Although Shogatsu means January, it is celebrated for the first 3 days or the first week of January. These days are considered the most important holidays for the Japanese. One could equate it with the celebration of Christmas in the west. During this time business and schools close for one to two weeks. It is also a time for people to return to their families which leads to the inevitable backlog of travelers. The Japanese decorate their houses, but before the decorations start to be put up a general house cleaning is done. The most common New Year's decorations are pine and bamboo, sacred straw festoons, and oval shaped rice cakes.
On New Year's eve, bells (joya no kane) are rung at the local temples to speed out the old year. The New Year is welcomed in by the eating of year-crossing noodles (toshikoshi-soba). Casual western style clothing is replaced with kimono on New Years day as people go for their first temple or shrine visit of the New Year (hatsumoude). At the temples they pray for health and happiness in the coming year. The reading New Year's cards (nengajou) and the giving of gifts (otoshidama) to young children are also apart of the New Year celebrations.
Food, of course, is also a big part of Japanese New Year's celebrations. Osechi-ryori are special dishes eaten on the first three days of the New Year. Grilled and vinegary dishes are served in multi-layered lacquered boxes (juubako). The dishes are design to be pleasant to look at, and keep for days so that the mother is free from having to cook for three days. There are some regional differences but the osechi dishes are basically the same nationwide. Each of the food types in the boxes represents a wish for the future. Sea Bream (tai) is "auspicious" (medetai). Herring roe (kazunoko) is "the prosperity of one's descendants". Sea tangle roll (kobumaki) is "Happiness" (yorokobu).
Click here to learn the greeting for New Year's celebration.