Japanese festivals are a fun, unforgettable — often very crowded—way to see a bit of Japanese culture.
Although throwing beans to frighten evil spirits may bewilder first-time visitors, travelers can really get behind the joy that is hanami—appreciating (and partying under) blooming flowers.
Timing is everything when it comes to big holidays. Arrive a bit too late for the big festivals in Japan and your punishment will be inflated accommodation prices and clogged transportation. The worst part? You'll pay the dues without even getting to enjoy the occasion!
Don't miss out while traveling in Japan. Plan accordingly. These five Japanese festivals are among the largest and most widely celebrated in the country.
01 of 06
Largest of the Japanese festivals, bringing in the new year is taken very seriously in Japan. Shogatsu, Japanese New Year, falls on the familiar Western January 1 date per the Gregorian calendar, but the festival is stretched out before and after.
Many people start the new year by eating soba (buckwheat) noodles at midnight for good health. At dawn, the Emperor of Japan prays for the nation. Unlike in the West where the celebration focuses on New Years Eve revelry and short-lived resolutions, Shogatsu focuses on bringing prosperity in the upcoming year—beyond just hangover recovery. At midnight, Buddhist temples ring bells 108 times (the estimated number of worldly sins/desires).
Much like Chinese New Year, special food is prepared and money is given to children in small envelopes. Reunited families spend time together and play games. The general sentiment is out with the old, in with the new.
On January 2, the public gets a rare treat only granted twice per year: access to the inner palace grounds. The only other day that the public is allowed inside the gates is on December 23 for the Emperor's Birthday celebration.
Many businesses remain closed until at least January 3. A smaller celebration known as Coming of Age Day takes place on January 9.
- When: December 30 to January 3. Note: The traditional Japanese New Year is also celebrated at the same time as the Lunar New Year (e.g., Chinese New Year, Tet, etc).
- Where: Nationwide. A large crowd will gather at the palace in Tokyo.
02 of 06
Fun and bizarre, Setsubun kicks off the Haru Matsuri (Spring Festival) in Japan.
Setsubun is an old tradition that has evolved into a televised event with national celebrities. Along with the big productions, small stages are set up around the country. Candy and money are thrown into the crowds which then rush forward to collect the small gifts.
People throw beans in mame maki ceremonies to drive away evil spirits that could foul up things later. One member of the household dons a demon mask and plays the "bad guy" as everyone else shouts and throws beans until he leaves.
- When: February 3 or 4
- Where: At major temples and shrines throughout Japan.
03 of 06
An ancient tradition, the word hanami actually means "flower viewing" and that's exactly what people by the thousands do during the spring Cherry Blossom Festival. What could be more Zen?
Families and friends compete for quiet spots in busy parks to have picnics and parties, both day and night. A little revelry takes place beneath the blooms that are celebrated for their fleeting, impermanent nature.
Some festival goers may appreciate the sake more than the flowers themselves, but all enjoy the time outside in fresh spring air!
Tea ceremonies are held under trees; folk songs, traditional dances, beauty pageants, and even parades add to the festive atmosphere.
- When: Dates range between March and May, depending on how far north or south in Japan. Obviously, blooms begin appearing in the south first as winter gives up. Official predictions for when to view blooms are officially forecasted and posted on government websites each year.
- Where: Nationwide.
04 of 06
If there's one big event in Japan to plan around, it is Golden Week!
Golden Week is one of the busiest travel times in Japan—not just a little busy, very busy. Four different, back-to-back Japanese festivals hit in a relatively short timespan just as weather turns good. Japanese people take extended vacations to travel and enjoy the events. Many businesses close for at least a week.
The first holiday of Golden Week is the celebration of the birthday of Emperor Hirohito (Showa Day) on April 29. Constitution Memorial Day hits on May 3 and is followed by Greenery Day on May 4 then Children's Day on May 5.
Japan's high season for tourism typically begins right after the festivals clear up and business gets back to normal. Prices will often be at their highest. Beware: Transportation comes to a standstill during Golden Week!
Continue to 5 of 6 below.
- When: End of April until May 6.
- Where: Nationwide.
05 of 06
Although technically not an official national holiday, Obon is the most widely observed of Japanese festivals in the summer.
Obon is a celebration of ancestors' spirits that come home to rest. People visit shrines, temples, and family graves during Obon. Fires are lit in front of homes and lanterns help guide the spirits.
Obon is an important time for families; many head back to their ancestral homes, causing long transportation delays and some closures.
- When: Obon is based on the lunar calendar. Dates vary from region to region but the festival is always in the summer. Some regions celebrate on July 15, others on August 15 or the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Check for when Obon will be observed at each of your destinations in Japan.
- Where: Throughout Japan.
06 of 06
The Emperor's Birthday
Emperor Akihito, the current Emperor of Japan, was born on December 23, 1933.
The date is celebrated as an annual national holiday in Japan. The Emperor’s Birthday was established as an official holiday in 1948 and has drawn a crowd since.
The Emperor of Japan, along with key members of his family, make several short appearances throughout the day on a windowed balcony. They wave back to the sea of supporters who gather in the cold for a rare glimpse. Travelers are welcome to stand in the queue to join the spectacle.
The Emperor’s Birthday is a patriotic occasion in Japan and is one of only two days each year that the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace are open to the public.
- When: December 23
- Where: Tokyo