Festivals | Holidays

There are copious amounts of celebration in the form of festivals [matsuri] throughout the year in Japan. There are some with fixed dates and some which move. Here I have listed some well-known and larger festivals and holidays that take place across the nation.

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New Year | January 1-3

Much like Australia, there is great celebration in welcoming the New Year. In preparation of the big day, a clean slate is made by all citizens; debts are paid, homes are cleaned, and osechi* is bought in the hopes of attracting good luck. Here in Australia we like to bring in the New Year with stupendous amounts of alcohol and count down till midnight; in Japan, houses are decorated, people make formal calls to family members, and visit temples or shrines. The first day is usually spent with the immediate family. Instead of counting down till the New Year, people try to stay awake to eat noodles at midnight. And no matter where you are in the world; there are always fireworks. A later New Year’s celebration, Koshogatsu, literally meaning “Small New Year”, starts with the first full moon of the year (around January 15).

New Year in Japan | via Shiki Book Japan*Osechi are traditional foods that are chosen for their lucky colors, shapes, or lucky-sounding names in hopes of obtaining good luck.

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Wakakusa-yama Mountain Burning | Mid-January

The Wakakusayama Mountain Burning is a New Year ritual in the old capital city of Nara. Each year, on a night in mid-January, as the sun sets, fireworks rise into the sky above Nara and the sound of trumpets echo. This is the signal and the mountain turf is ignited. The vigorous fire burning on the face of the mountain with pagodas and temples silhouetted against it, combines with the beautiful fireworks to produce magnificent, fantastical scenery. Wakakusayama is a small mountain approximately 340 meters tall adjacent to the famous, time-honored temples of Tōdaiji and Kōfukuji. Because the area is usually used by grazing deer, it is fenced off before the blaze. On this day, members of fire fighting units are positioned in various places to regulate the force of the fire to ensure that no problems occur.

Wakakusayama mountain burning | via Shiki Book Japan

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Sapporo Snow Festival | Early February

The Sapporo Snow Festival, one of Japan’s largest winter events, attracts a growing number of visitors from Japan and abroad every year. Every winter, about two million people come to Sapporo to see a large number of splendid snow and ice sculptures lining Odori Park, the grounds at Community Dome Tsudome, and along the main street in Susukino. For seven days in February, Sapporo is turned into a winter dreamland of crystal-like ice and white snow.

sapporo snow festival | via Shiki Book Japan

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Valentine’s Day | February 14

On Valentine’s Day, it’s common for Japanese women to give chocolates to men. Women are encouraged to express love to men by giving chocolates and other gifts. Chocolates are often given to male co-workers, bosses, friends, family members, and so on. Men give various gifts to women one month later on March 14 called White Day. It’s said that this tradition started as a marketing tool for chocolate companies in Japan. Chocolates given to men whom women don’t feel special love are called “giri (obligation)-choco (chocolate)” in Japan. Chocolate given to co-workers and bosses are usually considered giri-choco. Women tend to give special gifts with chocolates to those men whom they love. Unlike western countries, gifts such as greeting cards, candies, flowers, or dinner dates are uncommon, and most of the activity about the gifts is about giving the right amount of chocolate to each person.

Valentine's day in Japan | via Shiki Book Japan

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Hachinohe Enburi | February 17-20 

This is a festival praying for a rich harvest, and in the old days the dancers used to carry farm tools called eburi when performing their dance. Enburi, the name of this festival, is believed to have derived from this eburi. Dancers called tayu, flute-players, drummers, players sounding bells known as kane and singers form groups of 10-30 members which parade through the city. Every year, over 30 groups, including children’s groups, wearing colorful costumes participate in this event.

Hachinohe Enburi Festival | via Shiki Book Japan

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Doll Festival | March 3

The Doll Festival is also known as Sangatsu Sekku [3rd month festival], Momo Sekku [Peach Festival] and Joshi no Sekku [Girls’ Festival]. On this day, young girls get dressed up in their best kimonos and the families pray for their daugher’s happiness, prosperity, good health and beauty. This is done inside the home and sometimes at the seashore, both meant to ward away evil spirits from the girls. Hina dolls are placed on tiered platforms in the home and the family celebrates by eating a special meal of diamond shaped rice cakes and rice malt with sake.

Doll festival | via Shiki Book Japan

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Omizutori | March 12-13

Omizutori, or the annual sacred water-drawing festival, is a Japanese Buddhist festival that takes place in Nara, Japan. The festival is the final rite in observance of the two-week-long Shuni-e ceremony. This ceremony is to cleanse the people of their sins as well as to usher in the spring of the New Year. Once the Omizutori is completed, the cherry blossoms have started blooming and spring has arrived.

