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National Holidays and Local Festivals
From Richard Tames' "A Traveller's History of Japan", pp 225-31

There are literally hundreds of local festivals (matsuri). Those listed below have been chosen either because they are particularly large or famous or because they have some unusual feature. (There are, for example, festivals which focus on igloos, phalluses, silkworms and seaweed, as well as special shrines for needles, dead children and the victims of car accidents.) Matsuri usually originate in Shinto celebrations, often tied to the agricultural cycle of planting and harvesting. They may involve purification rituals, dances (kagura), feasts (naorai) and parades featuring floats or carts. Sacred objects, representing kami, are often carried in palanquin-style portable shrines (o-mikoshi). There may also be contests such as tug-of-war, horse-races, archery or kite-flying.
* denotes a national holiday; when this falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is taken as the holiday. A day falling between two national holidays (eg 4 May) is also taken as a holiday.
Public transport becomes extremely crowded around three peak travel seasons as urban Japanese renew their rural roots, and it is customary to book weeks in advance; these are:
a) New Year - 27 December - 4 January and nearest weekends
b) 'Golden Week' - 29 April - 5 May and nearest weekends
c) 'O-Bon' festival of the Dead - celebrated in mid-July in some areas and mid-August in others

* 1 January New Year's Day (Ganjitsu)
The most important single festival in the entire calendar. Very few businesses will reopen before 4 January. More than 90 percent of families will dress in their best clothes (kimono for ladies) and visit a shrine to pray for a year of health and happiness and buy amulets or fortune predictions. Meiji Shrine and Ise are particularly crowded. There are many customs related to ideas of purification and renewal. New Year's Eve was customarily marked by a thorough house-cleaning and settlement of outstanding debts and quarrels. Fathers take children kite-flying and girls still sometimes play a sort of shuttlecock game (hanetsuki) with elaborately-decorated paddle-shaped battledores (hago-ita). Children also receive gifts of money in special red envelopes (otoshidama). Older people play traditional card-games (karuta) which involve matching flowers or verses. Mothers prepare ozoni - a rice-dumpling soup - and other dishes as 'New Year food' (osechi-ryori). New Year postcards (nengajo) are sent to relatives, clients, colleagues and old school friends; special arrangements are made by the post office to ensure that all cards are delivered on New Year's day by an army of students. On 2 January it is customary to practise calligraphy by writing appropriate poems or proverbs; many schools hold calligraphy competitions. The inner grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo are open to the public. New Year decorations are taken down and burned on 7 or 11 January, depending on the region.

6 January Dezomeshiki
Since the Edo period Tokyo firemen have performed acrobatics on bamboo ladders to impress the public.

7 January Seven Herbs Festival
An ancient Chinese observance. Seven edible herbs are eaten in a rice gruel to ensure good health.

* 15 January Coming-of-Age Day (Seijin-no-hi)
The local town hall holds a civic ceremony to honour those who have reached the voting age, twenty.

February
Snow Festival, held in Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido and host to the 1972 Winter Olympics. This features about 150 massive sculptures and carvings of ice and draws some 2,000,000 visitors. Winter snow festivals (yuki matsuri) are common throughout northern Japan. Snow-viewing became a general custom in the Edo period and is often featured in literature.

February (third Saturday) Hadaka Matsuri
Saidaji temple, Okayama features a mob of nearly naked youths scrambling for a pair of sacred wands.

3 February Bean-Scattering Festival (Setsubun)
This marks the last day of winter in the traditional lunar calendar. Roasted soybeans are scattered around houses to drive away demons bringing illness or bad luck. Celebrities such as actors or wrestlers born in the appropriate year of the Chinese animal zodiac perform this ceremony at shrines, such as Asakusa Kannon and Zojoji in Tokyo or Gion in Kyoto.

* 11 February National Foundation Day (Kenkoko Kinen-no-hi)
Abolished after 1945 this holiday was reinstated in 1967 and marks the supposed asccession of the first emperor, Jimmu, in 660BC.

14 February Valentine's Day
Custom decrees that women buy expensive chocolates for their senior male office colleagues (who often give them straight back).

