New Year's is the number-one major holiday in Japan. Occasionally Americans ask me -- or used to ask me -- about what the Japanese do for Christmas. The answer to that is, go to work or school, if it's a weekday. In the early 1990s Christmas Eve was beginning to be promoted as a romantic occasion for young people, a take your girl to a fine restaurant sort of evening, but I don't know if that ever became established. December 24 has the advantage of being the current Emperor's birthday, and so is a national holiday (no mail, government workers don't work).
Some shops decorate with lights and tinsel and the like in December. The only thing this has to do with Christmas, beyond a superficial similarity, is that the merchants of Japan would really like sales to shoot up in December the way they do in the West. As far as I could tell, it wasn't a particularly successful import in that regard. It worked for Valentine's Day, but that's another story.
Anyway, New Year's is a family holiday in Japan, with a religious component. Most everything is closed, as it is here on Christmas. Almost everyone has the first three days of the year off.
I've done New Year's Japanese style in Japan twice, once going into 1994 and later going into 2000. Mostly, you hang out at home and eat, and watch TV. On New Year's Day or January 2 or 3, people tend to visit their neighborhood shrine and do various things to promote prosperity and the like in the coming year. How deeply they believe in it varies, I suppose, and probably some people visit a shrine because that's what they've always done.
The first New Year's I spent in Japan, I was by myself, and on January 1, 1991, I went to a large shrine about a mile from where I lived, Sumiyoshi-jinja. The grounds, which included a dozen or so buildings, and some lovely trees and greenery in the warm months, were packed with people. Lots of families, lots of kids out and about, lots of people dressed nicely for the occasion (but some more casual).
There was an especially active crowd in front of one small building, about the size of a two-car garage. A gilded rope strung through posts marked off a small patch of land directly in front of the structure, which had one door and some windows, but these were closed. From a distance, I couldn't tell what was going on. As the crowd milled around, they seemed to be waving their arms. So I had to take a closer look.
Turns out they were throwing one-yen coins at the building. One-yen coins, worth a penny (give or take one or two tenths of a cent), are made of aluminum. They have a silvery glitter. The building's thatched roof and the patch of ground in front were completely covered with silvery one-yen coins. People were having a jolly time throwing more of them. Something to do with prosperity in the New Year, I figured, and the shrine gets to keep all the coins. I tossed in a few myself.