My first experience of New Year in Japan was in Kyoto. We decided to visit the nearby Shimogamo Shrine a little after midnight for hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year. We left home about 11.45 planning on getting to the shrine after midnight. After walking for a while I asked Yoko what the time was and she told me it was 00.05!!... I had been waiting for the noise to mark the new year, but it was totally quiet. Every country I have ever lived in marks the turning of the year with noise,... fireworks, church bells, car horns, boat horns, or people cheering and singing, but in Japan....nada!
I had never been to Shimogamo shrine before, so I was looking forward to looking around. Hah! fat chance!... to say it was crowded would be an understatement. The throng was so tightly packed that I could easily have lifted both feet off the ground and been carried around by the shuffling masses.
Next year we decided to do hatsuhinode, watching the first sunrise of the year. We went down to Shionomisaki, the southernmost tip of the Wakayama Peninsular, the southernmost point of Honshu. We slept out on the cliff along with a couple of dozen other people, and were joined in the pre-dawn light by several hundred others. It was a cloudy morning, so not particular memorable.
My best experience of New Year in Japan was a couple of years ago.
I'd heard about a mountain behind Arifuku, Honmyozan, that people went to to watch the first sunrise, so we contacted friends who live in Arifuku to ask where the trail up the mountain was. Very kindly they contacted the ujiko (parishioners group) of the small shrine on the mountaintop, and they offered to take us up there with them.
We got to the top around 22:00, built a big fire, then settled into the tiny shrine to drink sake and eat wild boar stew caught by some of the hunters in the group.
A few hours before sunrise more people started to arrive after having climbed the mountain in the dark.
By sunrise about 40 people were gathered together in the freezing cold. The sunrise was worth waiting for as it was a cloudless sky. The views from the mountain were impressive.