Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
  • January

    Nanakusa-gayu (07 January)

    In Japan, it is a custom to eat Nanakusa-gayu (seven-herb rice gruel) on the 7th day of January so as to be blessed with good health. This tradition was adopted during the Heian period (A.D. 794 - 1185) but its true origin goes back to China. According to the Chinese belief, the first day of the new year is the day of the rooster and thus no roosters were to be slaughtered on this day. This was followed by the day of the dog on the second, pig on the third, goat on the fourth, ox on the fifth, horse on the sixth and mankind on the seventh. To celebrate the birth of man, no prisoner executions or punishments were to be meted out on this day and people ate rice gruel cooked with seven kinds of herbs to pray for good health. For the Japanese Nanakusa-gayu, the seven herbs used are nazuna (shepherd’s purse), hakobera (chickweed), gogyou (cotton weed), seri (Japanese parsley), hotokenoza (cotton sow thistle), suzuna (turnip), and suzushiro (Japanese radish). Each of these herbs is good for the body and it also helps to sooth the digestive system after all that rich food and abundant delicacies from new year parties.

  • February

    Setsubun (03 February)
    Setsubun, which is on 3rd February and which literally means "division of seasons", refers to the eve of any of the 24 divisions of the solar year according to the Japanese lunar calendar. Although originally, there were 4 setsubun, namely Risshun (Spring Setsubun), Rikka (Summer Setsubun), Risshuu (Autumn Setsubun) and Rittou (Winter Setsubun), Risshun later became much more significant. It coincided with the last day of Daikan (the coldest season or literally, Great Cold) and marked the end of a complete seasonal cycle; thereby making it symbolic as the eve of the lunar new year. Risshun is not a national holiday but the traditional rites such as Mame Maki (Bean Scattering) are not forgotten. Soybeans are roasted and offered to the gods, and then the Toshi Otoko (literally "year man"), referring either to the "man of the house" or to men who are born in the zodiac sign of the coming year, will toss the beans within and outside the house while repeating "Oni wa Soto; Fuku wa Uchi" which means "demons out, good luck in". Family members then pick up and eat a number of soybeans equivalent to their ages in order to be blessed with good health and luck in the coming year. Rites of Tsuina (ceremonies to ward off evil) adopted by the imperial court in the 3rd year of Keiun era (704 AD - 707 AD) were influenced by ancient customs in China. In the olden days, agrarian and marine-dependent cultures saw beans, seeds, fruits and marine produce as the source of life and having the power of ward off evil. Therefore, in certain parts of Japan, families will hang a decoration of sardine head and holly twigs on their front door so that the odour of the fish will keep the demons away.

  • March

    Haru-higan (21 March)
    Ohigan refers to the Vernal Equinox week and the Autumnal Equinox week. It is a custom to visit ancestral graves and hold memorial services for the departed souls during this period. Another common custom is the consumption of ohagi—a soft glutinous rice ball coated with sweetened bean paste.

    Vernal Equinox occurs around 20th March (21st March for year 2006) when the sun is directly over the equator, bringing about an equal length in daytime and night. It is believed, especially in Buddhism, that there exists a river separating the living world from the spiritual world and on the day of the equinoctial occurrence, Buddha aids the departed souls in crossing over and attaining enlightenment on the opposite bank. This is where Ohigan derived its name from. Higan, literally "the other shore", here refers to the other bank of the river and the spiritual world yonder. Hence the customs of Ohigan are, in essence, paying respects to those who have crossed over, and also praying for early enlightenment for the souls of the departed which have yet to make the crossing.

    During this equinoctial week, the temples conduct memorial services and some families will engage a monk from the temple to conduct similar services at home. The first of such rituals performed was for the spirit of a prince in the Daidou period (806 AD).

    There is a common saying that goes like this: "atsusa samusa mo higan made" which means that the extreme temperatures end with higan. While Aki-higan (Autumnal Equinox week) brings an end to the intense heat of summer, Haru-higan (Vernal Equinox week) kicks in spring and thence warmth returns to the land after a long, chilly winter.

  • April

    Ohanami (Flower Viewing)
    Sakura (cherry blossom) is Japan’s national flower and it blooms in late March to April everywhere at various times depending on the weather and the location. People get busy to celebrate the beauty of Sakura. It is customary for thousands of people to gather in parks and other public places to appreciate some of the 150 varieties of cherry blossom trees found in Japan. Ground coverings are spread out to accommodate the gathering of families, friends and workers spending time eating and drinking under the beautiful cherry trees. Businesses, schools and households begin their year at this time in April. Ohanami represents a time of change.

    The first Ohanami took place in the late 17th century. Short skits were acted and brightly coloured kimono were a common sight. The political situation at that time was such that many restrictions had been placed on the Japanese people. Therefore, this was a rare occasion when they could gather and enjoy themselves without fear of retribution for their actions.

    The small white and pink blossoms are the topic of many poems and they capture the hearts of the Japanese. For more than 1,000 years Sakura has stood as an icon of Japan and its beauty.

    Being held at the beginning of spring, Ohanami also welcome the gods who will bless the rice fields in rural areas although this has now been forgotten in all but the most traditional regions of Japan.
  • May

    Golden Week

    29th April to 5th May is known as the Golden Week in Japan as there are four national holidays within seven days. Combined with well-placed weekends, the Golden Week can become as long as 9 to 10 days. Many people make use of this holiday season to take a vacation and travel within the country or abroad. Therefore, most of the sightseeing and amusement spots, including airports and train stations, in Japan are overcrowded with people during this time.

