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?
New Year in Japan (正月Shōgatsu) is by far the most important holiday in Japan. Let’s learn Japanese Shōgatsu traditions. The beginning of a new year symbolizes a fresh start and the ability to leave everything behind. This is sometimes celebrated with a Bonenkai (忘年会) party in December to “forget the year,” and put the troubles from the past year behind you. While they are fun parties with lots of drinking, they are not part of the official Shōgatsu celebration, which lasts from the 31st of December until the 2nd or 3rd of January. As New Year in Japan is such an important holiday, there is a lot of preparation to be done leading up to it.
Christmas is a magical time of year for many people around the world. It is a time for family, a time for giving, and a time for lots and lots of delicious food. But how are Japanese Christmas traditions different from Western ones? Does Japan even have Christmas traditions? Well, despite only 1% of Japan’s population being Christian, the Japanese have fully embraced the Christmas season. From decorating the house, getting a Christmas tree, and even sending cards and gifts, Christmas in Japan looks very similar to a Western Christmas. Let’s learn Japanese Christmas traditions!