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Cultural Matsuri (Festivals) in Tokyo, Japan – January through June (Part 1)

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Japan has long been a producer of amazing things and people, from beautiful geishas, to brave samurai warriors, origami (the art of paper folding), ikebana flower arrangements, wide-eyed anime cartoons, and industry changing technology. Evidence suggests that Japan has been inhabited since 14 000 BC – and this is certainly reflected in its rich cultural history. The land of the rising sun is home to many engrained traditions and interesting annual festivals.

There are 6,852 islands which make up the entirety of Japan and scattered throughout there are thousands of shrines dedicated to Shinto deities and ancestor, each of which has its own specific festival. Tokyo celebrates a particularly interesting set of festivals, as well as the multitude of national events.

1. Shōgatsu – Japanese New Year celebration: 31 December – 4 January

From December 29 onwards, the Japanese frantically clean their houses, offices, schools and other public places to quite literally get rid of the old, so they can welcome in the new. Apart from the deep clean, they do lots of cooking, because during the four day festival, they are not permitted to do any of the above mentioned activities, as it is thought to bring bad luck. Foods eaten during the festival are called Osechi-ryori – items that are dried, sweet, and sour, so that they won’t go off.

Strips of paper attached with sacred straw are hung from the front door to prevent evil spirits entering, and kadomatsu – tree sprigs – are placed in the entry-ways of houses. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, bells ring out 108 times. Buddhists believe that there are 108 pleasures which distract humans from nirvana; with each ring of the bell a desire is expelled from the listeners.

2. Setsuban – Seasonal Divider: February – 3rd or 4th – dependant on the lunar calendar

This festival is also known as the ‘bean throwing ceremony’ and happens annually before the first day of spring, as indicated by the lunar calendar. Dried beans are thrown around homes, shrines, and temples and a particular phrase is shouted out: Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi – devils out; happiness in. Traditionally, the bean thrower has to gather and eat the same number of beans as their present age. One of the best temples to experience the festival at is the Sensoji temple.

3. Hina-matsuri-dolls Festival: 3 March

On this day, families pray for happiness, health and prosperity for their girls. On the child’s first birthday, the grandparents buy a lavishly decorated set of dolls. These are put up in a tiered display (usually with 15 dolls), topped with the emperor and empress doll. After celebrating at home, families head to the nearest temple or shrine with their young daughter in traditional dress to have a priest pray for them. The display is usually taken down as soon as the festival is over, as there is a superstition that says that families who take the dolls down too slowly will have a hard time marrying off their daughter.

4. Hanami – flower viewing: April – presumed 1st to 10th for 2012

The festival of Hanami is celebrated by throwing parties in areas that havesakura (cherry) or ume (plum) trees.The weather bureau used to try and predict which date the delicate and fragrant flowers would bloom, but in more recent years private companies have stepped in to perform this role. The usual date varies but is normally close to the end of vacations, when schools and work start.
Hanami parties are almost always picnics that take place below the sakura trees. These are generally attended by the younger generation, as the parties can continue until the very early hours of the morning with drinks and stories flowing. For the older generation, umehanami is celebrated at a more restive pace.
See the blossoms at Shinjuku Park between 09:00 – 16:30.There is ample space, over 1000 different blooming cherry trees, and it is in close proximity to several stations. Sumida Park is another good spot as it stretches along both sides of the Sumida river, has views of the Tokyo Sky Tree and at night the trees are lit up. Boat cruises are another great way to view the first flowers.

5. Sanja Matsuri – Three Shrine Festival: 3rd Weekend of May

This three-day festival takes place at the Asakusa Shrine annually and is dedicated to the kami (spirits) of the three men who founded the temple. Stories say that two brothers went fishing and kept catching a statue in their nets. The first few times they threw it back in the water but when it wouldn’t stop showing up, they took it to the village’s wise man who declared it was special, and placed it in a shrine.

The shrine has developed over the centuries to become a superb series of ornate buildings that are popular with locals and tourists alike. The three large mikoshi (temporary shrines / divine palanquins used to house deities during festivals) belonging to Asakusa Shrine are the focus of attention during Sunday’s festivities. This is the largest festival held in Japan.

6. Kanda Festival: Saturday & Sunday closest to 15 May

The Kanda festival is one of the three most important festivals celebrated in Japan. It began as a celebration of military strategist Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory. Later in the Edo period, it became a display of prosperity of the Tokugawa shogunate. The contemporary festival is held only during odd-numbered years, and festivities include a huge parade featuring ornate floats, musicians, dancers, Shinto priests on horseback, and around 200 mikoshi are carried around the main city districts.

7. Sanno Festival: June 15th

This is the last of the three largest festivals held in Japan, and it only takes place during even-numbered years. It starts and ends at the Hie shrine, in the Chiyoda-ku district of Tokyo, and the main attraction is the parade. This parade takes about nine hours, and winds through 20 kilometres of the main city. The Hie Shrine holds the guardian deity of Tokyo; the kami inside is believed to predate the city’s foundation and provide protection to the inhabitants.

Author bio: Roseanna McBain writes for the TravelGround.com blog. In her spare time she is a bit of an otaku, and she enjoys rainy weekends as these allow her to catch up on her anime.

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Mike has lived in Tokyo for more than 10 years and loves sharing his knowledge about Japan's metropolis.

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