Christmas is just around the corner. Aren’t we all excited for this festive season? I know I am! In Japan, they too celebrate Christmas. Over the years, the country has adopted many foreign customs and traditions, and that included this Western holiday.
However, just like everything else, Japan adds their own twist to this tradition and makes it their own. Of course, you’ll still hear jingle bells and Christmas tunes all throughout the country, but there are just a few celebrations that are unique to Japan only. In this article, we’ll take a look at the top 5 ways Japan celebrates Christmas differently from the usual.
1. A Holiday for Lovers
Generally, Christmas is known as a Christian holiday. Most of the Western world goes all out for this time of the year. Well, so do the Japanese. However, it’s treated more like a secular celebration regardless of religion. In fact, there are only a few percent of Japanese people that consider themselves as Christian, and mostly consider themselves as Buddhist or Shinto.
On top of that, Christmas is usually celebrated as a family. Members of the family come together and gather regardless of where they are in the world to be together during this time of the year. However, in Japan, it’s more of a celebration for lovers. It’s quite rare that you celebrate this as a family, unless you have young kids and make a practice of celebrating it the Western way.
Usually, couples would plan romantic dates for the Christmas period, like a dinner at a fancy restaurant or strolling around festive areas in town with Christmas lights.
2. KFC Chicken Feast!
Yes, the rumours are true. During Christmas time, the Japanese go crazy for KFC fried chicken! Rather than feasting on glazed ham and roasted turkey, the most popular choice for Christmas lunch or dinner is a good ol ‘bucket of fried chicken from the fast food chain KFC!
In fact, the popularity is so ridiculous that some outlets take preorders months in advance and the dates get sold out so quickly! Last year, I had friends who made orders as early as October! It’s no joke here for the fight for KFC chicken. It’s the real deal!
But hey, if you’re not fast enough to snag a bucket of KFC fried chicken, there are tons of other stores and convenience stores that offer them during this time of the year. They’re not the same, but they’re close enough, I reckon.
3. Christmas Illuminations & Markets
Japan goes all out for this time of the year. I love being in Japan during this season. Everything’s so colourful and lively. And that’s all thanks to winter illuminations that start up as soon as Halloween is over. Japanese cities are lit up with twinkling eco-friendly LED lights. Tokyo is probably the most festive city in Japan during this season. You see trees decorated with these lights, all down the street.
Attraction sites have their own winter special illumination events, too. Flower parks and amusement parks have special decorations just for this season. Even shopping malls turn an ordinary trip to the mall into a magical fantasy experience.
Speaking of decorations, shopping for Christmas decorations and decorating the house is also a thing here. And where else can you get them other than Christmas markets? Of course, local supermarkets and convenience stores offer them too, but you get unique, authentic ones at these Christmas markets.
From the beginning of December, a lot of them pop up, especially in Tokyo. The most popular one is the German Christmas Market in Roppongi that always brings in thousands of visitors every year! Other parts of Japan have Christmas markets too, including the northern city Sapporo.
4. Special Christmas Cakes!
When we think of Christmas desserts, we think of gingerbread men, other types of cookies and also pie. Japan is number one when it comes to dessert, so you would think they would have them all.
Close. They have Christmas cakes! Cakes aren’t only enjoyed during your birthday. During Christmas, getting a special Christmas cake is a big tradition practiced here! They’re not the usual fruitcake that you would usually eat in European and American countries. Instead, the most popular kind of cake for this season is the sponge cake-based strawberry shortcake!
This love affair Japan has with cakes date back to 1922, when the confectionery manufacturer Fujiya started marketing cream-covered cakes with the tagline “kurisumasu ni keeki wo tabemashou!” (クリスマスにケーキを食べましょう) to mean “let’s eat cake on Christmas!”
Although, while the most popular choice of cake is the strawberry shortcake, I have heard from my Japanese friends that they also opt for chocolate cake nowadays. Maybe the trends have changed now, and any type of cake, as long as it’s marketed as a Christmas cake, will do?
