Amazing Japanese Holidays and Events Throughout the Year
A great source of fun while traveling Japan is observing how the locals celebrate their traditions and customs. A trip coinciding with cultural events will surely become more memorable! To aid in your planning, this article details all the amazing events in Japan throughout the year, so that you can strategize and arrange your trip at the best possible timing!
Mar 30 2022 (Jul 12 2022)
Known as New Year's Day (oshogatsu), January 1 marks the start of the Japanese New Year. If you are visiting Japan during this period, do not be surprised to hear temple bells being struck at midnight. In fact, in order to usher in the new year, Japanese temples will ring their bells an impressive 108 times to pay heed to a custom known as "New Year's Eve Bells" (Joya no Kane). This is because the number 108 is said to correspond with humans' worldly desires, so it is hoped that ringing the bells 108 times will rid humans of such impurities. It is certainly an interesting way to cleanse your soul for the upcoming year.
Another way to ensure a smooth sailing year is to partake in the long-cherished custom of visiting a shrine or temple (hatsumode). Pray to the gods by writing your wish on a wooden "ema" plaque and hanging it up at the shrine. Also remember to buy a fortune slip (omikuji) for a hint at what's on the horizon for the new year. Should you get an inauspicious fortune, just fold it up and tie it to a rack of metal wires at the shrine so that the bad luck doesn't accompany you home. Additionally, you may wish to buy a lucky charm (omamori) for extra insurance.
The second Monday of January is when Japanese youth on the cusp of adulthood celebrate "Seijin no Hi" (Coming of Age Day). On this day, Japanese ladies who are twenty years old will wear exquisite "furisode" kimono (kimono with floor-length sleeves) while their male peers will choose to either don dashing black business suits or wear "hakama" in classy muted colors. They will head over to local city offices to listen to prominent members of their communities give encouraging speeches while snapping photos with their friends and family to commemorate this pivotal milestone.
According to the Japanese lunar calendar, February 3 and 4 mark the last days of winter just before the start of spring. This seasonal transition is believed to be an opportune time for evil spirits to make their unwanted intrusion into homes. In order to pre-empt these attacks, Japanese people celebrate setsubun.
To protect yourself against evil spirits, head over to the nearest shrine or temple. Here, you will find people dressed up as demons, allowing you to pretend that they are evil spirits as you throw roasted soy beans at them. While throwing, make sure you chant "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ("Devils out, happiness in!"). Japanese people also count the number of beans equivalent to their age and eat them, which helps ratchet up their good luck for the year.
Another practice to carry out is eating "ehomaki" sushi rolls, which are packed with seven tantalizing ingredients representing the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan. Popular additions include omelet, cucumber, and scallops, so you can taste the natural goodness of several Japanese deliciacies all at once!
As with the rest of the world, the Japanese passionately celebrate Valentine's Day, albeit with a twist. It is the ladies of Japan who buy or make chocolate gifts for the men in their lives, filling confectionery stores with truckloads of female shoppers gushing excitedly about which chocolate to select for their love or crush. Some even use Valentine's Day as a chance to declare their affection, charging the atmosphere with the electric air of anticipation.
February also marks the birthday of the current Emperor, Emperor Naruhito, which falls on February 23. On this day, Emperor Naruhito and his royal family will appear on the balcony of Chowaden Hall in the Imperial Palace to address the entire nation. Many Japanese people will eagerly take to the streets in huge numbers, waving the Japanese flag and uttering patriotic phrases. Surely, witnessing their rapturous cheers will uplift your holiday spirit!
Children are a prized asset in Japanese society - so much so that there is a separate festival to mark the vitality of boys and girls individually. On March 3, Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) is celebrated to pray for the good health and happiness of girls, especially those aged 10 or below. Adoring parents will typically display a gorgeous set of traditional Japanese dolls called "hina ningyo" (hina dolls) at home. Featuring the Emperor and Empress alongside attendants and musicians of the Heian era, these attractive dolls not only provide a visual feast, but also bring good luck for girls.
Being expensive and cumbersome, hina dolls aren't for travelers - but you can participate in this festival another way! Japanese people will often tuck into chirashi zushi, a traditional dish with ingredients like egg, prawns, beans, and lotus root atop vinegared rice representing longevity and prosperity in their daughter's future. So, if you are traveling with your daughter, why not buy a bowl and bond over this shared culinary experience? Tasting absolutely delicious, she will surely be delighted!