3 March Girls' Day (Hina Matsuri)
Sets of fifteen expensive dolls, representing the imperial court with attendants, musicians, guards etc, are displayed in the tokonoma (focal alcove of the main room). This day is also known as Peach Festival (Momo-no-Sekku) because peach flowers represent gentleness and grace, the appropriate qualities for a girl. Originally a festival for aristocrats only, this became a more general celebration by the eighteenth century.

13 March Kasuga Matsuri
1,000-year-old dance staged at Kasuga shrine in Nara.

* 21 (or 20) March Vernal Equinox Day (Shumbun-no-hi)
Marks the coming of spring and is a traditionally important time in the Buddhist calendar. Family graves are often visited.

April
Throughout the month parties (hanami) will be organised to view the cherry-blossom (sakura no hana), a custom dating back to the reign of Emperor Saga (809-23). Newspapers publish maps showign a cherry-blossom line (sakura zensen) where the blooms can be seen at their best. Ueno Park in Tokyo is a favourite venue for office or family picnics under the cherry-trees, often accompanied by much drinking and a little dancing.

8 April Buddha's birthday (Hana Matsuri)
Celebrated in all Buddhist temples.

14-15 April Takayama Matsuri
Hie Shrine, Takayama features a parade of floats.

* 29 April 'Greenery Day'
This was formerly (ie in the reign of the Showa Emperor 1926-89) the Emperor's Birthday. Its retention relates to its convenience as marking the start of 'Golden Week' and its redesignation commemorates the former ruler's ecological interests. (He was an eminent marine biologist.) Citizens are encouraged to plant and cultivate natural vistas.

May (third weekend) Sanja Matsuri
Procession of over 100 o-mikoshi held near Asakusa Kannon temple, Tokyo.

May (third Sunday) Mifune Matsuri
Features ancient boats on the Oi river, Kyoto.

* 3 May Constitution Memorial Day (Kemop Kinenbi)
Marks the promulgation of the 1947 'Showa' constitution.

3-4 May Hakata Dontaku
Fukuoka features a parade of legendary gods on horseback

3-5 May Odako-age
Kite-flying festival at Hamamatsu

* 5 May Children's Day (Kodomo-no-hi)
This was formerly Boys' Day. It was customary to fly wind-sock type streamers painted like carp; the carp swims against the stream to spawn and is therefore a symbol of determination, which is thought to be a highly appropriate male virtue.

11 May to 15 October
Cormorant fishing on the Nagara river, Gifu.

15 May Hollyhock Festival (Aoi Matsuri)
Dating from the fifteenth century and organised by Kamigamo and Shimogamo shrines in Kyoto. The main feature is a procession featuring an ox-cart, an imperial messenger on a fine horse and a portable shrine (o-mikoshi) representing the goddess Saioh, all accompanied by hundreds of attendants wearing costumes in the style of the Heian court. In obedience to an ancient oracle shrine buildings are decked with hollyhocks to ward off earthquakes. The ceremonies also include traditional music and dance.

17-18 May Spring Festival
At the Toshogu Shrine, Nikko features a 1,200-strong procession clad in samurai costume.

1-14 June Sanno Matsuri
Hie shrine, Tokyo; involves parading o-mikoshi through the Akasaka District.

14 June Rice-Planting Festival
Sumiyoshi shrine, Osaka features girls in traditional costume transplanting seedlings.

7 July Star Festival (Tanabata)
Celebrated nationwide and especially at Sendai. A Chinese legend tells that on this day alone the separated star lovers, Altair (a cowherd) and Vega (a weaver princess), can meet across the Milky Way on a bridge of magpies.

13-15 July (in some areas 13-15 August) O-Bon
Buddhist festival observed nationwide to honour the memory of the dead. Only New Year outranks this observance in importance and as an occasion for gift-giving. Ancestral graves are cleaned and offerings of food and flowers placed before the family altar at home. Ceremonies involving bonfires or paper lanters are organised to welcome back the souls of the dead. Many city-dwellers return to their ancestral village to visit graves or take part in dances (odori).

