docile crowd, holding up signs that presumably announced something like "12 hours from this point".

At this rate I'd still be plodding through the shrine when the shops opened the next morning. Though 1 January is supposedly a quiet family day for healing and happiness, in Japan, as elsewhere, commerce now takes precedence over tradition. Lines snake around the giant shopping cities in anticipation of fukubukuro - literally "happy bags". Sold by everyone from Apple and Sony to the Mr Donut chain, and cleverly blending the Japanese love for the lucky and limited with the annual clearing-out of old stock, fukubukuro promise savings of at least 50 per cent on their mystery contents, plus the chance of winning a bonus golden ticket-type prize.

My chances of snagging a good fukubukoro were dwindling, but there was no turning back. With the trains running all night, the queue behind was now as dense as that in front. And when I finally reached the front of the line, when we climbed the steps of the Yasaka gate and had to wait yet again, when I looked behind and saw the street solid with people to the dark horizon - instead of joy, my heart sank. I could be back in Osaka, throwing back sake and tucking into the New Year's osechi feast with my friends (forget turkey: here it's all portentous sea bream, sweet black beans and herring roe). Surely this was going to be one of those tourist attractions famous for being famous, a tedious crawl around a monument for the sole reward of having "done" it?

Then the gates swung open, and we were in. The first surprise was that the queue miraculously vanished; those canny police had been staggering us all along. The second was that this was no austere monument: I'd stepped into a world of lanterns and flames and red-and-white-striped food stalls, of toffee apples and Hello Kitty candyfloss and fried squid on a stick. Breathtakingly magical and picturesque: a sort of Spirited Away with interactive snacks.

Past the food stalls and groves of Japanese cypress, monks in white robes tended okera mairi fires. Visitors leant over to light slow-burning bamboo ropes, with which they would then ignite their own stoves for the first meal of the new year. Incense and chanting wafted from the central hall; girls floated around in kimonos, the traditional New Year's attire. Concertinaed strips of white paper hung from every branch and blew bright against the shrine's shadows and dark sky. And everywhere people were stocking up on luck: from more expensive blessings written out by the monks to charms and pre-printed horoscopes.

They were still poring over them on the train back to Osaka, curious to see what the future held. Do people really believe in the charms? I asked my friends as, traditionally and auspiciously, we drank Starbucks from a lucky 2006 cup and watched the sun rise on another new year. Their English isn't great and my Japanese non-existent, but I got the gist. Like praying to a god or writing out resolutions, hatsu mode for most is a stab in the dark, a little bit of hope, a mustering of good intentions. And absolutely, definitely, well worth the wait. Happy New Year! Akemashite Omedeto!

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The author paid £578 for a ticket from London Heathrow via Osaka to Australia with Japan Airlines (0845 774 7700; www.uk.jal.com), which allows a stop in Japan - and usually costs less than the usual fare from the UK to Japan alone. You can also reach Osaka with Korean Air (0800 413000; www.koreanair.com) via Seoul; China Eastern Airlines (0870 760 6232; www.chinaeastern.co.uk) via Shanghai; Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; www.cathaypacific.com) via Hong Kong; or Finnair (0870 241 4411; www.finnair.co.uk) via Helsinki.

You can buy a climate "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight in economy is £20.80. The money funds sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

The Kansai Thru Pass is good for travel in and between Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Shiga, Hyogo and Wakayama, ideal for multiple hatsu mode excursions. The three-day pass costs Y5,000 (£22).

STAYING THERE

Hotels get heavily booked at New Year, and reserving well in advance is advised. The author stayed at the Osaka Tokyu Inn in Kita-ku in the centre of Osaka (00 81 6 6315 0109; www.tokyuhotels.co.jp), where double rooms start at Y15,750 (£70), without breakfast.

CELEBRATING THERE

The Shijo stop on the Hankyu Kyoto line is just down the (packed solid) road from the Okera Mairi festival at the Yasaka shrine. On New Year's Day, visit the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, the Sumiyoshi Taishi in Osaka, or the Kasuga Taishi in Nara. Should it snow, escape the crowds to Koyasan, a Buddhist village in the mountains just an hour by express train from Osaka.

MORE INFORMATION

www.seejapan.co.uk; 020-7734 9638

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