5. Japanese Version of Santa
We’re all waiting for the main question: what about presents? Not to fret everyone, the concept of Santa Claus and practice gift-giving is still alive and well in Japan. Kids in Japan look forward to a visit from Santa and opening presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Couples also exchange gifts, and usually done on Christmas Eve instead.
Here’s a fun unique twist: Western tradition has Santa climbing down chimneys. This is pretty difficult to do in Japan when a lot of people don’t have one in their homes. So instead, Santa is seen as some kind of magical ghost with exciting treats!
However, as compared to Western countries, gift giving isn’t that significant. It plays a much smaller role. It may be because that Japan has their own gift-giving day known as “Oseibo” (お歳暮) at the end of the year. .
Have a Merry Japanese Christmas!
If you abide by these five fun facts of Japanese Christmas, you’re going to have one hell of a unique holiday! Whether or not you live in Japan, if you’d like to spice up your holiday, why not celebrate Christmas the Japanese way? Have a merry Japanese Christmas, everyone!
Holidays are just around the corner. Who’s excited? I know I am! But the holidays shouldn’t stop us from keeping up with our Japanese language learning journey. So instead, we should incorporate some holiday into it!
Do you know any Japanese words and phrases for the holiday celebrations? If not, you’ve come to the right place! Just like in English, there are certain words and phrases we use to wish people for the holidays and to describe the holiday season. It may not always be in the first few chapters of your Japanese textbook, but we’ve compiled the top 10 words and phrases you can use for this upcoming festive season!
Keep reading to find out!
1. Omedetou (おめでとう)
The first one has definitely got to be omedetou (おめでとう). You can say this for a lot of different things. It’s so versatile. This word actually translates to “congratulations”, but it’s also used in the Japanese way to say “happy new year”, and that’s “akemashite omedetou” (あけましておめでとう). It actually comes from the word “akeru” (開ける) to mean “to open”, so you’re kind of welcoming the opening of the new year.
You can also say “akeome” (あけおめ) with your friends. This is a casual and slangy way to say it.
You can also attach “omedetou” to other types of holidays like Hanukkah: Hanu-ka omedetou” (ハヌーカおめでとう). Or even Kwanzaa: “Kuwanza omedetou” (クワンザおめでとう).
2. Yoi Otoshi Wo (良いお年を)
One of my favourite phrases to say when the New Year approaches is “yoi otoshi wo” (良いお年を). This translates to “have a happy New Year” and it’s a very common phrase used by Japanese people.
Bear in mind that this phrase is used before the clock strikes midnight on January 1st. When you want to wish someone a happy new year after that, use the phrase before this.
3. Yasumi (休み)
The next basic Japanese word great for the holidays is yasumi (休み). That’s because this word translates to “holiday” or “off day”. You can say to someone to enjoy their holidays by saying “yasumi tanoshinde” (楽しんで). Although it’s perfect for the holiday celebrations, this word can also be used all year round to talk about days you’re not working or school holidays, too.
4. Mata rainen (また来年)
I find this next phrase pretty cute, because it’s a bit quirky and pretty similar to English. Usually, you’d say to someone “see you later”, but when it’s the new year period, I like to say “see you next year” as a quirky saying. I bet a lot of people do, too.
In Japanese, that’s “mata rainen” (また来年). “Mata” (また) actually means “again” but in colloquial Japanese, you can also just say “mata” to mean “later” or “see you”. “Mata ashita” (また明日) means “see you tomorrow”.
5. Kyuuka (休暇)
While we already have the word for holiday before, this is another basic Japanese word for “holiday”: “kyuuka” (休暇). This is a more formal version than “yasumi” but it’s often combined with other words like “Christmas holidays” or “summer holidays”.
“Christmas holidays” is “kurisumasu kyuuka” (クリスマス休暇) and “summer holiday” is “kaki kyuuka” (夏季休暇).
6. Tanoshinde (楽しんで)
This next basic Japanese phrase for the holidays is “tanoshinde” (楽しんで), which means “have fun”. You can attach this to another word to make sentences like “have a fun Christmas party”, or you can just say it on its own.
