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Experience the 10 Most Colorful Japanese Holidays

Updated on September 23, 2012
Tanzaku during Tanabata
Tanzaku during Tanabata | Source
Japanese Dolls for Hina Matsuri
Japanese Dolls for Hina Matsuri | Source

Festivities accompany the most exciting and joyous Japanese holidays.

It’s no wonder that in Japan, holidays are sometimes called festivals or matsuri in Japanese.

The collective term for Japanese holidays and festivals, however, is nenchu gyoji or annual events that Japanese people celebrate usually with a bang.

Most Japanese holidays have Buddhist or Chinese origins.

Since many Japanese people do not discriminate against religious origins, they mark these Japanese holidays on their calendars with eagerness and make much preparations for them.

Below is a short list of the most colorful and lively Japanese holidays.

1. Shogatsu

Perhaps the most important of all Japanese holidays is shogatsu , when Japanese people ring in the New Year with high hopes for good health and prosperity.

Celebrated over the period of three days beginning January 1, shogatsu is an occasion for the Japanese to pray in the temples.

Temple bells ring 108 times for the 108 sins enumerated in Buddhism.

Before shogatsu, Japanese decorate the entrance of their houses with a symbol of longevity – kadomatsu , which is made of pine branches, bamboo and straw.

They also send out nengajo or post cards to families, friends, and acquaintances.

During shogatsu, adults give otoshi-dama or New Year Treasure to children.

This treasure is actually money enclosed in a special kind of envelope.

Japanese people also eat traditional New Year foods of osechi -ryori and mochi .

2. Hina Matsuri

A very special Japanese holiday for Japanese girls and their families is the Hina Matsuri or the Doll Festival that is marked each March 3.

On this day, families wish their daughters future happiness by displaying hina-ningyo, which is a set of ceremonial dolls that are replicas of an ancient emperor and his ministers as well as an ancient empress and her ladies in waiting.

A complete set of hina-ningyo is composed of 15 dolls plus the miniature royal items found in ancient courts.

It is believed that the hina dolls must be put away immediately after Hina Matsuri or else the daughter will not be married until a late age.

During this Japanese holiday, daughters and their families partake a sweet wine called shirozake, rice cakes shaped in diamonds called hishi mochi, candies shaped like fruits, and sticky rice with red beans called sekihan.

3. Setsubun

Setsubun or Bean-Throwing Festival is a Japanese holiday that marks the beginning of spring in Japan each February 3 or 4.

On this day, many Japanese people try to cleanse their souls of the evils of the past year as well as drive away the evil spirits of and be lucky in the coming year.

To do this, they throw beans at oni or demon-like structures found at the shrines.

They also hang the sharp branch of a hiragi and the stinky head of a fish at the entrance of their homes.

Setsubun is also a time for people to eat uncut eho-maki or lucky direction roll while facing their lucky direction.

This lucky direction is specific to each zodiac sign.

To help people determine their lucky direction, publications release lists of the zodiacs and their corresponding lucky directions.

Shogazake or ginger sake is also drunk during Setsubun.

4. Obon

Celebrated over three days in either July or August across Japan, Obon is an important Japanese holiday when the Japanese people remember the dead and honor them.

During Obon, many Japanese return to their hometowns in order to reunite with their families and sweep the tombs of their departed loved ones.

They offer them vegetables and fruits at the butsudan or Buddhist altars since it is believed that the souls of the departed will come back to earth on this particular Japanese holiday.

Usually, chochin or Japanese paper lantern is placed beside the butsudan to beckon the spirits back to their homes.

Japanese people then send off the spirits back to their graves by lighting a candle inside a lantern that is floated down a river.

Bon Odori or folk dance is also held in public places and the females wear yukata or summer kimono during this important Japanese holiday.

5. Tanabata

Legend has it that only once a year on the Japanese holiday of Tanabata , star-crossed lovers – deities Orihime and Hikoboshi – meet to show their love for each another.

Orihime and Hikoboshi meet on the seventh day of the seventh month or July 7, the day for the Tanabata Japanese holiday.

In modern-day Japan, Japanese people celebrate Tanabata by writing down wishes on tanzaku or small pieces of paper and then hanging the tanzaku on bamboo with other decorations.

Oftentimes, the bamboos are set afloat a river and burned either on the midnight of Tanabata or the day following this Japanese holiday.

This tradition resembles the practice of setting lanterns afloat a river during important Japanese holiday of Obon.

6. Nada no Kenka

The Japanese holiday of Nada no Kenka or Nada Fighting festival is the most action-filled of all the kenka matsuri or fighting festivals in Japan.

On October 14 and 15 each year in Himeji, Japan, Japanese men carry a mikoshi or portable shrine on their shoulders and bump it against other mikoshi from competing groups.

It is believed that such violent collisions actually please the gods.

The remaining group that can heave its mikoshi on top of the last competitor is declared a winner.

Another highlight of this Japanese holiday is the parade of dazzling floats and dancers gracefully dancing to the tune of traditional Japanese festival music.

The floats are called yatai and the parade of floats is called yatai-neri .

At dusk, the lights in the yatai are lit up, making this Japanese holiday ultimately memorable.

7. Sapporo Snow Festival

Held from February 6 to February 12 each year in Hokkaido’s largest city of Sapporo, the Sapporo Snow Festival is a Japanese holiday that draws thousands of curious onlookers and eager visitors.

