Japan keeps itself grounded in history and tradition by celebrating a variety of festivals throughout the year. These main annual festivals celebrated all over the country are explained below.
Fire and water festivals (for purification) are common throughout the month of January. The Shinto religion also lays emphasis on the renewal of time: so many “firsts” are celebrated in the newly-begun year.
January 1st: Hatsumode or hatsumairi (First prayer visit). Early in the morning of New Year’s Day, many people pay their first visit of the year to their local Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple. Women and girls often wear beautiful kimono for the occasion.
January 2nd: Kakizome. First writing (calligraphy ) of the year.
January 4th: Goyo Hajime. First business. Some traditional shops open for business after the New Year break. During the first few days of the year, people often visit their close friends and relatives to greet the new year together. Special foods eaten at New Year include: O-toso (sweet sake flavoured with cassia bark, herbs and spices), and mochi (sticky rice cake) eaten on their own or in o-zoni vegetable broth.
The first day of spring by the ancient lunar calendar. The festival is marked throughout the country with maki-maki, or bean throwing, and shouts of “Fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto!” (Fortune in! Demons out!). Good places to see this in Tokyo are the Zojoji Temple (behind Tokyo Tower) and Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, which also puts on a classical dance. In Kyoto, Mibu-dera has Setsubun Kyogen performances from 1pm, repeated eight times, on both days; Rokuharamitsu-ji has a demon chase and bean-throwing on the afternoon of the 3rd; Yoshida Jinja is famous for its demon chase at 7pm on the 2nd, and a fire festival at 11pm on the 3rd.
The Doll Festival, or momo-no-sekku (“peach blossom fete”). Ceremonial dolls – often valuable family heirlooms – are displayed in the best room in the house. Such dolls, clothed in ancient formal costumes, are often bought on the birth of a girl, or given by relatives or friends. In some areas, the festival maintains its original theme of exorcism: symbolic dolls are loaded up in boats and sent out to sea, with the prayer that all bad luck, impurities and evil spirits should be transferred from girls to the dolls which are floating away. Peach blossom, flowering at this time, is also displayed as a symbol of feminine qualities, and of marital bliss. Special foods eaten at this festival include hishi-mochi (diamond-shaped rice cakes), shiro-zake (ground rice and sweet sake)and sekihan (rice boiled with red beans).
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Birth of Buddha
The birthday of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is celebrated throughout Japan on 8 April. Every important Buddhist temple observes the ceremony of kambutsu-e, or “baptism ceremony”. Sweet tea is poured from tiny ladles over a small statue of the infant Buddha. The statue is placed in a hana-mido (miniature, temporary temple decorated with flowers). Little children dressed in festival robes walk in procession through the temple yard.
Childrens (boys) festival
Kodomo-no-hi, but also known as shobu-no-sekku and tango-no-sekku (from the iris (shobu) plant). Its origins lie in the distribution of medicinal irises as protection against illness, over time it has become a day to pray for healthy boys. Families fly carp banners – one for each son – supposedly because this fish has the energy and power to fight its way up swift-running streams; because of its strength and determination to overcome all obstacles, it is held up as a good example to growing boys of ambition, strength and perseverance.
The Star (or Weaver) Festival. The story goes that two stars in love, Kengyu (Altair, or the Cowherd star) and Shokujo (Vega, or the Weaver star), are reunited by a bridge of magpies spanning the Milky Way. The popular custom of praying to the Cowherd for a good harvest and to the Weaver for skill in weaving has been observed in Japan for centuries in connection with the Star Festival. Young people celebrate this festival by writing down their wishes on strips of paper and hanging them on bamboo branches set up in the garden. This custom has become widespread even in school, where young pupils hope to acquire skill in handwriting by praying to the star for success in their studies.
Bon or o-bon
Middle of the seventh lunar month, 13th-15th July
(celebrated 13-15 August in certain areas) Likened to the Christian All Souls’ Day, it is sometimes called the “Festival of Souls”, the “Festival of the Dead”, or the “Festival of Lanterns”. The spirits of the dead, never far away, return to their earthly homes for a brief visit. Houses are cleaned for the occasion, and family graves carefully tended. Paper lanterns and incense are burned in the graveyards; at night all during the festival, lanterns shed a subdued light throughout the house. On the 15th, the last day, okuri-dango (farewell rice dumplings) are offered to the spirit-guests to cheer their departure to the Meido – the mysterious celestial world of the dead. The Bon Odori (Bon dance) is held on evenings around the 15th. These dances nowadays are part of festivals held on commercial areas in cities and towns.
Literally the seven (shichi) five (go) three (san) festival. Girls aged three and seven, and boys aged five, are taken to a shrine in appreciation of the good health given to them by the guardian gods.
New Year’s Eve
Namahage: in the Oga peninsula, men masked as frightening demons go from house to house asking: “Are there any good-for-nothing children round here?”
Okera Mairi, Yakusa Shrine, Kyoto: a sacred fire is kindled in the shrine’s precincts. It is believed that the fire will bring happiness to those cooking their first meal with the embers of the fire, and visitors are encouraged to take some of the embers home.