The Land of the Rising Sun is all about their festivities. I’m not even exaggerating; there’s at least a few festivals or events happening every month of the year! The locals take some time off their busy schedules each time to celebrate these matsuri (祭り), the Japanese word for “festival”; even the schedule-packed salaryman who spends day-in and day-out in the office.
With so many celebrations going on throughout the year, it brings about the question: which one is the ultimate one? Out of all of them, there’s bound to be one that holds the most significance, even if it is just by a fine margin.
True enough, there is one in the mix of matsuri that holds the title of the #1 annual event. No one in the country misses it for anything in the world. What is it, you ask? Read on to find out!
Events and Festivals in Japan
Did you know: there are more than 300,000 matsuri in Japan alone! You will never run out of entertainment and activities to do in the country. They come in all forms — everything from dance performances to traditional arts competitions, Japanese festivals covered them all!
These traditional festivals can vary depending on the area that they are being held in. You’ll get the Yosakoi Matsuri — a traditional dancing competition festival — in Kochi Prefecture and Yuki Matsuri — a regional snow festival — in the Hokkaido Prefecture.
What’s more, the matsuri costumes can be completely different from other areas depending on where it is being held. It’s like a representation of the region that they are from. If a matsuri is sponsored by a local shrine or temple and is organised by the local community, chances are there will be a group of people in local costumes carrying a mikoshi (神輿) — a sacred portable Shinto shrine that is believed to serve as transportation for a deity during a festival or when moving to a new shrine. The people also believe that this addition to the festival will bless the town and the people in it during the celebration.
The #1 Annual Event in Japan Is… Shogatsu (New Year)
You didn’t have to wait long for the big reveal, did you? Without a doubt, the #1 annual event in all of Japan is definitely Shogatsu (正月), which translates to the Japanese New Year. This annual festival is celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar, which means the Japanese new year falls on the same day as New Year’s Day — the first of January. This special time of the year is where families get together and spend quality time with each other, friends gather and have the time of their lives and the final memories for the year are made.
This significant celebration in Japan is nothing like the rest of the world, though; while the West focuses on welcoming the start of the new year and (maybe) short-lived resolutions, the Shogatsu is far more serious. The event doesn’t start just the day before and ends when the year adds on another digit — Shogatsu begins days before the end of the year and continues a few days after. There is also a strong emphasis on prosperity and blessing in the upcoming year.
Just like every other aspect of the country, the Japanese have their own unique traditions when it comes to the Shogatsu. That’s what makes Japan, well, Japan. The list of Shogatsu traditions can go on and on, but there are a couple of them that are more prominent than others.
For example, at the stroke of midnight, Buddhist temples all around the country ring their bells 108 times — this number is believed to be the estimated number of worldly sins and desires. On top of that, an abundance of traditional foods — particularly soba as a symbol of good health — are prepared to be feasted on and children are given money. The Emperor of Japan will also begin the New Year with a dawn prayer for the nation.
The day after New Year’s, on the 2nd of January, the public is allowed access to the inner palace grounds in Tokyo. This is a rare treat that is only granted twice a year; the only other day is on the Emperor’s Birthday celebration on the 23rd of December.
The Japanese celebrate Shogatsu very seriously — most businesses remain closed until at least the 3rd of January.
A couple of days later, on the 9th of January, is the Coming of Age Day celebration. Some do consider this as part of the Shogatsu celebration — very subjective, I believe.
Other Big Annual Events In Japan
Shogatsu definitely takes the #1 spot easily, but there are also a few other major events in Japan that are celebrated just as seriously. In the mix of over 300,000 matsuri, a few of the other ones stand out.
Curious as to what they are? Let’s take a look at what they are!
Oh, the great Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク). If I have to be honest, this is an event I look forward to every year! For about a week from the end of April to the 6th of May, Japan has four of the most important festivals taking place back to back! It starts off with Emperor Hirohito’s birthday on the 29th of April, then the Constitution Memorial Day on the 3rd of May, Greenery Day on the 4th of May and finally Children’s Day on the 5th of May — this whole stretch is known as the Golden Week!
There’s nothing busier than this week in Japan — the tourism industry booms every year during this time as people plan big vacations domestically as well as abroad. Hotels, flights, transport and attractions will be booked up and packed; prices are through the roof!
You may also find that some of the local businesses closed during this week as the locals take time off to visit their family in a different prefecture or also travel for leisure themselves as well!
Another annual event the Japanese strictly observe is Obon (お盆). Although it is technically not an official national holiday, it is a huge celebration that takes place throughout the country. It’s not always the same date each year as it follows the lunar calendar instead as well as varying from region to region — it can be on July 15th, August 15th or the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. One thing’s for sure is that it’s always in the summer.
Obon takes place over the course of three days to celebrate the spirits of the ancestors that return home to rest. There will be fires and lanterns that are lit in front of homes to guide the spirits on their journey. Many of the locals head back to their ancestral homes for this event.
This old traditional matsuri is a fun one — Setsubun (節分) kicks off the Haru Matsuri (春祭り) in Japan, around the 3rd or 4th February, and is basically a bean-throwing festival. It initially was intended to drive off evil spirits but now evolved into televised events that are hosted by national celebrities.
Taking place at shrines and temples on small stages all over the country, candy and money are also being thrown into the crowds for the lot of people rushing to catch these small treats. Setsubun can also be celebrated at home, with families throwing beans, in the same manner, to drive evil spirits away; one family member plays the bad guy and wears the demon mask while the others shout “get out!” and throw beans at them till they leave out the door — symbolising that the evil spirit is being slammed shut out the door.
With Shogatsu holding the #1 title and Golden Week, Obon and Setsubun as close runner-ups, Japan is definitely not short of significant annual events — especially when they have over 300,000 of them! Even if you’re planning a trip that’s not during the time of the mentioned ones above, you’re definitely going to be able to be part of at least one traditional matsuri on your trip. What better way to immerse in the local culture than a good ol’ Japanese festival?