In our second episode of Nihongo Master podcast, we looked at Japanese festivals — one for each season, introducing the background, practices, and traditions; and talking about some of the key festival language.
Japan’s festivals follow nature, an essential part of Japanese traditions. There’s always something going on every month – whether it’s a wild, dancing celebration, or a time of paying sombre respects.
Let’s have a look at what we covered in EP2 of NM podcast!
Summer Festival: Obon (お盆)
Image Credit: Julian
Obon (お盆) is a summer festival that takes place from August 13th to August 16th every year. This Japanese summer festival is all about family — reflecting on one’s family roots while welcoming back the ancestors’ spirits to the world of the living. Obon is a little like Halloween — plenty of old Japanese ghost stories are set during this time of year.
There are a total of 4 days of the festival:
The first day is the practice of mukaebi (迎え火), lighting welcoming fires on the doorstep to guide the returning spirits home on the first day of the festival. There’s also the custom of visiting family graves known as ohakamairi (お墓参り). Some families would also decorate the altars with offerings like flowers, fruits and sweets.
The second and third days are for kuyo (供養) — a tradition of holding a memorial service for the dead. Following that, families have a traditional lunch together called the shōjin ryōri (精進料理), a fully vegetarian cuisine developed in the temples of Japan.
The fourth and final day concludes the Obon festival with okuribi (送り火), a ceremonial bonfire to see off the spirits — takes place. Sometimes, there might even be bon-odori (盆踊り) dances to go along with it. You’ll also often see floating paper lanterns with messages attached to them by the river.
Autumn Festival: Tsukimi (月見)
For the autumn festival, we have tsukimi (月見): “moon viewing”. It’s a traditional ceremony to express gratitude as well as pray for a successful seasonal harvest. Some believe that this Japanese festival dates as far back as the Nara period of 710 to 794 AD. Initially, Tsukimi was a moon-viewing party for the aristocratic elite. Now, during this autumn festival, some people visit shrines and burn incense, as well as make food offerings of their harvest to Shinto gods.
Decorations are quite important for tsukimi, and the most common one is decorating a vase with susuki (ススキ, pampas grass) because it is believed to protect the area from evil and acts as an offering to the moon god.
While dango (団子, white dumplings) are often used for decoration as well it’s not only for that purpose — it’s custom to eat them during this festive season. There’s a special type of dango during tsukimi, and that’s tsukimi dango (月見団子).
If you’ve heard of the “Man on the Moon”, the Japanese’s tale is slightly different — they say the pattern of the moon’s craters look like an image of a rabbit pounding rice into mochi (もち) rice cake paste with a mallet. I told the full myth of it during the podcast — give it a listen if you’re interested!
Winter Festival: Shougatsu (正月)
Our winter festival is something we all celebrate our own various ways, but the Japanese call it shougatsu (正月), the Japanese New Year festival. The festivities start well before the first of January and run through January 7th or even January 15th for some regions! Most companies and businesses are usually closed from December 29th till January 4th.
The traditions of Shougatsu are a combination of expressing gratitude for the past year and wishes for health and prosperity for the upcoming year. Many people travel back to their hometowns to spend time with family and loved ones.
The most important practice of Shougatsu is hatsumode — it refers to the first shrine or temple visit of the year to pray for good luck. The prayer involves providing an offering — coins are tossed into offertory boxes. Then, visitors can draw a fortune paper.
On January 2nd, the Imperial Palace is opened to the public — one out of two days in the year — to pay respects to Japan’s royal household as well as to hear the Emperor addressing the crowd of well-wishers.
Spring Festival: Hanami (花見)
Last but not least, our final Japanese festival is the spring festival, hanami (花見), which translates to “flower viewing”. Instead of appreciating the moon, this spring matsuri is all about appreciating the blooming cherry blossoms.
It only became a huge festivity when Emperor Saga and the Imperial Court started throwing picnics and parties especially for flower-viewing in the Heian period. initially, sakura (桜) )were used to predict the harvest cycles for that year. Throughout time, it became to represent so much more — but I won’t spill it here; you’d have to listen to the podcast to know more!
Sakura season isn’t a set period of time every year — it constantly changes and also depends on the exact location in Japan. Hanami is a much-awaited festival, so much that there are forecasts for it — predictions for the blooming are covered on the national news!
The Japanese people set down their mats under the blooming sakura and chat the afternoon away while appreciating the beauty of the flowers.
In episode 2, we dropped quite a bit of vocab in it. I mean, we did go through 4 major traditional festivals, so it’s kind of a given. Here are the words we used, for listeners who’d want a visual list:
Matsuri (祭り) — festivals
Mukaebi (迎え火) — welcoming fire
Ohakamairi (お墓参り) — visiting family tombs to sweep and tidy them
kuyo (供養) — a ceremony to memorialise the deceased
Shōjin ryōri (精進料理) — traditional Japanese vegetarian cuisine
Okuribi (送り火) — the bonfire which sends the spirits back to the afterlife
Jūgoya (十五夜) — night of the full moon during tsukimi festival
Meigetsu (名月) — the harvest moon
Mugetsu (無月) — no moon during tsukimi
Ugestu (雨月) — rain moon during tsukimi
Dango (団子) — white rice cakes on skewers
Susuki (ススキ) — pampas grass
Ikebana (生け花) — the traditional style of Japanese flower arrangement used
Mochi (もち) — the delicious rice paste which the rabbit is mashing on the moon
Ganjitsu (元日) — new year’s day
Hatsumode (初モデ) — the important first shrine visit of the year
Omikuji (おみくじ) — the fortune-telling slips sold at temples
Oomisoka (大晦日) — the last day of the year
Toshigami (年神) — tradition of cleaning, redecorating and preparation of houses and meals for the arrival of the New Year Gods
Otoshidama (お年玉) — small money gifts for New Year’s
Osechi ryōri (御節料理) — traditional New Year meal
Ozouni (お雑煮) — traditional soup, part of osechi ryōri
Saisen (再選) — offering
Saisen bako (賽銭箱) — offering box
Nengajo (年賀状) — New Year greeting cards
Akemashite omedetougozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます) — Happy New Year
Sakura (桜) — the cherry blossom trees which this festival celebrates
Mankai (満開) — the full bloom period
Umeshu (梅酒) — deliciously sweet Japanese plum wine
Sakurasenzen (桜戦前) — cherry blossom front
Kaika (開花) — blooming of cherry blossoms
That concludes our summary of 4 seasonally-inspired, historically-rich, culturally-significant Japanese festivals which show the breadth of the culture here. They show how the Japanese respect nature, how they view life and death, and how close to their hearts they hold the age-old tradition of getting very, fantastically, stupendously drunk.
If you want to know exactly what I’m talking about, what are you waiting for? Pop on your phone, open up Spotify or Apple Podcast and search “Nihongo Master” to listen to our podcast series!