Festivals and Celebrations in Japan
Japan is a country rich in culture and traditions, and one of the best ways to experience them is by joining the festivals and celebrations that take place throughout the year. Festivals, known in Japanese as matsuri, are often based on religious, historical, or seasonal themes, and showcase the local customs, crafts, food, and entertainment of each region. In this article, we will introduce some of the main festivals and celebrations in Japan by season, and provide some information on when and where to enjoy them.
Winter Festivals and Celebrations
Winter in Japan is a time of cold weather, snow, and cozy hot springs. It is also a time of celebrating the new year, honoring the young adults, and marveling at the snow and ice sculptures.
Japanese New Year
The Japanese New Year, also known as Shogatsu, is one of the most important festivals in the country. It falls on January 1st, but the festivities last for several days before and after. During this time, families gather together to prepare special dishes such as mochi (rice cakes), ozoni (soup with mochi), and osechi (assorted foods in lacquered boxes). They also exchange small envelopes containing money, called otoshidama, with children. Another popular tradition is hatsumode, where people visit a shrine or temple to pray for happiness and good health in the new year.
- Time: January 1st (and surrounding days)
- Best places to celebrate: The most popular places for hatsumode are Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, and Sensoji Temple in Asakusa.
Coming of Age Day
Coming of Age Day, or Seijin no Hi, is a national holiday that celebrates those who turned 20 years old during the past year. This is the legal age of adulthood in Japan, which comes with new rights and responsibilities. On this day, young adults dress up in formal attire, such as kimonos for women and suits for men, and attend ceremonies at their local city halls or community centers. There, they receive congratulatory messages from government officials and elders. After the ceremonies, they often go out with their friends or family to enjoy their new status.
- Time: Second Monday of January
- Best places to celebrate: Famous places for kimono rental and photography are Asakusa in Tokyo, Gion in Kyoto, and Dotonbori in Osaka.
Sapporo Snow Festival
The Sapporo Snow Festival is one of the most famous winter festivals in Japan. It takes place every February in Hokkaido’s capital city of Sapporo. The festival features hundreds of snow and ice sculptures of various sizes and shapes, depicting characters from anime, movies, history, politics, and more. The sculptures are illuminated at night, creating a magical atmosphere. The festival also offers other attractions such as snow slides, ice skating rinks, food stalls, and concerts.
- Time: Early to mid-February
- Best places to celebrate: Sapporo
Spring Festivals and Celebrations
Spring in Japan is a time of warm weather, fresh greenery, and colorful flowers. It is also a time of celebrating girls, enjoying the cherry blossoms, and taking advantage of the national holidays.
Hina Matsuri, or Doll Festival, is a festival for girls that takes place on March 3rd. On this day, families with daughters display dolls representing the imperial court on a tiered platform covered with red cloth. The dolls are dressed in traditional costumes and accessories, and are arranged according to rank. The display also includes miniature furniture, tools, and food items. The purpose of the festival is to wish for the health, happiness, and marriage of girls. Some families also perform rituals such as eating special sweets called hina-arare, drinking sweet rice wine called shirozake, and floating paper dolls on rivers or seas to symbolize the removal of bad luck.
- Time: March 3rd
- Best places to celebrate: Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine in Tokyo, Awashima Shrine in Wakayama, and Kyugetsu Doll Museum in Nagoya.
Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, is a tradition of appreciating the beauty and transience of the sakura (cherry blossoms) that bloom in late March to early April. People gather under the trees in parks, gardens, temples, and along rivers to enjoy picnics, drinks, and conversations. Some places also offer night illumination, music, and food stalls. The cherry blossoms are a symbol of spring and renewal in Japan, and are often associated with romance, poetry, and nostalgia.
- Time: Late March to early April (depending on the region and weather)
- Best places to celebrate: Ueno Park in Tokyo, Maruyama Park in Kyoto, and Hirosaki Park in Aomori.
Summer Festivals and Celebrations
Summer in Japan is a time of hot weather, humid air, and refreshing water. It is also a time of celebrating ancient traditions, making wishes on stars, and honoring the ancestors.
Gion Matsuri is a month-long festival that takes place in Kyoto every July. It is one of the most famous and oldest festivals in Japan, dating back to the 9th century. The festival originated as a ritual to appease the gods and prevent plagues and disasters. The highlight of the festival is the Yamaboko Junko, or float procession, on July 17th and 24th. The floats are elaborate wooden structures decorated with tapestries, lanterns, and sculptures. They are pulled by teams of men wearing traditional costumes along the main streets of Kyoto. The festival also offers other attractions such as food stalls, night markets, and rituals.
- Time: July (main events on July 17th and 24th)
- Best places to celebrate: Kyoto
Tanabata, or Star Festival, is a festival based on a legend of star-crossed lovers who can only meet once a year on July 7th. The lovers are represented by the stars Vega and Altair, which are separated by the Milky Way. On this day, people write their wishes on colorful paper strips called tanzaku and hang them on bamboo branches. They also decorate the branches with origami stars, cranes, and streamers. The bamboo branches are then displayed outside or taken to rivers or temples. The festival also features parades, fireworks, and concerts.