“Have a fun Christmas party” is “kurisumasu pa-ti wo tanoshinde!” (クリスマスパーティを楽しんで！) .
7. Oshougatsu (お正月)
The next basic Japanese word you should know for the holidays is “oshougatsu”, which translates to “Japanese New Year”. This is a more common word to describe the first of January, but there’s also another word: ganjitsu (元日). While both are acceptable to use, the first one is more popular.
8. Purezento (プレゼント)
If you’ve mastered your katakana, you already know what this word means: presents! Purezento (プレゼント) is the katakana form of the English word “present”, and what’s the holidays without a gift or two, am I right?
9. Meri Kurisumasu (メリークリスマス)
We have a few ways to talk about the holidays and New Years, but not so much on how to say “Merry Christmas”. It’s pretty simple, which is why I saved it for the last few. “Merry Christmas” is just the katakana form: meri kurisumasu (メリークリスマス).
10. Shinnen ga yoi toshi de arimasu you ni (新年が良い年でありますように)
This is a pretty long one, but also a good basic Japanese phrase to learn for the holidays. You’re wishing someone the best wishes for the next year. Kind of like the shorter phrase above “yoi otoshi wo”. However, this is a more formal and genuine wish.
You can also use parts of this phrase to say other things like “I hope you have a good day”. Just use the “de arimasu you ni” and attach it to another wish like “a good day”, which is “yoi hi” (良い日): “yoi hi de arimasu you ni” (良い日でありますように). Just attach this phrase to any good wish you want to give!
Have a happy holiday season!
And that wraps up the top 10 basic Japanese words and phrases for the holiday celebrations. I hope you learn them just in time for the festive season. They’re super easy and super useful. Try it out with your family and friends! Have a wonderful holiday season, everyone! よいお年を！
Every country has its own set of national holidays. Not every country will have the same one. Japan, just like every other aspect of the country, has its own unique set of Japanese holidays that are only heard and celebrated in the country.
Japanese holidays can range anywhere from the standard New Year’s Day and Children’s Day to the traditionally rooted ones like Coming of Age Day and Emperor’s Birthday. Discover all you need to know for each type of public holiday — including fun facts and origin — in this ultimate guide to Japanese holidays!
January: New Year’s Day
This is the only Japanese holiday that is in line with the rest of the world: New Year’s Day, also known as Ganjitsu (元日) in Japanese, starts off Shougatsu (正月, new year’s season) which is usually the first three days of the year. It is one of the most significant holidays of the whole year — unlike the western countries where people party in silly hats and popping confetti, the Japanese have their own way of celebrating New Year’s.
Most of the Japanese head over to a nearby shrine on the night of New Year’s Day to pray for the new year. Some wake up early in the morning to see the first sunrise of the year. There’s also a tradition of eating a special combination of food called osechi-ryouri (お節料理) which consists of sweet, sour and dried foods.
The Japanese also write handwritten letters to family and friends, wishing them a great new year. Children also receive money as a New Year’s gift — what a treat!
January: Coming of Age Day
Not too long after the first Japanese holiday is the Coming of Age Day (Seijin no Hi in Japanese, 成人の日). This falls usually on the second Monday of the month of January, and it celebrates those who have reached the age of adulthood in Japan: 20 years old.
These celebrations usually take place at local and prefectural offices where these young adults gather and make speeches. The women are usually wearing their full kimono called the “furisode” (振袖). Even though the men are supposed to be in their formal attire known as the “hakama” (袴), it’s more common to see them in western-style suits.
Of course, what’s a celebration of youth without a night out drinking — that’s exactly what these adults take part in afterward!
February: National Foundation Day
The National Foundation Day, known as the Kenkoku Kinen no Hi (建国記念の日) is celebrated on every 11th of February. This is the day where Emperor Jimmu supposedly came to the throne — it’s calculated as the first day of the month of the lunar calendar. The Japanese are extremely proud of this day as it reflects their patriotism.
February: The Emperor’s Birthday
In the past few years, the Emperor’s Birthday (Tennou Tanjoubi, 天皇誕生日) was celebrated on the 23rd of December. A new emperor has been crowned since, and now the Emperor’s Birthday is celebrated on the 23rd of February.
