Holidays in Japan
Despite ongoing urbanization and social change, Japanese society retains small, close-knit communities that rely on Shinto gods to help produce the good crops needed to survive. Forget for a moment karaoke, super high-speed trains and cell phones. With such deep respect for rituals and traditions, Japanese matsuri (festivals) are much more than just fun for the community. For many, they are part of life. Every day there is at least one holiday somewhere in the country.
Each region has its own festivals or variations of major national holidays. Most honor either Shinto gods and shrines or large Buddhist temples. Buddhist festivals are usually local in nature and often focus on some significant depiction of Buddha, perhaps presented to the public only on the occasion of the holiday. The real action unfolds during Shinto festivals. Some are strict purification ceremonies with traditional music, chanting, dancing, often with fire. In contrast are the crowded and almost violent processions of thousands of shrieking and sweating men carrying huge portable shrines through the streets to some symbolic destination. The intensity of religious feelings and emotions in general is such that there are outbreaks of real violence. One has to see it to believe it. In such circumstances, the flip side of the famous Japanese restraint is revealed.
The holidays are a time when outwardly modern Japan demonstrates its former self; they are a means of maintaining ancient traditions, especially in remote rural areas. The holidays usually have an important commercial component of their own. Some rural communities create small but colorful festivals for themselves in order to foster a sense of community and stimulate the local economy by attracting much-needed tourists from their fellow countrymen.
Some of the festivals are so picturesque that it’s worth timing your visit to the country to coincide with them. When planning your trip, be sure to ask the nearest branch of the Japan National Tourist Office (JNTO) for relevant information. Keep in mind that many holidays are based on the lunar calendar, so the specific dates vary from year to year. There are thousands of festivals and ceremonies each year, and it is impossible to describe them all. Instead, we offer a small monthly compilation. Further study when planning a trip will certainly reveal a few valuable nuggets.
New Year’s Eve in Japan is a major holiday close in spirit to Christmas in the West, a time when relatives and friends visit each other and visit local shrines. New Year’s Eve is a more solemn period than in the West. Japanese people rush to shrines to pray for good fortune in the coming year, although in recent years modern activities have become more common in urbanized areas. People decorate homes, stores, offices and even cars with pine branches and bamboo stems, symbols of unfading stability and dignified behavior.
On January 2, Tokyo opens the interior of the Imperial Palace to the public, and thousands of people come to pay their respects to the monarch and see the palace up close, which is impossible during the rest of the year.
On January 15, quiet pyromaniacs go straight to Naru for the Wakakusayama Yamayaki (grass burning) ceremony, in which people dressed as warrior monks set fire to the slope of Mount Wakakusa after sunset. It is one of the most spectacular events of the year, visible from miles away.
Grass Burning Ceremony
The second Monday of January is celebrated across the country as the Day of Adulthood, a milestone moment for those who turn 20 and officially enter adulthood from then on. Young people take part in special ceremonies at local assembly halls and girls wear extravagantly fur-trimmed kimonos, which are only worn on this special day.
On February 3 and 4, the important festival of setsubun marks the end of winter throughout the country. Priests wearing intimidating masks present demons, and those present throw beans at them, chasing them away with shouts of “Demons, go away, happiness, come!” February 3 is also one of the two days of the year when 3,000 lanterns are lit at the Great Sanctuary of Kasuga in Nara (repeated on August 14-15). In the north, Sapporo hosts the internationally popular Snow Festival (on the first or second week of the month). The festival culminates in an ice sculpture competition in Odori Park, where huge, elaborate castles, towers, and giant characters from ancient and modern times grow. All over Japan, children living in snowy areas await the arrival of the Kamakura Festival, when they begin building igloo-type houses out of snow.
