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Japanese Festivals and Celebrations

In every country, festivals punctuate the year and are an occasion for people to relax, rejoin their families and celebrate with them. Japanese festivals are called matsuri: traditionally, a matsuri is an event involving purification, offerings, a procession of deities, and entertainment in the streets.

During Hasami, cherry blossoms decorate Japan and amaze its people; Kanda Matsuri and Gion Matsuri are two important Shinto festivals, with long processions around the city; and Obon is the main Buddhist festival, in which Buddhists honor their ancestors.

Check out this brief article and learn more about Japanese festivals!

Highlights

  • The cherry blossom, truly a unique sight, attracts thousands of people every year
  • Kanda Matsuri and Gion Matsuri are two of the most important festivals, celebrating the gods and their shrines
  • Obon is a Buddhist festival convened in August for commemorating ancestors
  • The Sapporo Snow Festival is one of the most spectacular, with thousands of snow sculptures
  • Last but not least, New Year’s celebrations are totally worth a visit

Japanese festivals and celebrations

In Japanese, the word matsuri indicates traditional festivals held throughout the year. Every matsuri originated from Shintoist or Buddhist traditions, and it involves shrines, temples, and nature.

Matsuri are convened to maintain the goodwill of the kami, the deities of Shintoism, and often follow the rice-growing cycle. They are occasions to connect with the divine.

Usually, Shinto festivals share some common patterns: purification, offerings and processions. During the festivals, shrines are carried around the city in long and joyful processions; to win the favor of the kami, who are believed to dwell inside the shrines.

Buddhist festivals like Obon revolve around paying respects to one’s ancestors. Buddhists clean their ancestors’ graves and visit temples to present offerings to the monks.

There are also many festivals which are not strictly religious: for example, Hanami celebrates the blooming of the cherry trees; while the Sapporo Snow Festival is an occasion for artists to exhibit their snow sculptures.

Hanami - cherry blossom

When: March–May (depending on the location)

Travelling in Japan in spring will delight your eyes: cherry trees blossom, coloring the whole country in a peaceful pink. The cherry blossom (sakura), in Japan, is a symbol of national pride, an opportunity to appreciate nature and welcome the new season.

Hanami, in Japanese, means “to enjoy the transient beauty of flowers”. It is a custom that originated during the Nara period (around 700), and became widely popular during the Heian period (10th century), when the hanami strictly focused on the sakura.

Activities

Every year, the weather office announces the blossom forecast. Blossoms only flourish for one or two weeks. Nowadays, the simplest celebrations revolve around having a party under a tree.

In many places, for example in Ueno Park in Tokyo, paper lanterns are hung on the branches of the trees. In Okinawa, electric lanterns are hung up at night.

Where to celebrate

  • The blossoms emerge first in the south, later in the north. Osaka is usually the city with the earliest blossom (around 21st of March), Sapporo the last (around 27th of April).
  • To spot the blossom, travel around the regions like Hokkaido, Tohoku, or Hokuriku.
  • In Tokyo, head to Shinjuku Gyoen, a park with more than 1,000 trees.
  • In Kyoto, Nakaragi no Michi houses the Kyoto Botanical Garden, by definition the perfect place for hanami.

Kanda Matsuri (Tokyo)

When: mid-May (odd-numbered years)

One of the most famous Japanese festivals, Kanda Matsuri originated during the Edo Period (17th century), to celebrate the prosperity of the regime, and it was one of only two festivals allowed to pass through Edo Castle.

The festival honors the Kanda Myojin shrines, enshrining Daikokuten (the god of harvest), Ebisu (the god of fishermen), and Taira Masakado (a deified feudal lord).

Activities

Celebrations start on Saturday, with Shinto rituals to invite deities to enter the shrines brought round by thousands of people dressed in traditional costume, with musicians, and priests on horses. The procession goes around Tokyo, stopping at different times and returning to the Kanda Myojin shrines around 7 pm.

Celebrations continue on Sunday with more parades. The best place to observe them is on the way to the Kanda Myojin shrines.

Where to celebrate

  • The procession goes through the streets of Kanda, Nihonbashi, Otemachi, and Akihabara.
  • It starts early in the morning from the Kanda Myojin shrines and returns there in the evening.
  • On Sunday, parades are held in Kanda and Nihonbashi districts.

Gion Matsuri (Kyoto)

When: The entire month of July

This festival, more than 800 years old, is a purification ritual to placate the gods dwelling in the Yasaka shrine and to stop natural disasters. A local boy chosen as a divine messenger cannot set foot on the ground for 5 whole days.