This is a special day for all the Japanese as it’s only one of two occasions the public can enter the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace. The Emperor as well as Empress along with the members of the imperial family wave hello to the crowds from the palace balcony.
March: Vernal Equinox Day
The Vernal Equinox Day — Shunbun no Hi (春分の日) in Japanese — is usually around the 19th of March to the 22nd of March. It initially was a Shintoist-related event but now it is celebrated as the Spring Equinox. This is when the number of daylight hours and night hours are the same.
This holiday signifies the official change of seasons from winter to spring, and the Japanese use this time to visit their loved ones’ graves, pay homage to their ancestors and clean their homes as a way to renew their own lives — kind of like spring cleaning. It’s a very family-focused holiday for the Japanese.
April: Showa Day
In April, the Japanese celebrate the birthday of Emperor Shouwa Hirohito who was the reigning emperor from 1926 to 1989. This Japanese holiday is called the Showa Day — Shouwa no Hi (昭和の日) in Japanese.
This holiday is the reflection of the turbulent years during the Showa Era where there were constant Japanese invasions of foreign countries, World War II and a few other political events that happened during the time.
Showa Day is also the start of Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク), a week-long holiday for the Japanese and also the busiest time of the year for travel in Japan. This week consists of back-to-back holidays starting with Showa Day and ending with Children’s Day.
May: Constitution Memorial Day
Part of the Golden Week holiday is the Constitution Memorial Day known as the Kenpou Kinenbi (憲法記念日). Falling on the 3rd of May each year, this holiday celebrates the new constitution after World War II that was created.
May: Greenery Day
Japan has a day to celebrate nature, the Greenery Day (Midori no Hi, 緑の日). Originally, this holiday was created to acknowledge Emperor Showa’s love for plants and nature without having his name in the official holiday title.
Now, it’s just another holiday that forms up the Golden Week holiday.
May: Children’s Day
Wrapping up the Golden Week holiday is Children’s Day (Kodomo no Hi, 子供の日) that falls on the 5th of May. On this day, you’ll be able to see tons of carp fish flags hung on poles at every home. Even though it’s called Children’s Day, this Japanese holiday is not only meant to celebrate the children but also the mothers and fathers.
The flags are meant to represent each family” black carp at the top represents the father, red carp represents the mother and any carp below are for the children.
July: Marine Day
Just like how there’s Greenery Day to celebrate nature, there’s Marine Day to celebrate the ocean. Umi no Hi (海の日) is a huge celebration for the Japanese — Japan is an island nation that’s surrounded by the ocean, after all.
This holiday comes at the end of the rainy season, so a lot of Japanese families will take advantage of the summer sun to go out and enjoy a day at the beach.
July: Sports Day
Taiiku no Hi (体育の日) was usually celebrated in October and was called “Health-Sports Day”, but from 2020 onwards, it shortened to just “Sports Day” and will be held in July instead.
The original reason for the holiday was to commemorate the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo as well as encourage sports and active lifestyle. The change of date is because of the Tokyo Olympics 2020 that was supposed to be held in July 2020.
On this day, schools often hold their annual sports events called the Undoukai (運動会) where there will be regional games of every sports — from track and field to tug of war. It’s an entire day of festivities surrounding any and all sports!
August: Mountain Day
The Japanese have the Greenery Day and the Marine Day — of course, let’s not forget about the mountains. Yama no Hi (山の日) is Mountain Day that, as it suggests, celebrates the mountains and the blessings they bring. It falls in early August, depending on the year.
September: Respect for the Aged Day
If they have Children’s Day that celebrates the young, why not celebrate the old as well? Keirou no Hi (敬老の日) is also known as Respect for the Aged Day. This Japanese holiday always falls on the third Monday of the month of September, and represents the deep respect the people of Japan have for their elderlies.
September: Autumnal Equinox Day
Just like how Vernal Equinox Day signifies the change of winter to spring, Autumnal Equinox Day (Shuubun no Hi, 秋分の日) signifies the change of summer to autumn. This holiday falls two days after the Respect for the Aged Day.
