While Christmas is regarded as less of a long-standing tradition than a date night, New Years is arguably the biggest holiday of the year for the Japanese. Wikipedia knows and articulates the particular traditions better than I can or want to, so I'm just going to lay out what's happening for me and my family.
It moves in a few stages:
O-Soji, or "The Big Clean." Get your house or dwelling absolutely spotless and settle up any monetary or personal debts or obligations, so you can welcome the new year in properly. Also, send out [nengajo](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_New_Years#Postcards) to absolutely everyone you know. I believe anyone that doesn't receive one is legally allowed to hire ninjas to kill you in your sleep.
Eat toshi-soba, buckwheat noodles in broth, their long length symbolizing long life. People also tend to watch a show called [Kohaku](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C5%8Dhaku_Uta_Gassen) on TV, in which the most popular singers and bands in Japan are split into female and male teams, then have a four-hour-long sing-off against each other. It's basically a long run of top-40 stuff, and top-40 Japanese music is ten times as banal as its equivalent in the states. The only saving grace is [enka](http://www.technogirls.org/enka/index.htm), the syrupy-orchestrated, ululating traditional Japanese songs of love and tragedy. Also, the chick from Gokusen is hosting, which makes me happy.
Once the New Year turns, so I've heard, the cell network (which is also the email network) promptly dies, as a few hundred million people all send each other the same "Happy New Years" mails from their phones. I plan to do my part in this pointless tradition this year; my phone is already set to release a flood of mail to all sorts of people at 12:01 tomorrow.
After the electronic infrastructure of Japan recovers, families do hatsumode, the first visit to a shrine of the New Year. The temperature at night is in the high thirties right now, so I'm really not looking forward to a midnight Shrine visit, but such is life.
Tonight is the single day trains run all night (I normally have to cut my nights short at 11:30ish, or be out all night). I'm assuming there are parties and the like at clubs, but invitations from DJ friends and my own sleepiness will probably decide whether I make it out.
Tomorrow is also the start of hatsubai, a kind of odd tradition in which department stores sell bags of goods which are deeply discounted, but which the customers don't get to see before buying. I'm on the risk-averse side, so I normally wouldn't bite at something like this, but my friend told me you can usually coax the contents out of the storekeepers, so I might give it a go.
Starting on the first, Japanese people eat osechi-ryori, which is basically just "New Years Food." I think mochi, very hard rice paste, figures heavily into the menu.
Relatives and friends will swing by the house, and I expect there will be a lot of food, drink, and schmoozing.
I think most things end on January 3rd, and I'll be headed off to Nagoya to hang out with my friend Sandy, and maybe take a day trip out to Kyoto. Winter vacation has been amazing so far, and it's really sad to think about going back to school, work, and having things to do. Thankfully, though, once I push through a nasty few weeks of papers and finals, I'm off for two months, with nary a commitment in the world.
Happy New Years!