Omizutori | via Shiki Book Japan

In the main event of Omizutori at Nigatsu-do, monks carry torches across the balcony.

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Hanami or ‘Cherry Blossom Festival’ | April 

Plentiful flower festivals are held at Shinto shrines during April and are celebrated by games, folk songs and dance, rides, parades, concerts, excursions, picnics, pageants and market food stalls. Many drinking parties are often seen in parks and buildings. In some places, flower viewing parties are held on traditionally fixed dates, as flower viewing has held an important place in the culture of Japan. Flower arrangement is a popular part too, and still practiced by many, even today.

Cherry Blossom Festival | via Shiki Book Japan

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Takayama Festivals | April 14-15 & October 9-10

The Spring Festival (April 14-15) is the annual festival of the Hie Shrine in the southern half of Takayama’s old town. Since the shrine is also known as Sanno-sama, the spring festival is also called Sanno Festival. Likewise, the Autumn Festival (October 9-10) is the annual festival of the Hachiman Shrine in the northern half of the old town, and the festival is also known as Hachiman Festival. The Takayama Festivals started in the 16th to 17th century. The origins of the festivals are unknown, however they are believed to have been started during the rule of the Kanamori family. The festivals feature its own set of about a dozen festival floats (yatai). During the year, the tall and heavily decorated floats are stored in storehouses, which are scattered across Takayama’s old town. From morning to late afternoon of both festival days, the festival floats are displayed in the streets of Takayama. When the weather is bad, the floats remain in their storehouses, but the doors of the storehouses are opened so that visitors can still take a look at them.

Takayama festivals | via Shiki Book Japan

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Onbashira | Early May

Onbashira is a festival held every six years in the Lake Suwa area of Nagano, Japan. The purpose of the festival is to symbolically renew the Suwa Taisha or Suwa Grand Shrine. “Onbashira” can be literally translated as “the honored pillars”. The Onbashira festival is reputed to have continued, uninterrupted, for 1200 years. The festival is held once every six years, in the years of the Monkey and the Tiger in the Chinese zodiac, however the locals may say “once in seven years,” because of the traditional Japanese custom of including the current year when counting a length of time. Huge trees are cut down in a Shinto ceremony using axes and adzes specially manufactured for this single use. The course of the logs goes over rough terrain, and at certain points the logs must be skidded or dropped down steep slopes. Young men prove their bravery by riding the logs down the hill in a ceremony known as “Ki-otoshi.”

Onbashira | via Shiki Book Japan

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Hakata Dontaku Festival | May 3-4

People dressed up in unique costumes parade through the streets while clapping shamoji spoons and dance on stages and in squares in various quarters of the town. The name Dontaku is derived from the Dutch word Zondag meaning “Sunday” or “a holiday.” It started in 1179 as a New Year performance known as matsubayashi. In the Edo Period, it evolved into a parade headed by people dressed up as auspicious gods when visits were paid to the Lord of Fukuoka Castle.

Hakata dontaku | via Shiki Book Japan

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Sanja Festival | Late May 

Sanja Festival, is one of the three great Shinto festivals in Tokyo. It is considered one of the wildest and largest. The festival is held in honour of Hinokuma Hamanari, Hinokuma Takenari and Hajino Nakatomo, the three men who established and founded Sensō-ji. Sanja is held on the third weekend of every May at Asakusa Shrine. Its prominent parades revolve around three mikoshi (three portable shrines referenced in the festival’s name), as well as traditional music and dancing.

sanja festival| via Shiki Book Japan

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Mibu no Hanadaue | First Sunday of June

Mibu no Hanadaue, at Mibujinja shrine in Hiroshima, features women in traditional work costumes planting rice and singing to the accompaniment of drumming by drummers who are also wading through the rice fields. Some of the songs are filled with sexual innuendos. Cattle are colorfully decorated and paraded through the paddies.

