Shogatsu (New Year) is the most important holiday here (according to japan-guide.com, the site from which I have cribbed a good bit of the info in this post). Most businesses are shut down Jan. 1 thru Jan. 3 so the streets are pretty quiet.
Leading up to the big holiday, it is tradition to host bonenkai ("year forgetting") parties (theme: leave your troubles behind) and to eat toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles) as they represent longevity. You clean the house and do the laundry (fresh start!) and decorate your door with ornaments made of pine, bamboo and plum tree branches.
To help usher in the New Year, the locals like to pay a visit to a shrine or temple, preferably at midnight while the bells are ringing, to offer up the first prayer of the year (this tradition is known as hatsumode). Then you view the first sunrise (hatsu-hinode). On Jan 1 you're supposed to be full of joy, free of stress and anger. You're to do no work on this day.
The Intercontinental Tokyo Bay hotel (where we've been staying since we arrived) put on a show in the lobby this morning: a woman in a kimono balanced various objects on a spinning parasol. Then there was a ceremonial breaking open of a sake barrel with wooden mallets, and cups of sake were served all around (the sake was ladeled into little wooden boxes marked 2008, year of the rat). Dishes of salt were on hand so you could take a pinch and put it on the corner edge of your box before drinking. D liked the salt but not the sake...
After we check out of our hotel and bring our stuff to the new apartment, we are going to make our own tourist-pilgrimage to the Meiji Shrine located near Harajuku Station, east of Yoyogi park and just a few stops away from our apartment, and dedicated to the souls of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Emperor Meiji died in 1912 and Empress Shoken in 1914. After the demise of the Emperor and Empress, this shrine was constructed to venerate them. Their souls were enshrined on November 1, 1920. The original building was destroyed during World War II. The present shrine was completed in October, 1958. It is said that several million people visit this shrine every year during the three day celebration (Jan 1-3).