In the field of romance, something unique to Japan is White Day, which falls on March 14. This is a day in which Japanese men will give their female counterparts chocolates and cookies in order to express thanks for the goodies they received one month earlier on Valentine's Day. If you happen to make friends with Japanese ladies on your trip, don't forget to shower them with chocolates on White Day!
No cultural calendar in Japan is complete without a mention of ohanami (cherry blossom viewing) in April. As cherry blossoms start to bloom all over the country, Japanese people feel as if they have been released from the icy grip of winter. Revitalized, they are thus determined to start the new school or work year right. To celebrate, friends and coworkers will gather for a picnic under the cherry blossom trees. You too can join in the fun solo or with travel companions to admire the transendent beauty of this magnificent spectacle!
Besides ohanami, you can also look forward to participating in "hana-matsuri" (Buddha's Birthday) that occurs on April 8 every year. Head over to the temples in your travel destination and observe how they enliven the atmosphere with "hanamido," which are little pavilions cheerfully decorated with flowers. Small bowls called "kanbutsuoke" that contain "amacha" tea will be placed inside hanamido so that devout visitors can pour the tea onto the statuette of Buddha.
Travelophiles will do well to note that Japan celebrates Golden Week in early May, which is a string of consecutive public holidays. This is the longest stretch of public holidays in Japan, so most Japanese people will excitedly leverage it to travel domestically. What's more, many shops and attractions will be closed during this period, so plan your itinerary accordingly.
The counterpart to Hinamatsuri in March is "Tango no Sekku" (Boys' Day) on May 5. Do note that this day has been renamed Kodomo no Hi (Children's Day) since 1948 as the government wanted it to be a day that advocated for the happiness of all children. Nonetheless, culturally, the emphasis continues to be on boys, not least because families will display samurai warrior dolls and "kabuto" helmets to show their desire for boys to grow up without suffering from injury or disease.
In addition, the country will be transformed into a visual spectacle by colorful carp-shaped koinobori (carp streamers) hung outside houses, parks, riversides, and more. Carps swim relentlessly upstream to reach their destination, so it is hoped that Japanese children will inherit a similar grit necessary to achieve great goals. Like Hinamatsuri, you can enjoy the festivity through food by savoring a delicacy called "kashiwa mochi," which are rice cakes filled with red bean paste and wrapped in oak leaves. Oak leaves represent the continuation of the family line, so you should try some with your son if you want grandchildren in the future!
Love eating Japanese rice? Then you'll surely be eager to get up close and personal with your favorite food at one of the many "tauebayashi" (rice-planting) festivals held all over Japan. Those seeking a more intense experience should head over to Japan's holiest shrine, Ise Jingu Shrine, to witness the Taketori-shinji ritual, in which about 40 men clothed only in loincloths battle it out in a muddy paddy field for a 15-meter piece of bamboo with a large "uchiwa" (round) fan. After the winner is crowned (and the soil gets a thorough workout), the locals will plant rice seedlings.
If you prefer a ritual that is less rowdy and more elegant, Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka should be your destination, where women gracefully plant rice seedlings in synchronization to uplifting traditional rice-planting folk songs.
Every culture has a fascinating love story - and Japan is no exception. On July 7, Japanese people celebrate the Tanabata (Star) Festival in celebration of how two lovers - the weaver girl Orihime and the herder boy Hikoboshi - can finally meet each other in the Milky Way after being separated for the year.
As part of Tanabata, Japanese people hand-write their wishes on vibrant strips of colored paper and tie them onto bamboo branches. It's a fantastic opportunity for some introspection in the middle of the year to reset yourself and articulate how you wish your life to turn out.
Summer is hot and humid in Japan, making it difficult to keep energy levels at full capacity. To counter this, many Japanese eat eel on "Natsu-no Doyo-no Ushi-no Hi" (the period of 18 days before the beginning of autumn). If you're sweating your way through Japan during this time, seek out a meal of eel as a pick-me-up. Chock-full of vitamins A, B1, B2, D, and E as well as calcium and protein, eel is said to be the ideal choice to boost your stamina and counter summer fatigue.
August is also the period of obon (a Buddhist event period for commemorating one's ancestors). Although there is variation in the dates obon is celebrated, it typically lasts for three days. Many Japanese people believe that their ancestors' spirits will return to the earthly realm at this time, and will thus pay respects at their graves. Be aware that roads and trains will be more congested than usual as those working in the cities head back to their rural hometowns.
On the plus side, there are also loads of fun summertime traditional matsuri festivals and fireworks displays held in August, which anyone is free to join!