On March 3, the Hina Doll Festival takes place. Exquisitely crafted dolls in ancient costumes representing the imperial couple and other aristocrats are on display for all to see for good luck. Some shrines display thousands of dolls brought by worshippers. Another annual celebration is the two-week celebration of O-Mizu-tori at Nigatsu-do Temple (one of the smaller Todaiji temples) in Nara. Although the central event is a solemn and highly symbolic water-drawing ceremony, crowds of people come to the temple for the more open and colorful fire rituals. Every evening from the 1st to the 14th, a clearly intended public amusement ritual takes place, in which temple servants with long torches of cedar twigs blazing at both ends run along the edge of the veranda, deliberately showering the crowd gathered below with sheaves of sparks (people believe that sparks will bring good luck in the new year and burn away the sins of the past year).
Another striking sight in March is the annual fertility festival held at Tagata-jinja Shrine in Aichi Prefecture north of Nagoya. The marvelous shrine honors a thing for which no boundaries or cultural barriers exist: the male penis. The phalluses, huge and modest, wooden and stone, are kept and honored here. Every year on March 15, the biggest piece of Japanese cedar, which is 2 m long and weighs 270 kg, is carried slowly through the town looking out of its portable shrine. Even seeing it with your own eyes, it’s hard to believe your eyes.
On April 8, Buddha’s birthday is celebrated throughout Japan with flower festivals. The best place to see spring azaleas is the Azalea Festival, held during the last week of the month at Nezu Shrine in Tokyo. In the Kansai region, peony lovers head to Hasedera Shrine near Nara. April is also cherry blossom time, with specially timed picnics (hanami) in parks and temples throughout Japan as the blossom front moves northward. On April 14 and 15, Takayama City in Gifu Prefecture hosts one of the country’s largest parades of large, lushly decorated platforms.
The end of April and beginning of May are “Golden Week”. This is the unofficial name given to a succession of three major national holidays (Green Day, Constitution Day, and Children’s Day). Since this is the only period when many Japanese have a vacation, it is the worst time to visit the country. Hotel accommodations, train tickets, and even airplane tickets are booked months in advance of the coveted vacation. Although the former Boys’ Day was politically correct and officially renamed Children’s Day, in reality it will take some time to rearrange. The main hallmark of the holiday remains the giant carp-shaped pennants fluttering on poles. The ability of these fish to move upstream in turbulent streams is perceived as a pattern of behavior for boys. On May 15, Kyoto hosts the Shtokroz Festival (Aoi Matsuri). The ancient ritual is intended to ensure a good harvest; the Japanese believe that the stems of this plant can ward off thunderstorms and earthquakes. A huge red wagon pulled by an ox and escorted from the imperial palace of Goto by 300 Kyoto residents dressed in costumes from the Heian period is decorated with stocks.
Beginning in June, the ukai celebrates the centuries-old practice of using cormorants to catch the popular river fish aiyu. The animal rights movement is not yet strong enough in Japan, and cormorants still have their necks tied so that they cannot swallow fish they have caught under water. The owner takes away the catch as soon as the unfortunate bird appears on the surface. Various events organized throughout the country are usually ceremonial in nature, and the processions are lit with flaming torches.
Kyoto’s Gion Festival (officially an entire month, but culminating on the 17th) is famous for its most lavish procession of the year, featuring giant platforms and the lighting of lanterns. Originally, the festival was meant to help people secure the favor of the gods during the plague in medieval Kyoto. Nowadays, highly commercialized imitations of the festival are organized all over the country. On July 24 and 25, Osaka hosts the grand, glittering Tenjin Matsuri festival, with Temmangu Shrine as the starting point. Fireworks, flaming torches, and colorfully decorated barges on the Okawa River are integral elements of the festival.
O-Bon Festival. Lanterns go to sea on ships that are supposed to bring the souls of the dead back to the other world.
At the height of the summer heat and sweltering heat, in July and August, there is O-bon, a colorful and life-affirming nationwide Buddhist festival honoring the spirits of departed ancestors. People travel around the country tidying up family gravesites. In Nagasaki in mid-August, cemeteries are illuminated by the light of lanterns, and other lanterns are sent out to sea on ships that are supposed to return the souls of the dead to the other world. Like Golden Week in April through May, this is the worst time to come to Japan, unless you are embarrassed by the prospect of claiming a seat on the train and a hotel bed along with millions of other people every time. Many of the country’s highways turn into one big traffic jam. On August 14 and 15, you can watch the second lighting of thousands of lanterns of the year at the Great Sanctuary of Kasuga in Nara.
The second half of October is a time for admiring chrysanthemums, with flower arrangements scattered throughout the country’s cities.
On the 15th, Shichi-Go-San (“seven-five-three”), a ceremony for five-year-old boys and three- and seven-year-old girls, is held. Children dressed in kimono or their best Sunday attire are led to the shrines.
December 14 is the time of Gishi Sai, a memorial service for the 47 ronin who, on this day in 1703, avenged the death of their master and later committed ritual suicide. The samurai are buried at Senga-kuji, where the service is held. At midnight on December 31, bells begin ringing in temples across the country. The bells are rung 108 times for the number of human passions.
For more information on these and other major annual holidays celebrated in Japan, visit the JNTO website at www.jnto.go.jp.
On the holidays listed below, banks and offices are closed, but stores and restaurants are open as usual. The exception is during the New Year’s holiday period, from December 30 to January 3, when almost everything is closed. The same applies to the unofficial holiday period in mid-August, known as obon. Plan your arrival time so as to avoid these days. Also note that if the holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday will be a holiday.
- January 1 – New Year
- 2nd Monday of January – Majority Day
- February 11 – Establishment Day March 20/21 – Vernal Equinox Day April 29 – Green Day
- May 3 – Constitution Day
- May 4 – Intermediate Day, Green Day
- May 5 – Children’s Day
- 3rd Monday of July – Sailors’ Day
- 3rd Monday in September – Senior Citizens’ Day
- 23 or 24 September – Autumn Equinox Day
- 2nd Monday of October – Health and Sports Day
- November 3rd – Culture Day
- November 23 – Labor Appreciation Day
- December 23rd – Birthday of Emperor Akihito.
If you plan to visit Japan on New Year’s Day, during Golden Week (April 29 – May 5 with the weekends overlapping) or during the school vacations (March – April, July – August), make your reservations well in advance, because hotels will be full, and public transport will be more crowded than usual. However, these periods of the year are the ideal time to visit Tokyo, which is relatively empty. True, this does not apply to New Year’s Eve, when thousands of provincials flock to the gardens of the Imperial Palace.
Japanese national holidays and festivals
In this article you will find Japanese national holidays and some of the most important annual national events. In addition, annual festivals are listed here.
As with us, if a national holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is also considered a holiday. Likewise, a day that falls between two national holidays becomes a holiday.
Stores, restaurants, and tourist attractions in Japanare usually open on national holidays other than New Year’s Day.
Japan holidays in January
January 1st (national holiday) – New Year (shogatsu) . It is the most important holiday in Japan. Although only January 1 is designated as a national holiday, many businesses remain closed until January 3.
The second Monday of January (national holiday) is Japan’s Majority Day (seijin no hi) . This holiday is dedicated to those Japanese men and women who have recently entered adulthood (who turned 20 years old) and became full-fledged members of society.
Japan holidays in February
February 3rd – The Beginning of Spring (Setsubun) . Setsubun is not a national holiday, but is celebrated in temples throughout the country.
February 11 (national holiday) is. Foundation Day (kenkoku kinenbi) . According to the oldest Japanese chronicles, on this day in 660 BC the first Japanese emperor was crowned.
February 14 is Valentine’s Day. In Japan, women give chocolate to men on Valentine’s Day. It is not a national holiday, but borrowed from Western countries.
Japan holidays in March
March 3 is the Festival of Girls or the Festival of Dolls (hina matsuri) . On this day, families with girls wish their daughters a good and happy life. The dolls are displayed in a prominent place in the house along with peach blossoms.
March 14 – White Day . The opposite of Valentine’s Day: men give cakes or chocolates to women. It is not a national holiday.
March 20 or 21 (national holiday) – Day of the vernal equinox (shunbun no hi) . During the week (ohigan – 3 days before and 3 days after the day of the vernal equinox) it is customary to visit the graves of deceased relatives.
Japan holidays in April
April 29 – May 5 – Golden Week . Along with New Year’s Day and Obon, Golden Week is one of the major holidays in Japan because it includes four holidays during the week (Shōwa Day, Constitution Day, Green Day, Children’s Day).
April 29 (national holiday) is Shōwa Day (Showa no hi) . The birthday of the previous Emperor Shōwa, who passed away in 1989. Until 2007, April 29 was known as Green Day (now celebrated on May 4). Shōwa Day is part of Golden Week.
Japan’s May Holidays
May 3 (national holiday) is Constitution Day (kenpo kinenbi) . National holiday, marks the anniversary of the new constitution that was adopted after World War II on May 3, 1947.
May 4 (national holiday) – Green Day (Nature’s Spring Awakening Day) (midori no hi) . Until 2006, Green Day was celebrated on April 29, Emperor Seva’s birthday, because of the emperor’s love of plants and nature.
May 5 (national holiday) – Boys’ Day or Children’s Day (kodomo no hi) .
May 13 – Mother’s Day . On this day, many children buy flowers for their mother. According to Japanese meanings of flowers, red carnations are considered the best gift for mothers. In schools all over Japan, children draw pictures of their mother on this day.
Japan’s June Holidays
There are no holidays in June in Japan because it is the rainy season and the wedding season.
Japan Holidays in July
July 7 – Star Festival (Tanabata) . Tanabata is a traditional Japanese holiday, not a national holiday.
The third Monday of July (national holiday) is Sea Day (umi no hi) . A recently introduced national holiday. This day commemorates Emperor Meiji’s return from a boat trip to Hokkaido in 1876.
Japan holidays in August
August 11 (national holiday) is Mountain Day (yama no hi) . Introduced in 2016, this national holiday is dedicated to mountains.
August 13-15 – Obon . This is a Buddhist event commemorating the dead ancestors.
Japan’s Holidays in September
The third Monday of September (national holiday) is Elderly People’s Day (keiro no hi) . On this national holiday it is customary to show respect for the elderly and longevity. The holiday was established in 1966.
September 23 (national holiday) – Day of the Autumn Equinox (shubun-no-hi) . During the week (ohigan) it is customary to visit the graves of deceased relatives.
Japan Holidays in October
The second Monday in October (a national holiday) is Health and Sports Day (taiiku no hi) . On that day in 1964 opened the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
October 31 is Halloween . In recent years, the popularity of Halloween in Japan has increased dramatically. In Tokyo, an unofficial gathering of people in costume takes place in the Shibuya district.
Japan holidays in November
November 3 (national holiday) is Culture Day (bunka no hi) . A day to promote culture and love for freedom and peace. On Culture Day, schools and other government agencies award select individuals for their special cultural achievements.
November 15 – Seven-five-three (shichi-go-san) . This is a holiday for girls aged three and seven and for boys aged three and five. On this day, children dressed in special kimonos go with their parents to the temple, where they pray for their good health.
November 23 (national holiday) – Labor Thanksgiving Day (kinro kansha no hi) . A national holiday honoring labor.
Japan holidays in December
December 23 (national holiday) – Birthday of the Emperor (tenno no tanjobi) . The birthday of the current Emperor Akihito is a national holiday. When the emperor changes, the national holiday will change to the new emperor’s birthday.
December 24-25 is Christmas . Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, but shopping malls and streets are decorated the week before Christmas. Many Japanese follow Christmas traditions such as Christmas cake and Christmas dinner.
December 31 is New Year’s Eve (omisoka) . It is not a national holiday.