A popular tradition in Japan is hatsumode, the first visit to a shrine to pray to the local gods for good luck in the New Year. Many try to combine this with a sunrise vigil on New Year's Day.
One popular place to do this is on Mount Tsukuba. Sunrise is at 6:49 am, and the cable railway from Mount Tsukuba Shrine and ropeway from the Tsukuba San Keisei Hotel going to the top of the mountain begin operating at 4:30 and 5:30 am respectively. The Mount Tsukuba Shrine provides amazake (sweet alcoholic drink made from fermented rice) free of charge to all visitors beginning at 6 am on the first of January and continuing to the third. If you really want to go "gung ho" on the Japanese experience, you can even fork over 3000 yen for a gokito Shinto New Year's prayer for success in business, health, a passing grade in school or whatever your heart desires! (No guarantees!)
Another popular excursion is to visit Kashima Shrine, located about 75 min. by car east of Tsukuba in the coastal town of Kashima (home of the champion Kashima Antlers of the J-League professional soccer league). Purported to have been founded in 660 AD, it is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in all of Japan. The grounds of the shrine are spacious, with many interesting buildings and other points of interest, and is worth a visit any time of year. If you go on New Year's Day, be prepared for huge crowds!
Another interesting New Year's outing that lets you experience a Japanese tradition is to visit the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to see the emperor and empress (from a distance, of course). The main gate of the palace will open to the public from 9:30 am to 3 pm on the second of January. The emperor, empress and his family will greet the crowds 7 times during the day. And when we say "crowds", we mean just that; so if you're interested, go early! This is just about the only day you can actually get inside the Imperial Palace grounds.
There are plenty of other interesting places within walking distance of the Imperial Palace if you still have time after your royal greetings. And since businesses are generally shut down for the day, the streets (and of course, the trains) are empty. If you've ever thought about driving around in Tokyo in your car, this is the time to do it -- no traffic and easy parking.
Another popular New Year's custom in Japan is the flying of kites. The stiff breezes make this time of year good for getting some really big and heavy kites airborne, with the bigger ones taking many people to control. One good place to see them is at the Toride Kite Festival on January 12 (or following day in case of rain) between 10 am and 2 pm. The event takes place on the Tonegawa River bank away from any power lines. Another festival worth seeing that is also in Toride is the Tonegawa Dondo Matsuri, which centers around burning in a giant bonfire the various New Year's decorations (such as kadomatstu, the bamboo and pine branch decorations used to welcome the New Year) on Jan. 15 at 5 pm. In the coals of the bonfire, people roast [[Senbei|senbei] (and perhaps even marshmallows these days) on long sticks. For further info, call 0297-74-2141.