In some lucky years, these holidays can make up a 5-day long weekend holiday — sounds familiar, right? When this happens, it’ll be known as a Silver Week (シルバーウィーク), and just like Golden Week, travel prices will skyrocket through the roof!
November: Culture Day
Bunka no Hi (文化の日) is a day to promote culture and academics. Culture Day provides the opportunity for creative minds out there to present their works at art exhibitions as well as win awards and scholarships. This Japanese holiday falls on the 3rd of November every year.
November: Labour Thanksgiving Day
Labour Thanksgiving Day, known as Kinrou Kansha no Hi (勤労感謝の日) falls on the 23rd of November and it’s a day dedicated to giving thanks to one another — much like the Western thanksgiving.
The origin of this holiday dates back centuries ago when it used to be an ancient harvest festival — the Emperor would dedicate the year’s harvest to the gods.
The Japanese are all about appreciation and respect — it shows, big time, in their types of national holidays. From dedicating days to acknowledge nature, ocean, and mountains to the ones that highlight the values of young and old alike, there’s nothing quite like the Japanese holidays.
Nara is one of the top cities to visit when travelling to Japan. A simple Google search is enough proof of that. This city is even older than its neighbour counterpart, Kyoto, which is the country’s ancient capital city. You already can guess the historical value of this city.
Nara is rather small. You can explore the entire city centre on foot, discovering temple after temple, shrine after shrine. That makes the city a perfect day trip if you’re staying in Osaka. From local eateries to roaming friendly animals, it’s a city you definitely want to include in your Japan itinerary. Here are some activities you’d want to consider when planning your Nara itinerary.
1. Say hi to the deers in Nara Park
You can’t visit Nara and not say hi to the friendly and adorable deers at Nara Park. It’s like a rite of passage to the Nara experience. There are more than 1,500 wild deers roaming around the city. The locals see them as natural treasures, and rightly so. There are tons of stalls that sell deer crackers for you to feed these cute animals.
Here’s something you should try: bow to a deer before feeding them. They might just bow back! Stay alert, though. These deers are mostly friendly, but they do have their days. Never run away from them. Just be stern and show your hands with no food in them to the deers.
2. Explore Kasugayama Primeval Forest
If you’re a big fan of nature, you might want to pop by Kasugayama Primeval Forest. It’s not far from Nara Park at all. There’s a “forest bathing” experience that you can sign up for. In the duration of three to four hours, you’ll be guided through the woods with a qualified guide. Lay down on the carpet-like, soft moss and observe the forest insects as the guide explains them all to you. There are benefits to this forest bathing experience, and you have to go through this once-in-a-lifetime experience to know what they are.
3. Visit Kasuga-Taisha Shrine
While at Nara, you have to stop by Kasuga-Taisha Shrine. This is one of the biggest sightseeing attractions in the city. The story is that the deity enshrined there, called Takemi Kajichi no Mikono, rode a mystical white deer to this city from Ibaraki prefecture. This legend is the reason why deers are so dearly protected. At this shrine, you definitely can’t miss the rows of bronze lanterns that decorate the grounds. Worshippers donated them over the years. If you have time, pop by the museum there as well.
4. Stay in a temple
One of the most authentic experiences you can have in Japan is staying in a temple. You can do that in Nara. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is definitely not to be missed, regardless of whether you’re a religious person or not. The most popular temples to stay at are Gyukuzoin Temple and Koyasan. You’ll be able to stay in a tatami-style room with futons and sliding doors. Your stay will include a Japanese-style dinner, too. Wake yourself up in the morning to join the morning prayers and ceremonies that they have every day.
5. Go on a shopping spree in Higashimuki
Cities in Japan always has their own shopping street. Nara is no different. Shopaholics, you’ll be glad to know that Nara’s Higashimuki Shopping Street will satisfy your shopping cravings. It’s like the city’s very own Takeshita Street of Tokyo! You’ll never see this area empty. It’s always full of energy. The best part about going to these shopping streets in Japanese cities is that you might be able to find goods that are exclusive to the city. Everything from basic souvenirs to handmade crafts is there for your choosing.
