Whilst throwbacks of a structural nature to a uniquely Japanese past can be found in the form of temples, shrines, farmhouses and the settings they are in, one of Japan’s endearing characteristics is how its vast number of festivals (matsuri) are still observed and celebrated year after year. All major cities and most towns stage at least one festival a year, as does virtually every shrine and temple. These are in addition to festivities held and decorations put on display for seasonal events, such as for cherry blossom season and New Year, creating the impression of a very festive, fun-seeking and fun-loving nation.
When considering a trip to Japan, attendance at one or more of the many festivals held around the country throughout the year is highly recommended. Understandably reservations for accommodation and rail travel might be essential at these times. For the participants, numbering in their hundreds or thousands, many hours of practice and planning are usually necessary, and for the events requiring men to be clad in loin cloths only, some endurance during the colder months.
Planning a trip to coincide with one of the several traditional events observed nationally every year can be most worthwhile too. For ease of reference, following is a listing of the major national cultural festivals, observances and public holidays, as they occur chronologically through the year.
Due to the reluctance or inability of many people to take lengthy holidays, there’s quite a large number of public holidays, most of which change date each year to occur on a Monday, to create a long weekend and increase the chance of people taking a holiday then. This is known as the Happy Monday System.
Hatsu hinode is the first sunrise of the year, New Year’s Day, a public holiday, referred to as ganjitsu. As noted below, many people visit a shrine or temple shortly prior to midnight on New Year’s Eve, and some people go to an elevated location or some other place with a clear view to watch the sun rise, the summit of Mt Fuji the most acclaimed. The greeting on New Year’s Day is akemashite omedeto gozaimasu.
The first and perhaps most important event of the year is the New Year period (O-shōgatsu), a time more than any other when families get together and dine on Japanese specialties called O-sechiryori, comprising many varieties of food. A popular place for families to gather at this time, and through winter months, is at a kotatsu, a small low-level quilt-covered table with a heater under its top, family members seated on the floor with legs stretched out under the cover.
A common sight of an evening or weekend is a family member seated at a kotatsu, enjoying the refreshing flavour of a mikan, in season this time of year. Other kinds of citrus fruit are popular this time of year too. With some varieties, as with all Japanese food there is as much in the preparation as in the eating: not only is the peel and all straggly pieces of pith removed, but the transparent skin of each leaf is also meticulously removed, leaving just the unadorned flesh to be eaten.
New Year decorations (kadomatsu) with their use of bamboo, cane and citrus fruit, appear immediately after Christmas Day, located everywhere from home and other building entrances, hotel lobbies and shop windows, to car bumper bars. Above a door may also be placed a shimenawa, a decoration made of rope, in a sense separating the interior, which has been thoroughly cleaned prior to the end of the year, from the unclean exterior.
This is the time of year when people are most likely to make their first (and possibly only) visit to a shrine or temple for the year, an activity known as hatsumōde, some young women dressing in kimono. Such places can be very crowded during the first two or three days of each year, with visitor numbers exceeding one million in some cases. Temples do a roaring trade in trinkets, good luck charms, and other souvenirs.
During December, everyone attends to the task of writing and posting New Year cards (nengajo). The receiving post office places each household’s cards in one bundle, for delivery on New Year’s day itself, their arrival in the letter box an anticipated and looked forward to occasion. The downside is to receive cards from people one has forgotten or omitted to send to, which must be quickly rectified. Whilst the post office sells a number of standard designs, many people draw or print their own, or have a family photo incorporated into it.
More eagerly awaited by children and teenagers is otoshidama, money put in envelopes and given by parents and other relatives. In the home, traditional activities carried out during the first two or three days of the year might include kakizome, the year’s first calligraphy, which might comprise auspicious kanji characters representing sentiments such as long life. Card games called karuta and hyakunin isshu are played too.
Dezomeshiki is an event held in various locations around the start of the year involving members of fire-fighting services giving demonstrations of fire-fighting and climbing ladders. Starting from this time and continuing to March are fairs featuring daruma dolls, which are round in shape and painted red, with a priest-like face.
Cherry blossom viewing
As noted above, blossom viewing is a significant cultural and festive activity in Japan, covering a period extending from February through to April, and commencing with plum, then peach and culminating in cherry blossoms in late March to early April, depending on the location. In celebration of this cheery time, cherry blossom decorations start appearing in shopping areas and other public places from mid-March. Blossoms should be neither touched nor picked.
Cherry blossom viewing (hanami), and especially partying under the trees, reaches a crescendo on the few days when the blossoms are in full bloom and at their most dazzling. Timing and weather conditions are all important for these activities, as if the weather happens to be wet or windy just as the blossoms are at their fullest, the peak viewing period might last for as little as two or three days. At about this time, on 8 April, many Buddhist temples celebrate the birth of Buddha by placing Buddha statues in small shrines decorated with flowers (hanamido) and worshipers pour sweet tea (amacha) over the Buddha’s head.
Summer and Obon
Summertime, from around mid-July to the end of August, not only brings the longest school and university holidays, and the most popular time of the year to go away, but various other associated activities. These hot weeks are the time when local communities, temples and shrines are also most likely to hold their own festivals, the former usually at night only, the latter day and night. Stalls are set up selling drinks, food such as grilled corn, squid and chicken, traditional toys and local goods. Bath-size tanks full of small goldfish for people to catch are also a common sight. Children often dress in traditional night wear, and neighbours get together and have fun. Eel (unagi) is a common delicacy. This is also the time when fireworks displays are held, with many young women dressing up in traditional summer attire, called hanten. There appear to be no legal restrictions on people letting off their own fireworks
Obon, a Buddhist observance honoring the spirits of ancestors, occurs in most areas around 15 August, and in some areas one month earlier. It’s believed this is the time when spirits of the dead return home, so families place a special lantern in the hallway, or outside the front door, to guide the spirits back home, and often make trips back to ancestral homes (honke) to visit family members and clean family burial grounds. Effectively it has become a time for family reunions
Bon dances (bon odori) are held in many public places throughout the country, often bringing together large numbers of traditionally clad dancers, en-masse in large circles, or in long lines, snaking their way through city streets. These evolved from a story in which a Buddhist disciple made offerings to Buddhist monks and danced with joy in thanks for everything his mother had done for him during his life. Thus bon odori are a form of remembrance and appreciation of the sacrifices made by previous family members.
An event dominating day-time television, and continuing for two weeks from about 8 August, is the All-Japan High School Baseball Championship tournament, held in Osaka, which first started in 1915, and involves a team from every prefecture.
A memorial service commemorating the end of World War II is held every year on 15 August, and services to mark the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are held on 6 and 9 August respectively.