Japanese festivals are typically colourful events, with both playful and serious aspects celebrated. The customs and traditions around the festivities tend to date back centuries, though many now include modern twists. Typically, the most important part of a festival is the public procession with the local deity carried in a mikoshi – or palanquin. Festivals are the only time a deity is taken out of a shrine or temple.
1. Tanabata – Star Festival: July 7th
The Star Festival takes place annually on the 7thday of the 7th month. There is a sad but sweet tale attached to the festival, about two star-crossed lovers (Vega and Altair) who can only meet once a year on this date. It is common for prayers to be offered up for young girls, to improve in their crafts and calligraphy. Leafy bamboo branches are placed in gardens, and poems, prayers and wishes are written on long colourful papers strips or tanzaku – gold bordered paper – before being tied onto the bamboo leaves. Depending on which region of Japan you’ll be in, the date for Tanabata varies from being in July to August. In Tokyo, it is celebrated in July.
2. Hanabi– Fire flowers – Tokyo Bay Fireworks: August 11th
August is a great month to see firework displays around Japan. Around 10,000 fireworks are set off at each event, and crowds gather on bridges and in parks to catch the displays. The Tokyo Bay Fireworks are held as the name suggests in Tokyo Bay just upstream from the Rainbow Bridge, which will be closed during the duration of the fireworks. About 12,000 shells will be launched from barges, and the spot to view the display is at Harumi Park.
3. O-bon Matsuri–Festival of the Dead: August 13 to 15
O-bon is actually a shortened form of the Sanskrit word, Ullambana -hanging upside down–and it implies suffering. The Japanese Buddhists believe that the ancestors return to earth on this day, so much of the festival is geared towards families reuniting, cleaning their ancestral shrines and leaving offerings of food. Lanterns and flower are generally placed on the butsudan – a Buddhist altar in the family home. The smell of senko incense will fill the air of homes, temples and shrines.
As the weather is warm the majority of the population, male and female, wear light-weight yukata with bold bright colours reserved for the younger generations, and darker clothes are worn by the older generations. Special dances called Bon-Odoriare performed during this festival, as a way to welcome back the dead, though these vary from region to region, such as the Awa-Odori – fools dance – that is well known on the island of Shikoku.
The three-day festival ends with fireworks and Toro Nagashi – floating lanterns. Lit lanterns are placed in the river to float downstream and help guide the ancestors back to the spirit world. White lanterns on the water are used to honor those who have died within the last year.
4. Disaster Preparation Day: September 1st
Though this is not technically a Japanese festival, this day has been dedicated to disaster preparation since 1960, in remembrance of the Great Kanto Earthquake that occurred in 1923.This day is about remembering how important preparation and contingency planning is, and disaster drills are held all over the country, from workplaces right through to kindergarten schools.
5. Oeshikimatsuri: October 11 to 13
This Buddhist festival commemorates the anniversary of the death of Saint Nichiren, a prominent Buddhist who lived 720 years ago. Thousands of people gather together in the evening, and carry lanterns painted with cherry blossoms, while others dance and play drums, creating a very festive atmosphere.
6. Shichi-Go-San – Seven, Five, Three: November 15th
This festival is held specifically for three and seven-year old girls and three and five- year old boys. It is believed that odd numbers are lucky, and these ages represent the special developments in each child’s life. The children are dressed in their best kimono (though western garb is becoming more common) before being taken to the nearby temple or shrine where the priest prays for purification and blessings.
A treat of red or white Chitose Ame (thousand year candy) is given to the kids and it stands for growth, health, and prosperity. Good luck symbols grace the bag the candy is in, and common images include bamboo, cranes, pine trees, plum trees, and tortoise figures.
7. Ronin – Samurai festival: December 14
This is a very popular festival in Tokyo, where 47 Ronin gather and parade through the streets with enemy lords, folk dancers, floats, and lots of music. They weave their way through the streets to the Sengakuji Temple, where the bodies of the warriors lie.
The festival honors the story of the 47 samurai, from the island of Ako, whose master was unfairly sentenced to commit ritual suicide. The ronin spent more than a year working to kill the man responsible for the injustice done to their master. After successfully killing and beheading the lord responsible, they all committed ritual suicide themselves. The story conveys important Japanese values; loyalty, endurance, and will power.
About the Author: Blogger Roseanna McBain writes for TravelGround – a South African accommodation website. She is a lover of both Japanese history and anime.
Featured image in this article by Patrick Vierthaler CC 2.0