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Americans at U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan will be hard- pressed to find the wild New Year’s Eve parties they’re used to if they search beyond the base gates.

While Dec. 31 is typically a big party night in the States, here it’s a somber occasion on which Japanese and South Koreans honor their ancestors.

South Korea

Even though most South Koreans celebrate the New Year based on the lunar calendar — Feb. 8 is the next celebration — Jan. 1 also has significant meaning.

At midnight Dec. 31, thousands of Seoul’s residents pack the downtown Jongno area to listen as a gigantic bell at Bosingak is sounded 33 times.

Most families, however, celebrate Seollal, the Lunar New Year’s Day.

The first thing they do is perform a charye ceremony to express gratitude to their ancestors. A memorial ceremony is conducted for ancestors up to the fourth generation. Families also visit their ancestors’ graves, the family lining up by age to bow before their ancestors.

There are several ways to enjoy Seollal, according to the Korea National Tourism Organization and Korea Cultural Center. Games such as neolttwigi, a standing seesaw; jultagi, tightrope walking; paengichigi, top spinning; jegichagi, shuttlecock kicking; and yutnori, a board game played by tossing sticks, are some of the traditional choices.

Many palaces, including Gyeongbokgung, Changgyeonggung, Changdeokgung and Deoksugung, offer free admission to anyone wearing traditional Korean attire called hanbok during the celebration.

Another favorite is watching the sunrise. Favorite spots in Seoul include Namsan Seoul Tower and the 63 Building, but thousands will flock to the sea at places like Gyeongpodae, Jeongdongjin, Naksansa Temple and Hwajinpo.

The most common food is tteokguk, a soup made of sliced rice cakes in beef or chicken broth. Other dishes include bindaetteok, mung-bean pancakes; sujeonggwa, cinnamon tea; and sikhye, a rice punch.


In Japan, families gather to bring in the New Year by visiting temples and eating traditional dishes called osechi.

Families begin the holiday on Dec. 31 by eating toshikoshi soba, literally translated as “crossing year noodles.” One belief is that the Japanese eat the noodles so their lives can be long and they’ll remain thin, like the noodles.

Many will trek to local temples to listen as the temple bells are sounded 108 times, which is meant to dispel evil spirits from the previous year, according to Kyoko Nakamura, a researcher at the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living.

During the first three days of the year, families gather to eat osechi and drink sake, rice wine. They also visit shrines or temples to pray for good luck in the coming year.


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