Traditional Celebrations in Japan Throughout the Year

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Although Japan is a highly developed country, cultural traditions are still strongly embedded in Japanese daily life. This is considered one of the country’s biggest appeals for foreigner visitors. Throughout the year, numerous traditional festivals are celebrated in Japan, each of which has its own significance and cultural roots. Let us introduce some of the traditional celebrations that are held in Japan throughout the year.

Setsubun (3 February)

Setsubun literally means "season divider" and is the day before the beginning of a new season. Risshun (4 Feb) marks the beginning of spring, Rikka (5 May) is the beginning of summer, Risshu (7 August) is the beginning of autumn, and Ritto (7 November) is the beginning of winter.  More commonly, the term “Setsubun” is used to indicate the day before Risshun, which falls on the 3rd of February.

The ritual performed during Setsubun is mamemaki (bean throwing). Roasted mame (soybeans) are tossed to the devil (which is known as oni in Japanese and is represented by someone wearing an oni mask) while chanting "oniwasoto, fukuwauchi” (“demons get out, good fortune come in”). In addition to being performed in houses, mamemaki rituals are also performed in shrines. Another Setsubun ritual is eating a number of mame that corresponds to your age and eating ehoumaki (a long sushi roll that is eaten uncut) while facing the year’s lucky direction and making a silent wish. 

In Tokyo, you can visit the Sensoji Temple, which holds large-scale Setsubun celebrations on the 3rd of February.

Hina Matsuri (3 March)

A month after the Setsubun celebration (i.e. on the 3rd of March), Japanese people celebrate Hina Matsuri, which is often referred to as the Girls’ Festival. The purpose of Hina Matsuri is to pray for the health and happiness of girls.

A highlight of Hina Matsuri is the hina ningyo (the hina doll), which represents the emperor's wedding procession during the Heian era. The dolls are displayed on a stepped platform called a hinadan. Hina ningyos are generally put on display around mid-February and must be put away immediately after Hina Matsuri. There is a superstition amongst the Japanese which claims that families who put away the hina ningyo belatedly will have trouble marrying off their daughters.

In addition to the dolls, special cuisine also forms a part of the Hina Matsuri celebration. Foods served include hina arare (white, yellow, pink, and green rice snacks), hishimochi (green, white, and pink mochi), and ushiojiru soup (soup made from clams which symbolizes a couple in the hope that the daughter celebrating Hina Matsuri will have a happy marriage).

Children's Day (Kodomo no Hi) (5 May)

While Hina Matsuri is a celebration for girls, Kodomo No Hi is a time to pray for the strength and success of boys. This festival is celebrated on the 5th of May and forms part of the long Golden Week holiday. The symbol of this celebration is the koinobori (carp streamer). Koinoboris can be found in many places across Japan  in the lead up to Kodomo No Hi and families with children usually display them in their homes.

Nowadays, the koinoboris that are displayed in Japanese homes usually symbolize the family members, namely the father, mother, and their children. Koinoboris during the Edo era were originally black, however they are now available in various colors, including red, blue, green, and orange. Boys will also put on a samurai helmet known as a kabuto in their home. Like hina ningyos, the kabuto are not cheap.

Tanabata (7 July)

Tanabata (also known as the Star Festival) is a celebration that falls on the evening of July 7. The festival celebrates a couple's meeting (known locally as Orihime and Hikoboshi) and although it originated in China, it is widely celebrated in Japan. The timing of the Tanabata celebration varies, with most areas celebrating it in early July (with the peak of the celebration on the 7th of July) while some areas celebrate in August.

Decorations made of bamboo and colorful paper usually adorn the Tanabata celebration sites. Another tradition is to write a wish on a colorful piece of paper (tanzaku), then hang it on a bamboo stalk. A popular Tanabata festival is the Sendai Tanabata Festival, which is celebrated from 6-8 August.

Doyo no Ushi no Hi (mid-July, early August)

Doyo is the 18-day period prior to the first day of the season and ushi no hi is the day of the ox in the lunar calendar.  Therefore, “Doyo no Ushi no Hi” is a day in the middle of summer that is celebrated as the day of the ox. Depending on the year, “Doyo no Ushi no Hi” can be celebrated over one or two days. In 2018, there will be two days of “Doyo no Ushi no Hi”, namely 20 July and 1 August.

On this day, Japanese people will eat eel, which is believed to have beneficial stamina and health properties that help you survive the harsh summer days. This tradition has existed since the Edo Period, with the belief that consuming food that starts with the letter "u" will help you through the summer. One of the options is unagi (eel).

Obon (mid-August)

Obon is an occasion that sees Japanese people honor the spirit of their ancestors and it is believed that ancestral spirits visit their families at this time. On the first day of Obon, houses are cleaned and food is prepared for the ancestral spirits, with the festival celebrated over four days.

A mukaebi (welcome fire) in the form of a paper lantern (known as a chochin) is put up in front of the house to guide the spirits there. On the last day of the celebration, an okuribi (send-off fire) will be put up. In some areas, this is symbolized by sailing the paper lanterns down a river. The bon odori (Obon dance)  that features dancers wearing summer kimonos (yukata) is usually performed on the last day.

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