Don’t miss attending a festival (matsuri) if one happens during your visit – it will be a highlight of your stay in Japan. The more important events are listed below.
In recent years, several non-Japanese festivals have caught on, with a few adaptations for local tastes. Women give men gifts of chocolate on Valentine’s Day (February 14), while on White Day (March 14) men get their turn to give their loved ones more chocolates (white, of course). Christmas is celebrated in Japan as an almost totally commercial event. Christmas Eve, rather than New Year, is the time to party and a big occasion for romance – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a table at any fancy restaurant or a room in the top hotels.
Note: if any of the following public holidays fall on a Sunday, then the following Monday is also a holiday.
Ganjitsu (or Gantan) January 1. On the first day of the year everyone heads for the shrines and temples to pray for good fortune. Public holiday.
Yamayaki January 15. The slopes of Wakakusa-yama, Nara, are set alight during a grass-burning ceremony.
Seijin-no-hi (Adults’ Day) Second Monday in January. 20-year-olds celebrate their entry into adulthood by visiting their local shrine. Many women dress in sumptuous kimono. Public holiday.
Setsubun February 3 or 4. On the last day of winter by the lunar calendar, people scatter lucky beans round their homes and at shrines or temples to drive out evil and welcome in the year’s good luck. In Nara, the event is marked by a huge lantern festival on February 3.
Yuki Matsuri February 5–11. Sapporo’s famous snow festival features giant snow sculptures.
Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) March 3. Families with young girls display beautiful dolls (hina ningyō) representing the emperor, empress and their courtiers dressed in ancient costume. Department stores, hotels and museums often put on special displays at this time.
Cherry-blossom festivals Late March to early May. With the arrival of spring in late March, a pink tide of cherry blossom washes north from Kyūshū, travels up Honshū during the month of April and peters out in Hokkaidō in early May. There are cherry-blossom festivals, and the sake flows at blossom-viewing parties.
Hana Matsuri April 8. The Buddha’s birthday is celebrated at all temples with parades or quieter celebrations, during which a small statue of Buddha is sprinkled with sweet tea.
Takayama Matsuri April 14–15. Parade of ornate festival floats (yatai), some carrying mechanical marionettes.
Kodomo-no-hi (Children’s Day) May 5. The original Boys’ Day now includes all children as families fly carp banners, symbolizing strength and perseverance, outside their homes. Public holiday.
Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival) May 15. Costume parade through the streets of Kyoto, with ceremonies to ward off storms and earthquakes.
Kanda Matsuri Mid-May. One of Tokyo’s top three matsuri, taking place in odd-numbered years at Kanda Myōjin, during which people in Heian-period costume escort eighty gilded mikoshi through the streets.
Tōshō-gū Grand Matsuri May 17. Nikkō’s most important festival, featuring a parade of over a thousand costumed participants and horseback archery to commemorate the burial of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1617. There’s a smaller-scale repeat performance on October 17.
Sanja Matsuri Third weekend in May. Tokyo’s most boisterous festival takes place in Asakusa. Over a hundred mikoshi are jostled through the streets, accompanied by lion dancers, geisha and musicians.
Otaue June 14. Ceremonial planting of rice seedlings according to time-honoured techniques at Ōsaka’s Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine, accompanied by dance and song performances.
Sannō Matsuri Mid-June. In even-numbered years the last of Tokyo’s big three matsuri (after Kanda and Sanja) takes place, focusing on colourful processions of mikoshi through Akasaka.
Hakata Yamagasa July 1–15. Fukuoka’s main festival culminates in a 5km race, with participants carrying or pulling heavy mikoshi, while spectators douse them with water.
Tanabata Matsuri (Star Festival) July 7. According to legend, the only day in the year when the astral lovers, Vega and Altair, can meet across the Milky Way. Poems and prayers are hung on bamboo poles outside houses.
Gion Matsuri July 17. Kyoto’s month-long festival focuses around a parade of huge floats hung with rich silks and paper lanterns.
Hanabi Taikai Last Saturday in July. The most spectacular of Japan’s many summer firework displays takes place in Tokyo, on the Sumida River near Asakusa. Some cities also hold displays in early August.
Nebuta and Neputa Matsuri August 1–7. Aomori and Hirosaki hold competing summer festivals, with parades of illuminated paper-covered figures.
Tanabata Matsuri August 6–8. Sendai’s famous Star Festival is held a month after everyone else, so the lovers get another chance.
Obon (Festival of Souls) August 13–15, or July 13–15 in some areas. Families gather around the ancestral graves to welcome back the spirits of the dead and honour them with special Bon-odori dances on the final night.
Awa Odori August 12–15. The most famous Bon odori takes place in Tokushima, when up to eighty thousand dancers take to the streets.
Yabusame September 16. Spectacular displays of horseback archery (yabusame) by riders in samurai armour at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shrine in Kamakura.
Okunchi Matsuri October 7–9. Shinto rites mingle with Chinese- and European-inspired festivities to create Nagasaki’s premier celebration, incorporating dragon dances and floats in the shape of Chinese and Dutch ships.
Kawagoe Grand Matsuri October 14–15. One of the liveliest festivals in the Tokyo area, involving some 25 ornate floats and hundreds of costumed revellers.
Jidai Matsuri October 22. Kyoto’s famous, if rather sedate, costume parade vies with the more exciting Kurama Matsuri, a night-time fire festival which takes place in a village near Kyoto.
Shichi-go-san (Seven-five-three) November 15. Children of the appropriate ages don traditional garb to visit their local shrine.
Ōmisoka December 31. Just before midnight on the last day of the year, temple bells ring out 108 times (the number of human frailties according to Buddhist thinking), while people all over the country gather at major shrines to honour the gods with the first shrine visit of the year.