New Year's Day is the most revered holiday in Japan. Celebrated in a four-day period, most Japanese spend it with family, quietly visiting shrines and feasting on traditional New Year's dishes.
But the scene outside the popular Laforet mall in Tokyo's Harajuku district looked more like a concert today. Lines of shoppers spilled out into the streets as security guards watched closely.
Laforet employees wore colorful Jinbeis (a Japanese traditional short jacket) with megaphones in hand, while the sound of traditional taiko drums echoed through the hip shopping district.
Once the clock hit 9 a.m., retailers opened their doors to screaming shoppers who frantically rushed to their favorite stores, to try their hand at New Year's luck. "I've been coming to Laforet to buy fukubukuro for five years now," Chino Murakami, 33, said. "The event only comes around once a year. Shopping sales on the first day of New Year is fun."
The New Year's Day excitement in Japan, reminiscent of Black Friday in the United States, includes an increasingly popular tradition: shopping for fukubukuros, or "fortune bags."
The surprise bags, sold only the first few days of the year, are sealed, so shoppers can't see what's inside. Clothing stores typically sell them for roughly $60 to $120, although retailers claim the value of goods inside can be two to three times the price of the bag.
"It's like a lottery ticket," Sophia University marketing professor Cheron Emmanuel said. "You don't know if you will get a huge surprise in terms of getting much more than what you have paid for."
The Matsuya Department store first introduced the fortune bag in 1908, to create buzz for the new year. The 1- or 2-yen bags contained traditional obis, or sashes, and casual summer kimonos.
Contents of the luck bags have evolved dramatically in the past century, with food retailers and electronics stores such as Apple taking part in the shopping frenzy.
This year, the Isetan department store unveiled a $192,000 travel bag, containing a 105-day cruise for two, around the world. In addition to the travel tickets, the bag comes with a limousine ride to and from the airport, and formal wear.
Matsuya took a more low-key approach, selling an eco-themed bag, in light of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The $129 bag contains $480 worth of energy-saving products, as well as leg warmers and thermals to keep warm. Another disaster-themed luck bag features a survival kit, which includes non-perishable foods, a radio that also acts as a flashlight and cellphone charger, backpack, whistle and a portable water bottle.
Rui Kitagawa, 16, lined up for more than three hours in the cold, in search of more traditional fukubukuros. She walked away with her hands full: one bag full of accessories, including bracelets and earrings --another bag stuffed with a blouse, dress, top and skirt.
The grand total? Roughly $310. "I took the first train out at 5:20 a.m., but there were already 200 people ahead of me [when I arrived]," Rui said. "I am very satisfied [with my purchases]. It was worthwhile to wake up early."