- Time: July 7th (or August 7th in some regions)
- Best places to celebrate: Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival in Kanagawa, Sendai Tanabata Festival in Miyagi, and Asagaya Tanabata Festival in Tokyo.
Obon is a Buddhist festival to honor the spirits of the ancestors who return to visit their living relatives during this time. The festival takes place usually in mid-August. The exact dates vary by region and calendar. During this time, people welcome their ancestors’ spirits with offerings of food, incense, and lanterns at their homes or graves. They also perform dances called bon odori, which differ in style and music depending on the area. Some places also have the custom of floating lanterns on rivers or seas to guide the spirits back to the other world.
- Time: Mid-August (depending on the region and calendar)
- Best places to celebrate: Gujo Odori in Gifu, Awa Odori in Tokushima, and Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori.
Autumn Festivals and Celebrations
Autumn in Japan is a time of mild weather, crisp air, and stunning foliage. It is also a time of admiring the full moon, revisiting the past, and celebrating children.
Tsukimi, or moon viewing, is a festival to admire the full moon and offer rice cakes, fruits, and sake to the moon god. The festival takes place on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, which usually falls in September or October. On this day, people set up a display of pampas grass, autumn flowers, and rabbit figurines (because rabbits are believed to live on the moon) on a balcony or veranda. They also enjoy eating tsukimi dango (round rice cakes) and other seasonal delicacies while gazing at the moon.
- Time: 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar (usually September or October)
- Best places to celebrate: Daikakuji Temple in Kyoto, Osawa Pond in Tokyo, and Katsuyama Castle in Fukui.
Jidai Matsuri, or Festival of the Ages, is a historical parade that takes place in Kyoto every October 22nd. The parade features costumes and props from different eras of Japan’s history, from ancient to modern times. The parade starts from Kyoto Imperial Palace and ends at Heian Shrine, covering a distance of about 5 kilometers. The parade lasts for about two hours and showcases over 2,000 participants and 70 floats. The festival commemorates the anniversary of the transfer of the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868.
- Time: October 22nd
- Best places to celebrate: Kyoto
Shichi-go-san, or Seven-Five-Three, is a festival for children aged 3, 5, and 7, who dress up in kimonos and visit shrines for blessings. The festival takes place on November 15th, but families often celebrate it on weekends before or after that date. The festival originated as a way to ward off evil spirits and ensure the healthy growth of children. The ages of 3, 5, and 7 are considered milestones in a child’s life. On this day, parents also buy chitose ame (longevity candy) for their children as a symbol of long life.
- Time: November 15th (or weekends before or after that date)
- Best places to celebrate: Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, and Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine in Osaka.
All Year-Round Festivals and Celebrations
Some festivals and celebrations in Japan are not limited to a specific season, but can be enjoyed throughout the year. These festivals often have a universal appeal, such as throwing beans, watching fireworks, or joining local festivities.
Setsubun is a festival to mark the change of seasons by throwing roasted soybeans to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. The festival takes place on February 3rd or 4th, the day before the beginning of spring according to the lunar calendar. On this day, people chant “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Out with the demons! In with the fortune!) and toss beans inside and outside their homes. They also eat the same number of beans as their age for health and longevity. Some places also have the custom of eating eho-maki (lucky direction sushi rolls) while facing a lucky direction. The festival also features events where celebrities or priests throw beans to crowds at temples or shrines.
- Time: February 3rd or 4th
- Best places to celebrate: Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in Narita, and Yoshida Shrine in Kyoto.
Hanabi Taikai, or fireworks festivals, are events where spectacular displays of fireworks light up the skies with various colors and shapes. The festivals are held throughout the country during summer and autumn, usually near rivers, lakes, or seas. The fireworks are often accompanied by music, food stalls, and yukata (summer kimono) wearing crowds. The festivals are a popular way to enjoy the summer nights and celebrate the beauty of nature.
- Time: Summer and autumn (depending on the region and weather)
- Best places to celebrate: Sumida River Fireworks Festival in Tokyo, Nagaoka Fireworks Festival in Niigata, and Miyajima Fireworks Festival in Hiroshima.
Matsuri Taikai, or local festivals, are events sponsored by shrines or temples, featuring portable shrines, music, dances, food stalls, and games. The festivals vary in size, style, and theme depending on the region and the deity worshipped. They are often held on the anniversary of the shrine or temple’s founding, or on a specific date related to the deity’s legend. The festivals are a way to express gratitude, ask for blessings, or celebrate the local culture and community.
- Time: All year round (depending on the region and shrine or temple)
- Best places to celebrate: Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa, Kanda Matsuri in Kanda, and Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka.