For a country with a reputation for hard work and no play Japan certainly has a lot of holidays and festivals dotted throughout the calendar. From New Year and Setsubun to Golden Week and Obon Japan’s holidays are varied and quite good fun and nearly always associated with delicious seasonal goodies.
New Year in Japan is almost the opposite of Western celebrations. No fireworks, street events or wild house parties. It’s a quiet and faintly somber affair with most people attending local temples and and shrines to pray and to see what their fortune will be for the year ahead. Others stay at home and eat food like ozoni (rice cake in a tasty broth) and snacks and drink copious amounts of sake and shochu whilst watching Kohaku (a team based singing contest) or martial arts on TV. New Year’s day includes eating osechi and watching the annual ekiden marathon race on TV and for the more intrepid a trip to the New Year sales to buy pointless and absurd lucky bags.
COMING OF AGE DAY
Japan’s dwindling younger generation have something to celebrate on January 12th. It’s the day 20 year olds officially become adults. It involves girls dressing in kimonos and boys in suits or traditional hakama. The youngsters attend their local city event for a boring speech then proceed to tear up and down the local towns of the country getting absolutely shitfaced with the odd inevitable fracas. Okinawan boys tend to end up in crazy fights with local cops and it usually ends up on the nightly news bulletins.
February 3rd marks the beginning of spring. The word literally means "the splitting of the seasons". People throw beans at someone wearing a mask which represents a demon and chant 'Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi' or 'Out with the demons, in with good luck!' Often minor celebrities visit major shrines to throw out beans and other sweets to large crowds.
Hey, why have one Valentine’s day when you can have two? The Japanese love Valentine’s day so much they invented a second day named White day on March 14th. Valentine’s day is a day for women to give men chocolates and go on romantic dates. White day is for men to reciprocate but always feels like a bit of an anti-climax. Many working women dislike Valentine’s day as they are often required to buy giri-choco or obligation chocolates for male colleagues who sometimes don’t even bother reciprocating the gesture in March.
The focal point for the Hina Matsuri or Doll Festival (March 3rd) is a display of dolls representing the emperor, empress and their court in formal dress. Most homes with young girls will have a glass display from simple dolls and handmade cards to elaborate setups costing an arm and a leg. Families generally start to display the dolls in February and take them down immediately after the festival. Superstition says that leaving the dolls past March 4 will result in a late or no marriage for the household’s daughter. Food includes chirashizushi and hishimochi.
It’s basically the male equivalent of hina matsuri. It’s held on May 5th and consists of Warrior dolls with samurai armor being displayed inside and koinobori or carp streamers being displayed outside residences with boys (the carp is considered a symbol of virility and success).
A collection of national holidays grouped together to give residents a little bit of respite before the hot, humid and grueling summer. Usually around late April/early May Golden Week is rarely a full week but most people either jet off to somewhere nice or stay local and put up their feet. Popular places for Tokyoites are nearby Karuizawa, Kamakura and Yokohama. There are also many events on including baseball games and club nights for the more adventurous.
Obon is a Buddhist event for the commemoration of ancestors. It is believed that each year during obon, the ancestors' spirits return in order to visit their relatives. Traditionally lanterns are hung in front of houses to guide the ancestors' spirits, obon dances (bon odori) are performed, graves are visited and food offerings are made at house altars and temples. It’s in the middle of August - Japan’s hottest month - so it can be a tough time of year as temperatures often rise to the late 30s celsius and occasionally early 40s. Most folk either go on summer vacation or visit their hometowns to pay respect to the dead.
Until recently Halloween was never celebrated in Japan. However companies eager to earn a quick buck including confectionary firms and costume companies began pushing the holiday to the public a few years ago and it’s rapidly turned into big business. It seems to be, however, very much centered in Tokyo with open air costume parties held in Shibuya and Roppongi with bars and clubs getting in on the act making the festival a hot ticket in the capital.
For reasons unknown the Japanese adopted Christmas as a romantic holiday. It’s about chocolates, cakes, dating and presents for loved ones. Most Japanese celebrate on the 24th and 25th with a visit to KFC for chicken (Turkey is still a very uncommon meat in Japan) and love hotels are often booked solidly for the more passionate denizens. It would be fair to say that most Japanese couldn’t even tell you what Christmas actually is but most people enjoy the romance and the cuisine which accompanies the big day.