During the procession, two different kinds of float are used in the procession: 23 yama and 10 hoko. The hoko can be as tall as 25 meters, and both floats (pulled on wheels) are heavily decorated.

Activities

As the festival lasts a whole month, there are tons of activities. In mid-July, there are three processions in a row: Yoiyoiyoiyama (July 14), Yoiyoiyama (July 15), and Yoiyama (July 16). The floats go around the streets on July 17th, from 9 am to 11:30 am.

During these days, there are many other subsidiary activities held around the town, with food stalls and music everywhere.

Where to celebrate

  • The main events take place on the other side of the Kamo River.
  • The procession of floats takes place on Shijo, Kawaramachi, and Oike Streets.
  • Before the processions, the floats are displayed at the intersection between Shijo and Karasuma Streets.

Obon

When: from the 13th to the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar (usually August)

Obon is the annual occasion for Buddhists to celebrate their ancestors. The festival has been celebrated for 500 years.

According to legend, the mother of a disciple of Buddha was suffering in the afterlife, and the disciple asked his master how he could relieve her. Buddha told him to make offerings to monks on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

A characteristic of the festival is the yukata worn by participants: a light and colorful kimono that suits the high summer temperatures.

Activities

The festival lasts three days. People return home, visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. Lanterns are hung In front of the houses to guide the spirits. At the end of the festival, floating lanterns are put on rivers, lakes and seas, so that the spirits can return to their world.

Where to celebrate

  • The most famous Obon festival is held in Kyoto. Bonfires shaped as Chinese characters are lit on the mountains, creating a unique nighttime spectacle.
  • On Shikoku Island, you will find the Awa Odori Festival, with one of the best-preserved traditional Obon dances. It is so popular that more than a million tourists attend it every year.

Sapporo Snow Festival

When: February

This relatively new festival started in 1950, with six students building snow statues in Odori Park. Nowadays, it is visited by almost 2 million tourists. Odori Park is still the main site: you will find hundreds and hundreds of statues there, sculpted by the best artists.

The festival has a unique atmosphere, and is justifiably famous. It is loved by people of all ages, and kids especially will be amazed by the snow games held in Susukino.

Activities

The main feature of the Sapporo Snow Festival is the amazing snow statues exhibited around the city. There are thousands of them: some as tall as 20 meters, while others are smaller yet still phenomenal. Statues usually represent famous events, buildings, or people from the previous year.

Since 1974, the festival has hosted an International Snow Sculpture Contest, with many teams coming from different regions. A snow stage is used for musical performances, and food stalls with food from all over Hokkaidō are to be found everywhere.

Where to celebrate

  • Odori Park is the main place, with the largest number of statues, some of which are also the biggest.
  • In Susukino, you will find about 100 ice sculptures; while Tsu Dome is a family-friendly site with snow slides, snow rafting and of course, more sculptures. Inside the dome there are food stalls and a stage for performances.

Shōgatsu – Japanese New Year

When: 1st of January

Every country has its own customs when it comes to celebrating New Year, and Japan is no exception.

The official New Year is on the 1st of January (according to the Gregorian calendar adopted during the Meiji period), but Japanese people still observe some traditional celebrations on the first day of the modern Tenpō calendar.

Activities

The food eaten on New Year is called osechi-ryōri, and it includes sweet, savory, and dried food. Mochi is a cake made with mashed rice, and during New Year it is eaten with a tangerine on top. Ozōni is a soup with mochi and other ingredients. Sushi, sashimi, and even non-Japanese food are eaten as well.

Hatsumode is the annual visit to temples and shrines on 1st January. The night before, on the stroke of midnight, Buddhist temples ring the bell 108 times to get rid of 108 desires and sins. On 2nd January, the Emperor greets the nation and the grounds of the temple are open to the public.

At this time, Japanese people also send postcards to friends and relatives, and children receive some pocket money (otoshidama). Traditional poems, like haiku, are composed for the occasion; and traditional games like koma (top) and takoage (kite flying) are played. Beethoven’s ninth symphony is played all over the country.

Where to celebrate

  • In Tokyo, before midnight, people gather at Shibuya Crossing for the countdown, with plenty of bars open until morning.
  • Meiji Jingu, one of the most popular shrines in all Japan, will see maybe the biggest crowds performing the hatsumode.
  • To experience firsthand the Buddhist ritual of the joya no kane (the bell ringing), head to Zojoji, a big Buddhist temple in Tokyo.

Enjoy Japanese Festivals with Asia Highlights

All these amazing festivals await you and your friends. Don’t hesitate, plan your next trip to Japan now: you may get to see the cherry blossoms, or join one of many Shinto processions… Our knowledgeable staff will help you craft a hassle-free vacation you will never forget.

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