This Japanese holiday’s grand attraction is the exhibition of over 300 snow sculptures.

So many are the sculptures that they occupy about 1.5 kilometers of the length of the city’s Odori Park.

Usually, the sculptures are mock-ups of Japan’s famous and historical places.

Sometimes, they also represent important events concerning Japan.

Still in some occasions, they mimic symbols of pop culture.

This Japanese holiday is made magical at night when the Odori Park is lit up to showcase the beauty of the sculptures.

8. Jidai Matsuri

A first-rate Japanese holiday when people can learn about the long history of Japan’s old capital of Kyoto is the Jidai Matsuri.

Celebrated at the Heian Jingu Shrine each October 22 in Kyoto, Japan, Jidai Matsuri is a parade of about 2,000 people wearing authentic costumes worn during the different eras of Kyoto’s over 1,200-year history.

Several gloriously decorated mikoshi are also paraded downtown.

This parade is known locally as Jidai Gyoretsu or Historic Pageant.

It departs from the Kyoto Gosho or Kyoto Imperial Palace and ends at the Heian Jingu Shrine.

It lasts for about three hours.

Because of the sheer historical importance of this Japanese holiday, the Jidai Matsuri has become equally popular as Kyoto’s two other grand festivals.

These other festivals are the Gion Matsuri that is celebrated from July 17 to July 24 and the Aoi Matsuri that is celebrated on May 15.

9. Takayama Matsuri

Regarded as on one of the most colorful Japanese holidays, the Takayama Matsuri is celebrated each spring and autumn in the old town proper of Takayama, Japan.

The spring festival is called Sanno Matsuri because it is held at the Sanno-sama or Hie Shrine in the southern part of the old town of Takayama.

It is celebrated from April 14 to April 15.

The autumn festival is called Hachiman Matsuri because it is held at the Hachiman Shrine in the northern part of the old town of Takayama.

It is celebrated from October 9 to October 10.

Both festivals have similar attractions and follow more or less the same schedules.

The highlight of the Takayama Matsuri is the parade of dazzling floats called yatai.

In the yatai are karakuri ningyo , which are actually intricately designed mechanical dolls that can perform graceful dances and movements.

The yatai are left for display on the streets during sunny days and in yatai storehouses during rainy days.

Mikoshi or portable shrines are also paraded downtown during this Japanese holiday.

In each of the mikoshi is a kami or Shinto deity.

The Takayama Matsuri is the only Japanese holiday during which these deity icons are allowed to leave their shrines.

10. Miyajima Kangensai Music Festival

Each July 17 in the Miyajima-cho, Hiroshima, Japan, people reenact the way Japanese nobles of old entertained themselves through orchestra music.

This Japanese holiday is known as the Miyajima Kangensai Music Festival and is performed in the Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage Site that is highly recognizable for its scarlet torii or shrine gate that seems to float in the waters of Seto Inland Sea at high tide.

The name Kangensai actually comes from kangen , haunting music created by Japanese flutes, drums, and string instruments that was fitted for the nobles.

In the past, Japanese nobles played kangen instruments while winding through rivers or streams in boats.

This tradition was brought to Hiroshima from Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto by Taira-no-Kiyomori, a warlord during the Heian Period, after his construction of the Itsukishima Shrine in the 12th century.

Eventually, the practice became a Japanese holiday to please the gods and also reminisce the age of nobility in Japan.

Copyright © 2011 Kerlyn Bautista

All Rights Reserved

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    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Detailed and well written - thank you!

    • philipuae profile image

      philipuae 5 years ago from Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

      well described, very informative. Until now it was Japanese Electronics and Samurai warriors. This is very much interesting.

    • kerlynb profile image

      kerlynb 6 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @Jangaplanet I'm really glad you found this hub informative and interesting. Really appreciate your comment. Thanks for dropping by my hub.

    • Jangaplanet profile image

      A Ercoli 6 years ago

      A wonderful hub. I learned so much. I appreciate the way you wrote this article. Very informative, and now I know more about Japanese Holidays and festivals.

      Rated up and interesting! :)

    • kerlynb profile image

      kerlynb 6 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @epigramman Wow! Thank you so much for the compliments :) You just made my day! I really appreciate the time you gave to comment. Thank you! Thank you! :D

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 6 years ago

      .... a most beautiful hub made even more so by a very enchanting and well versed tour guide ......the images in particular tell so many vibrant stories - and yes your words are the words of enlightenment and education.

      lake erie time ontario canada 1:00pm

      I really love the selection here of your many fine hubs

    • kerlynb profile image

      kerlynb 6 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @cheerfulnuts Thanks for your message. You're right, Japan has so many matsuri, one cannot even keep all of them in mind :)

    • cheerfulnuts profile image

      cheerfulnuts 6 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      I LOVE hina dolls. I've seen them on TV, and I think they're really so pretty. Japan has so many holidays that I'm not even aware of. This is a very interesting topic. Voted up.:D

    • kerlynb profile image

      kerlynb 6 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @Husky1970 Thanks for the comment. Yes, I think there are really many interesting festivals across the world that we just need to know about and experience for ourselves.

    • profile image

      Husky1970 6 years ago

      An interesting hub. Thanks for the information on a topic I knew nothing about. Very informative and interesting.