A New Year's Tradition in Japan: Hatsu-uri and the Fukubukuro New Year Sales
Joanne G. Yoshida
The house has been cleaned, the prayers have been made, the body is nourished, the old is out.
What better way to say "in" than with a fukubukuro (happy bag) filled with a mini wardrobe to start out the New Year!
A Cycle of Firsts
After the o-so-ji (end-of-the-year cleaning),
the toshi-koshi-soba (eating noodles to wish for good health and a long life in the coming year),
the o-sechi (foods prepared specially for the New Year with auspicious ingredients and blessings for a happy family and healthy and fertile year),
and the ko-haku (televised singing event on New Year's Eve where red and white teams made up of pop singers and traditional celebrities, give spectacular performances of the songs from the year),
come the "Firsts" of the New Year:
Hatsu-yume (your first dream of the new year),
Hatsu-mode (first shrine visit at midnite December 31st or on New Years day),
hatsu-hi-no-de (first sunrise),
and to complete a cycle of traditions, at last (another first),
All over Japan, people line up in front of stores for the Hatsu-uri, or first sale of the New Year. The first day the department stores open is either January first or second, when you have the chance to buy a fukubukuro, or to take advantage of big sales on your favorite brands.
Fukubukuro are Happy Bags, also called Lucky Bags, filled with items from a particular brand or shop which are priced far less then their item by item value and packed in brightly colored-easy-to-identify cheerful bags.
You don't always know exactly what you're getting, but it is always a bargain. For example, a fukubukuro with 100,000 yen (ju-man-en) worth of goods which was on sale for 10,000 yen (ichiman en) was on the news for selling out in two minutes and sixteen seconds last year.
This year the same happy bag sold out in two minutes and thirty-two seconds. In Shibuya in Tokyo over 5,000 people waited for such popular brands as Cecil McBee, W ♥ C, and Liz Lisa.
Some fukubukuros are complete surprises, but most give the number and type of items enclosed. For example, "1 sweater, 2 long-sleeved t-shirts, 1 pair of pants and one accessory pouch", if it's a clothing store; and the amount of goods if it's a non-clothing shop.
You can get fukubukuros from your favorite coffee shop, bread shop, sake shop or zak-ka (miscellaneous goods shop) too. They are always just out front, or in easy to see point of purchase displays, with the happy kanji just above or next to the kanji for bag:
Little by little the shops are loosening up on the element of surprise and reveal more of the contents through pre-sale advertising and magazines, where you can see almost exactly what you're getting.
In Tokyo there are even un-official exchanges in designated public spaces. If you are not happy with an item you can find another chance to get lucky by finding a fellow fukubukuro enthusiast with an item to swap.
Our Hatsu Uri Story
I confess that after 12 years in Japan I have yet to buy a fukubukuro for myself, and still remain on the outside of the observance of the hatsu-uri.
I love the custom of watching the first sunrise for a quiet start to the year. The best sale for me in this peaceful state is to sail clear away from the shops. I would not have dreamed of waiting in the lines, except that for my daughter, it is as natural to partake in this seasonal custom as it is to eat mochi.
This year she knew just what she wanted.
She had money from her O-toshi-dama*, and mapped out her plan of action after studying the fukubukuro news in a young girls' fashion magazine. She was determined to be there when the shop opened, and I was open to go along for the article.
These are steps we share with you for getting your favorite fukubukuro, based on our experience. Please note that it is also fun to go to the shopping area you like without planning in advance, browse around leisurely, and pick out the bag that strikes your fancy. In which case, please ignore at least steps one and two!
12 Steps to Getting your favorite Fukubukuro (Lucky Bag)
1 Choose the shop you like and the amount you'd like to spend
Find out if you need a Mae-Uri-ken (Ticket that you will need to obtain in advance for some brands)
2 Get to the store before it opens. Prepare to wait on line if your choice is popular. If you are in Tokyo, note that people line up the night before and in some cases, from the night before that.
3 Follow the sign that directs you to the end of the line.
It reads: 最後尾 (end of line, or literally tail end)
4 Enjoy the brisk winter air. If you see a dragon-like creature looking to bite peoples heads, place your head near it's mouth, as it's a lucky sign if it approaches you and bites your head.
5 When you hear the sound of the opening of the shop music or bells, enter in a civilized way without pushing or shoving.
6 Make your way to your shop of choice, and wait in the designated line. Listen for announcements made by sales people in colorful Happi coats carrying megaphones for news about availability and sold out updates.
7 As you inch your way up on line, enjoy the excitement of the moment. This is a phenomenon that can only be experienced once a year, and as far as I know, only in Japan.
8 Hand your ticket to the salesperson and bow in thanks when you receive your happy bag
9 Congratulations on receiving your happy bag! Imagine how great you will look in your new clothes. But don't open yet (unless you are in Tokyo and will have an option of a Swap with others who wish to exchange items).
10 Bask in the glory of the moment, and parade around the shop, browse at the bargains, and exchange satisfied smiles with other fukubukuro carriers gliding through the aisles.
11 Have a coffee break and take a peek in your bag.
12 When you return home, pull the contents out of your bag and model it for your family. May it be an outfit that fits you well!
Enjoy the year of the rabbit**! And many more exciting firsts.
*O-toshi-dama is another New Year's Custom where children receive small envelopes with money from relatives or close friends of family.
How it is spent varies from family to family; often a part is put in savings.
In our family, at least half is put in savings!
** At the time of this writing (2011) it is the year of the rabbit. The order of the Eto, or Japanese zodiac of animal signs corresponding to twelve year cycles is:
mouse, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, wild boar.
Joanne G. Yoshida