6. Wander Naramachi streets
Nothing beats a good wander. Japan’s perfect for that. Nara is a former merchant district. That explains the exquisite buildings. Take a stroll without checking Google Maps every five minutes and let yourself get lost. The streets of Nara still hold the charm of the old days. You’ll feel like you’ve travelled back in time.
Alternatively, you can go on a guided tour by one of the locals. If you see a man standing next to a rickshaw, approach him. He’ll pull you down the streets while giving you some explanation along the way. Grab this photo opportunity!
7. Slide Down Buddha’s Nostrils at Todaiji Temple
What’s a sightseeing trip in Japan without a visit to a temple? The Todaiji Temple is the home to a few record-winning structures. The buildings themselves have been burned down twice, but the one we see today was rebuilt during the Edo Era. This temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is also the headquarters of Kegon School of Buddhism.
At this temple, there’s the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world. It’s of Vairocana Buddha, the Buddha of Light. It’s said that if you slither through the nostrils of this 14.8 meters tall statue, you’ll be granted a life full of happiness.
8. Explore Dorogawa Onsen
Who wants a bit of adventure? Not too far from the city centre of Nara is Dorogawara Onsen, a hot springs town with a peaceful ambiance. Exploring the area can take up a day or even two, but you wouldn’t want to miss the lantern-decorated streets and nature.
Nearby, you can hike to the suspension bridge which is one of the largest in all of the country. It crosses Mitarai Valley. The view is breathtaking. Whether it’s a summer outdoor adventure or a winter soak in a hot springs bath, Dorogawa Onsen town is a must-visit.
9. Stroll Around Isui-en Garden
Before you stop by Todaiji Temple, stroll through the conveniently located Isui-en Garden. This spacious and peaceful gardens is one of the highlights of the entire Kansai region. There are various types of flowers blooming all year round. Ponds and pathways run throughout the grounds.
10. Try the Asuka Nabe
The Japanese travel around the island nation for food. Nara is famous for its asuka nabe dish. This is similar to hot put, but with an abundance amount of chicken or any meat of your choosing! This kind of dish is usually eaten during winter, but don’t let that stop you if you’re visiting during other times of the year.
The historical status is pretty clear in Nara. You can feel it in the air. With so many things to do and places to see, a day-trip might be too short to explore this beautiful city. Take that into consideration when planning your Japan trip!
Just like with Halloween, Christmas isn’t celebrated in nearly the same way as it is in the western hemisphere. As you might already know, Christianity never really took hold in Japan so very few members of Japan’s population identify as Christian making this holiday more of a secular, unofficial event. In fact, people don’t even get the day off which means it’s not uncommon to see holiday traffic jams in Tokyo as people attempt to get to work that day.
Also like Halloween, this isn’t really a holiday for children. While it’s common for families to exchange gifts on the day, the real people that businesses target on this day are couples in love. This is a holiday where men and women will shell out big bucks for special holiday dinners at fancy restaurants along with extravagant presents to prove how much they love the person they are with. As noted in my Halloween article, Christmas is the holiday that Japanese people will collectively spend the most money on annually.
What if you don’t feel like having a special dinner out with your beloved though? Well, in that case, you’ll be making your way to the top pick for traditional Japanese Christmas food… KFC. What? Not what you were expecting? That’s alright, most people outside Japan are confused the first time that they hear this tidbit of information about Japan but the story of how this came to be is actually quite interesting if not a little vague.
There are actually a couple of different stories going around about how the tradition of fried chicken on Christmas became the norm. In one story, the manager of the first KFC in Japan, Takeshi Okawara, overheard a couple of ex-pats in 1970 talking about how they wished they could find turkey to eat on Christmas in Japan which led to him having a dream about selling a ‘party bucket’ on Christmas as a substitute. Another story is that a Christian school in Japan ordered KFC for their Christmas party and asked the manager if he would dress up as Santa Claus for the kids, a request that was obliged, and led to more Christian schools ordering chicken for their parties.