Mibu no hanabaue | via Shiki Book Japan

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Sanno Festival | June 7-16

The Sanno Matsuri is famous as a festival permitted by the Shogun to enter the grounds of Edo Castle during the Edo Period (1603-1867), along with the Kanda Matsuri. It was also one of the three largest festivals of Japan. The main procession called jinkosai takes place in the middle of June in every other year according to the Western calendar. About 300 people dressed in ancient costumes parade through the heart of Tokyo including Tokyo Station, Ginza, and in front of the Diet Building.

sanno festival | via Shiki Book Japan

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The Gion Festival | July

The Gion Festival takes place annually in Kyoto and is one of the most famous festivals in Japan. It goes for the entire month of July and is crowned by a parade, the Yamaboko Junko on July 17 and July 24. It takes its name from Kyoto’s Gion district. Kyoto’s downtown area is reserved for pedestrian traffic on the three nights leading up to the massive parade. These nights are known as yoiyama on July 16 and July 23, yoiyoiyama on July 15 and July 22, and yoiyoiyoiyama on July 14 and July 21. The streets are lined with night stalls selling food such as yakitori (barbecued chicken skewers), taiyaki, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, traditional Japanese sweets, and many other culinary delights. Many girls dressed in summer kimono walk around the area, carrying with them traditional purses and paper fans.

The gion festival | via Shiki Book Japan

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Tanabata or ‘The Star Festival’ | July 7

Tanabata, also known as the ‘Festival of Forlorn Lovers’, came from a common story told, originating in China. It concerns two stars; Vega and Altair, who were said to be lovers. They could only meet once a year, on the 7th night of the 7th month, as long as it didn’t rain and flood the Milky Way. It was named Tanabata after a maiden called Orihime from Japanese legend, who was said to make clothes for the gods. On this day, people write wishes and romantic ambitions on long strips of coloured paper and hang them from bamboo branches, along with other small ornaments.

Tanabata | via Shiki Book Japan Tanabata | via Shiki Book Japan

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Tenjin Festival | July 24-25

The Tenjin Matsuri is the world’s greatest boat festival. It is a summer festival held at the Tenman Shrine dedicated to Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903), who is deified as Tenman Tenjin, the patron god of learning and art. On the days of the festival, traditional Japanese performing arts such as kagura music, which is performed when paying homage to gods, and bunraku theatrical performances using puppets are performed in all parts of the city, and the entire city becomes filled with a festive mood.

tenjin festival | via Shiki Book Japan

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Kanto Festival | August 3-6

The Kanto Matsuri, “pole lantern festival”, is a Tanabata related celebration in Akita City, held every year from August 3 to 6. The highlight of the festival is an impressive display of skill in which performers balance kanto (long bamboo poles) with arrays of paper lanterns attached to the end. The Kanto Matsuri together with Aomori’s Nebuta Festival and Sendai’s Tanabata makes up the three great festivals of the Tohoku Region.

kanto festival | via Shiki Book Japan

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Bon Festival & Lantern Floating Festival | August 13-15

Bon is held in honour of the spirits of the ancestors. A spirit alter is generally set up in front of the Buddhist family altar to welcome ancestors souls. Among the traditional preparations for the ancestors return, are the cleaning of graves and preparing a path from them to the house. Straw horses are also made for the ancestors transportation. A welcoming fire is lit on the 13th and a good bye fire lit on the 15th or 16th to ‘light a path’. To signify the end of the Bon Festival, paper lanterns containing a flame are either set afloat to a river, lake or sea or they are let go and float away into the night. Their light is intended to guide the way for the ancestors spirits.

Obon | via Shiki Book Japan

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Karatsu Kunchi | November 2-4

The Karatsu Kunchi festival features daily parades of fourteen hikiyama, massive floats in the form of samurai helmets, sea bream, dragons, and other fantastical creatures, all constructed from wood, lacquer, and other materials. It is the major event of the Karatsu calendar, regularly drawing crowds of anywhere between 150,000 to 500,000 people from the surrounding area over the course of the three day holiday.

Karatsu Kunchi | via Shiki Book Japan

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7-5-3 Festival | November 15

Five year old boys and seven or three year old girls are taken to local shrines on this date to pray for their safe and healthy future. This age is believed to mean that children are prone to bad luck and are in need of divine protection. The children are usually dressed up traditionally and after visiting their chosen shrine, many families buy ‘thousand year candy’.

7-5-3 festival | via Shiki Book Japan

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Christmas | December 24-25

In Japan, Christmas is known as more of a time to spread happiness rather than a religious celebration. Christmas Eve is often celebrated more than Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is thought of as a romantic day, in which couples spend together and exchange presents. In many ways it resembles Valentine’s Day celebrations in Western countries. Young couples like to go for walks to look at the Christmas lights and have a romantic meal in a restaurant – booking a table on Christmas Eve can be very difficult as it’s so popular! Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, so schools and businesses are normally open on December 25th.

Japanese Christmas | via Shiki Book Japan

Christmas Lights

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