14 July Nachi Himatsuri
The Nachi shrine, Nachi-Katsuura features white-robed priests carrying twelve giant torches.

17 July Gion Festival
Associated with the Yasaka shrine, this began in 869 to drive an epidemic out of Kyoto. It is now marked by a huge procession of floats and musicians.

20 (and 27) July Sagi-mai festival
Tsuwano in Shimane Prefecture features a unique 'heron dance.'

24-5 July Tenjin Matsuri
Organised by the Temmangu shrine, Osaka; features floating shrines on the Dojima river.

August
A favourite month for moon-viewing (tsukimi) - traditionally accompanied by poetry and sake.

1-7 August Neputa Matsuri in Hirosaki and Nebuta Matsuri (2-7 August) in Aomori
Feature parades of outsize paper-mache figures.

5-7 August Kanto Matsuri
Akita City features a parade of lighted paper lanterns on ten-meter poles.

12-15 August Awa Odori festival
Tokushima, featuring folk dances.

16 August Daimonji bonfire
On the hills overlooking Kyoto.

9 September Chrysanthemum Festival
A court celebration revived in the Meiji era. The sixteen-petalled chrysanthemum is the heraldic crest (mon) of the Imperial family and is used on stamps and coins. From mid-October to mid-November displays of chrysanthemums are exhibited at Meiji shrine, Yasukuni shrine and Shinjuku Imperial gardens.

* 15 September Respect-the-Aged Day (Keiro-no-hi)
This was established as a national holiday in 1963 but ceremonies honouring the aged date back to the Edo period. The official retirement age was set at sixty by law in 1986.

16 September Demonstrations of Yabusame (archery from horseback)
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine in Kamakura.

* 23 (or 24) September Autumn Equinox Day (Shubun-no-hi)
Marks the coming of autumn and was traditionally important in the Buddhist calendar. Family graves are often visited.

October (mid) Nagoya City Festival
Features a giant parade of impersonations of historical figures. Allthe deities of Japan are said to gather at Izumo Taisha near Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, around this time.

7-9 October Okunchi festival
The Suwa shrine, Nagasaki features a Chinese dragon dance.

* 10 October Health-Sports Day
Commemorates the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Many schools and companies hold sports meetings.

11-13 October Oeshiki
Hommonji temple, Tokyo commemorates Nichiren, a Japanese sect of Buddhism, with a founder of the same name.

17 October Autumn Festival
Toshogu shrine, Nikko features samurai in full regalia.

22 October Festival of the Ages (Jidai Matsuri)
Organised by the Heian Shrine (Heian Jingu) in Kyoto since 1895, this features a procession of 1,700 participants representing historical figures dating back to the foundation of the shrine in 794. A torchlight procession takes place on the same date at the Yuki shrine in Sakyo-ku, Kyoto.

* 3 November Culture Day (Bunka-no-hi)
Redesignated in 1948, this was formerly the birthday of Emperor Meiji. The traditionally-minded may still visit the Meiji Shrine. The Emperor awards Cultural Orders of Merit (Bunka Kunsho to outstanding artists, writers etc. On the same day the Daimyo Gyoretsu in Hakone re-creates the passage of a feudal lord and his entourage.

15 November (Seven-Five-Three Festival) Shichi-go-san
Girls aged three and seven and boys aged five are taken to Shinto shrines to give thanks for their health and pray for its continuation (a reminder of the trationally high rates of infant mortality in pre-modern times). Girls invariably wear kimono and elaborate hair ornaments and are much photographed.

* 23 November Labour Thanksgiving Day (Kinro-Kansha-no-hi)
This was formerly a Shinto festival (Niiname-sai) to celebrate the harvest but now recognizes the contribution of all who work. The emperor still offers newly-fermented sake to the gods.

December (mid-onwards)
'Bonenkai' (forget-the-year) parties are hosted by companies for staff and clients.

17-19 December Toshi-no-ichi
Fairs are held to sell traditional New Year battledores.

* 23 December Emperor's Birthday (Tenno Tanjobi)
The inner grounds of the Imperial Palace are opened to the public. The emperor appears (on a bullet-proof glassed-in balcony) to acknowledge the cheers of well-wishers.