Regardless of which story is the actual truth, in 1974 KFC saw a chance to seize the market and launched a brilliant nationwide ad campaign called Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii (Kentucky for Christmas) and wow, did it work! Now, it’s become an annual tradition for KFC to advertise their special holiday packages in the last part of the year.
Ever since that fateful year, KFC and Christmas in Japan have become synonymous with each other. These days people will reserve their party buckets (which now come complete with sides, Christmas cake, and champagne) weeks in advance and those who forget will stand in line for hours to get their traditional holiday meal of fried chicken.
While this might seem unthinkable in other parts of the world, it just goes to show that Japan, in many ways, is unlike any other.
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?
Here at Nihongo Master, we loooove talking about Japanese holidays! While some holidays Japan adopted from the West (like Christmas and Valentine’s Day), every country also has holidays that are only celebrated by them. Golden Week in Japan ゴールデンウィーク (gōruden wīku) is not just one holiday, but FOUR holidays that align each year to provide a week of vacation for everyone! Hooray! Golden week is the third busiest travel season in Japan, after New Year and Obon. (more…)
Thanksgiving Day is one of the most popular holidays in America that comes in the last week of November each year. Families travel all across the country to be with their loved ones and enjoy an epic feast. But do other countries celebrate this holiday?
Halloween is almost upon us, but what exactly does that mean in Japan? Though Halloween is a decidedly American holiday more and more countries around the world are beginning to celebrate it in their own ways, and Japan is no exception. While it’s still not the national festival-for-all-ages that it is in America, you can find your share of parades, costume parties, and events.
Halloween in Japan first gained popularity when Tokyo Disneyland started holding Halloween events in the late 90s. Those events have continued ever since and have expanded across the whole country.
SO what exactly do they do for Halloween in Japan? (more…)
This week marked a relatively rare phenomenon: Silver Week in Japan. Silver week (シルバーウィーク, Shirubā Wīku) occurs every few years when several holidays happen to align, giving the Japanese a chance for a whole week of vacation. This week was the first Silver Week since 2009 and the next one won’t occur until 2026!
The holidays are:
Respect for the Aged Day (敬老の日, Keirō no Hi)
– The third Monday of September (September 21, 2015)
Autumnal Equinox Day (秋分の日, Shūbun no Hi)
– September 23rd, 2015
Kokumin no kyujitsu (国民の休日)
– Any day that falls between two holidays
Because Monday was 敬老の日 and Wednesday was 秋分の日 that means Tuesday was 国民の休日! In Japan you never have to go to work if two holidays are only separated by a single day. This means you could take a vacation from the 19th to the 23rd! I don’t know about you, but I think more countries should implement this as a national policy.
So let’s talk about the two holidays that brought on this special silver week.
Respect for the Aged Day, or 敬老の日
Is exactly what it sounds like. It is a holiday to pay honor to elderly Japanese men and women around the country and celebrate their lives. Many neighborhoods will hold small festivals and performances to entertain the elderly and 弁当 (bento) are often distributed to show thanks.
Autumnal Equinox Day
Is also an important holiday in Japan. The period surrounding the spring and fall equinoxes is known as 彼岸 (higan). There is a saying in Japan, 暑さ寒さも彼岸まで (Atsusa samusa mo higan made) or “The heat and cold end with higan.” Higan technically begins three days before the equinox and ends three days after. It marks not only the changing of the seasons from summer to fall (or winter to spring in March, known as 春分の日 (Shunbun no hi)) but also a time to pay respect to the deceased. On this holiday you may travel with your family to visit the graves of ancestors who have passed. When you visit the grave you can bring offerings such as flowers and food and make sure the tombstone is clean. But don’t be too sad, higan is a time to celebrate the passing of your ancestors to nirvana, not to mourn their passing from this world.
With both higan and 敬老の日 falling this week, many Japanese had the chance to take a vacation. Many probably spent this time with their families, but surely some took the opportunity to travel abroad or visit a new place in Japan they’ve never been.
If you were in Japan for Silver Week, how did you spend your holiday?