If you are traveling with a partner and keen for a romantic moment, watch out for "tsukimi," a moon-viewing festival that takes place on the night of August 15 based on the Chinese lunar calendar. On this day, the full moon will grace the earth in all its splendor, making it a wonderful occasion to celebrate and cement your love.
September is also home to Silver Week, the lesser-known counterpart to May's Golden Week. Silver Week occurs when the public holidays of Respect for the Aged Day (third Monday of September), Autumnal Equinox Day (usually September 22/23 but astronomically determined), and another complimentary public holiday all line up with the weekend, giving people a whopping five days off in a row. While this doesn't happen every year, many will take the opportunity to fashion their own five-day weekends by using one or two paid vacation days, making it yet another busy holiday season in Japan.
October is known as Kannazuki (Month Without Gods) in the lunar calendar. Folklore has it that all the gods in Japan will make their way to Izumo Taisha grand shrine in Shimane as they are obligated to take part in an important conference. Entrusted with the fate of humanity, the gods are said to compare notes and engage in a lively debate about which men and women to bring together as a couple. This means that other shrines and temples in Japan will experience a temporary leave of absence from these divine deities.
Hence, if you are interested in finding love, you may want to make your way to Izumo Taisha and join the special ceremonies and rituals held during this period. Who knows? Maybe the gods will be touched by your sincerity and arrange for a special someone to come your way!
October is also Halloween, and Japan goes all out! From street parties in Shibuya to special events in Tokyo Disneyland, Halloween has grown into one of Japan's biggest celebrations.
Alongside Hinamatsuri and Kodomo no Hi, Japanese people also celebrate the child-centric festival of Shichi-Go-San (Seven-Five-Three). This festival harks back to the Heian era (794-1185), where the child mortality rate was high. To rejoice at children who reached the ages of three to seven without mishap, a joyous rite of passage was performed. Over time, people started to celebrate Shichi-Go-San on November 15, bringing their daughters to the local shrine at 3 and 7 years of age and their sons at 3 and 5 - illustrating just how prized children are in Japanese society.
Nowadays, doting parents continue to pray for their children's good health and fortune at a shrine. You can join in the festivities by dressing your children up and having them receive long candies known as "chitose ame." The length of these candies is meant to symbolize longevity, which is every parent's heartfelt wish.
On the commercial front, business owners and merchants welcome Tori-no-ichi (Rooster Market) as an opportunity to pray for greater prosperity for their businesses. On designated days of the rooster as per the lunar calendar, they typically flock to shrines and temples to convey their wishes for continued business growth. Even if you are not in business, you can still visit these shrines and temples to partake in the festive atmosphere evoked by the open-air markets. Among the lucky items up for grabs are the gold-and-silver kumade, which are bamboo rakes decorated with a variety of talismans!
Another time-honored November custom is "momijigari," the act of marveling at the spectacular fall foliage. These fiery hues draw out the true majesty of Mother Nature, so definitely include a helping of momiji hotspots on your autumn sightseeing itinerary.
Christmas takes on a life of its own in Japan, as the traditions cherished here have become totally removed from the rest of the world. For one, Christmas Eve is acknowledged to be a time for couples, ideal for soaking in romantic vibes at popular attractions like Tokyo Disneyland. And perhaps most famously, owing to a shrewd marketing campaign by KFC in the 1970s, many Japanese people will make advanced orders of fried chicken to usher in this jolly time of year.
In addition, as the year draws to a close, Japanese people look forward to winding down and celebrating oshogatsu (New Year). They'll usually write and post "nengajo" (New Year greeting) postcards to express gratitude to loved ones and seek their continued support. Besides taking stock of relationships, the Japanese also apply mindfulness to other aspects of life, including cleaning their homes to declutter and bring in fresh energy.
All this comes to a rousing closure on December 31 with a bowl of "toshikoshi" (year-crossing) soba. Soba noodles can be easily cut by chopsticks, so eating soba before the year-end represents the wish for all bad things in the year to be removed. Plus, being long and thin, soba noodles are naturally associated with longevity. So if you are in Japan during the year-end period, why not start off on auspicious footing by chowing down on toshikoshi soba?
Every Month Is a New Celebration!
Immersing yourself in Japanese cultural events and holidays is a great way to create precious memories by experiencing something out of the norm. Hence, in order to derive the most fun out of your trip, be sure to line up your Japan itinerary with the customs that fascinate and appeal to you!
Top picture: John Leung / Shutterstock.com
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.