Don’t care to be alone this New Year’s Day?

Head to a Japanese shrine or temple during the first three days of 2003 and you won’t be.

An estimated 87 million people are expected at Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines throughout Japan, the National Police Agency announced.

That’s 2.4 million more than in the 2002 New Year period, when bad weather kept turnouts down in many places.

The NPA forecasts the annual surge of visitors each year in a report to the nation’s National Public Safety Commission.

Despite the nation’s lagging economy, the agency predicts as many as 4.7 million visitors will trek to outdoor leisure venues during the first three days of the new year — mostly ski resorts and the ever-popular Tokyo Disneyland. That represents a return to normal levels and an increase of 200,000 people over 2002.

Disneyland, with its adjacent DisneySea amusement park in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo, is expected to draw about 368,000 visitors.

Ski slopes in some areas may be carpeted with people. Expected to lead the list is Naeba ski resort in the west-central Niigata prefecture. NPA estimates as many as 120,000 people may head there.

Osaka’s Universal Studios park is expected to draw 117,000, while Nagano prefecture’s Shiga Kogen ski resort may see 100,000 skiers.

Officials said weather is always a key player, and these estimates may be reduced if inclement weather makes travel difficult.

Among some of the nation’s more popular shrines, Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, adjacent to Harajuku train station, could see 3.1 million visitors during the first three days of the New Year.

Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in Chiba prefecture anticipates 2.8 million people.

Norie Kamiwatari, a spokeswoman for the Japan Travel Bureau, said 667,000 people are expected to travel out of Japan this holiday season, a 133 percent increase over last year.

That increase, she said, is due to people getting over the fears of last year’s terrorist attacks, when travel dropped 30 percent.

“Another reason is the holiday season that runs from Dec. 28 to Jan. 5, nine days off at most companies,” she said.

The most popular destinations this season are Europe and China because of an increase in flights to that country, Kamiwatari said. She added that Italy has been a popular place to visit for the past few years.

JTB expects 87,000 people will visit Europe and 98,000 will head to China. Those traveling masses are expected to spend $1.25 billion.

For folks who choose to remain close to home and family, it is Japanese custom to ring in the New Year with a variety of rituals.

As such, it is filled with traditional activities that, it is hoped, will result in a more successful year. People particularly observe the age-old Japanese custom of not carrying over any debts or tasks from the old year to the new. As the end of the year approaches, businessmen busily wind up their affairs of the old year and try to pay all their obligations by New Year’s Eve.

At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, the nation listens for the tolling of the Tsuri-Gane, the great bells or gongs at Japan’s Buddhist temples, according to Kodansha’s Encyclopedia of Japan.

The Joya-no-Kane consists of 108 solemn tolls on temple bells which, according to Buddhism, signifies man’s 108 sins. It is said by hearing the bells toll that number, he can be relieved of all of them.

Family members traditionally spend New Year’s morning briefly worshiping at home at miniature Buddhist and Shinto altars. People use the day for making resolutions for the coming year.

A well-known Japanese proverb says: “New Year’s is the key to unlock the year.”

The three-day holiday is a time to visit shrines and temples to make pledges for the coming year and to pray for good luck.

Shrines and temples in Japan are specially decorated for the occasion and often are crowded with worshippers and visitors, many wearing their finest kimono or Western clothes, the latter favored more so by younger people.

The custom of nenshi, or paying calls on friends and relatives to greet them on the New Year, is very popular. During these visits, otoso, a thick, sweet rice wine, often is served.

Sending nengajo, or New Year cards, is a very popular custom in Japan especially for distant friends and acquaintances.

The cards are similar to Christmas cards in the West, except they usually are in the form of postcards.

Sending New Year cards is a very strong tradition, and the mail carriers make every effort to deliver all the cards on the morning of New Year’s Day.

A Japanese Postal Agency official said the number of cards delivered would be announced after Jan. 1. Some 2.5 billion New Year cards were delivered Jan. 1, 2002.

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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