    The first holiday in the Golden Week is on 29th April, which used to be the birthday of the former emperor Showa, who passed away in the year 1989. After his death, the day was called Midorino-hi (Greenery Day) since the emperor loved plants and nature. However, with effect from 2007, this national holiday will be renamed Showa Day, while Greenery Day will be moved to 4th May.

    The second holiday is on 3rd May, Kenpokinen-bi (Constitution Memorial Day). On this day in 1947, the new Japanese Constitution took effect. Then, 4th May was designated as a national holiday since this day fell between two national holidays. With effect from 2007, this day will be replaced by Greenery Day.

    The last holiday is on 5th May, Kodomono-hi (Children? Day). On this day, Japanese pray for the healthy growth of children.Kodomono-hi is also called Tangono-sekku, and historically it was the day to celebrate and pray for the health of boys.

  • June

    Tsuyu - Rainy Season

    From early June to mid-July, Japan is hit by the rainy season, so called tsuyu or baiyu (literally means ‘plum rain’) because it coincides with the plum ripening season. The Meteorological Agency announces the official beginning of the rainy season and thereafter, day in and day out, the sky remains gloomy while temperatures and humidity rise. The cause of this gloomy season of high precipitation has to do with the movements of air masses. With the cold air masses over the Okhotsk Sea moving northwards and the warm air masses over the Pacific Ocean moving southwards, they collide and result in a seasonal rain front. Since Japan stretches over a wide range of latitude, the start of tsuyu varies from location to location. Hokkaido, however, is the least affected by this rainy season.

    Although the long-lasting rain is unpleasant, it has many positive aspects. Rain is important to agriculture and is a valuable source of drinking water. Therefore, the rain of tsuyu is a rain of blessings for the Japanese people. By this time, farmers would have done their rice planting and families would have made plum brandy or pickled plums out of their plum harvests.

    During this rainy season, children often hang a doll called teru teru bozu outside their windows or from the eaves to wish for sunshine the next day. Teru teru bozu is a very simple doll made of white tissue paper or white cloth. This custom was brought to Japan from China many years ago.

  • July

    Tanabata - The Star Festival

    Tanabata is a Japanese festival celebrated in the evening of July the 7th every year. The festival has its origins in a legend about the Cowherd Star (Altair) and Weaver Star (Vega), lovers separated by the Milky Way and only allowed to meet just once a year—on the seventh day of the seventh month.

    Long ago, the god in heaven had a daughter named Orihime (weaver, the star Vega) who weaved cloth for him everyday. The god was worried about his daughter working too hard so he introduced her to a young man named Kengyuu (cowherd, the star Altair). Though he was a man of lowly birth, he was hardworking in taking care of his cattle. They fell in love and became so enamoured with each other, their work suffered.

    The god was furious with them for neglecting their work and thus separated them across Ama-no-gawa (a river in heaven—the Milky Way). Thereafter, the two of them resumed their duties and worked as hard as before. The god was pleased but felt sorry for his daughter. So he granted them brief reunions once a year on the night of July the 7th.

    On the day of Tanabata, people write their wishes on colourful strips of paper and hang them together with special decorations on leafy bamboo trees. It is believed that the wishes will come true if one keeps the bamboo tree in front of one’s house.

  • August

    Bon Festival
    Obon or Bon (13th to 16th August) is an annual Buddhist event to pay respects to one’s ancestors and is one of the more important traditions for the Japanese. It is believed that ancestral spirits return home to be reunited with their families during Obon.

    It is also time for family reunions as many people who work in cities return to their hometowns to visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. Special food offerings such as vegetables and fruits are made to the spirits of ancestors at temples and family altars at home. The altars are decorated with flowers and paper lanterns.

    In some regions, fires called mukaebi are lit at the entrances of their homes to guide the ancestors’ spirits back home on the night of 13th August while fires called okuribi send the ancestors’ spirits off on 16th August.

    During this time, the Bon-odori (Bon dance) can be seen in various places throughout Japan. The dance is to comfort the ancestors’ spirits and is performed to the sounds of folk music and singing. Many people dress up in yukata (casual kimono worn in summer) for the dances, which differ in style and music depending on the region.

  • September

    Moon viewing

    In the ancient Chinese court, moon viewing was one of the major celebrations.

    It was held on the night of the full moon in the middle of autumn. This custom was introduced to Japan in the beginning of the 10th Century, and the first official o-tsukimi was held on August 15th , 909, of the lunar calendar. Since then, not only the court but also the commoners have enjoyed o-tsukimi, the festival of looking at the most beautiful full moon in the clear autumn sky.

    For o-tsukimi, people offer tsukimi dango (round dumplings to resemble a full moon), potatoes, beans and so on together with Japanese pampas grass and fruit of the season in appreciation of the moon. People put these things on a small table placed near a window of their homes. These days, this custom is fading away because the moon cannot be seen as it is obstructed by a lot of high-rise buildings in cities and also the Japanese people have busier lifestyles.

  • October

    The Red Feather Community Chest Campaign

    The Community Chest Fund-raising Campaign, a voluntary fund-raising movement that lasts 3 months, begins on 1st October every year under a provision of the Social Welfare Service Law enacted in 1951. Part of this fund-raising movement is the well-known Red Feather Community Chest Campaign.

    Throughout Japan, volunteer groups with red feathers stand on streets and in front of train stations to collect donations from passersby and when someone makes a donation, they pin a red feather to the donor’s lapel.

    These volunteer groups comprise mostly of middle and high school students. Every year, about 2 million people, that is 1 in 60 Japanese, volunteer for this cause.

    The purpose of this campaign is to provide assistance to the less fortunate by eliciting goodwill from others. Though The Red Feather Community Chest Campaign lasts just a few days, other campaign activities continue through December under the slogan, "Together We Live", toward the goal of raising 2.5 billion yen by the end of the year.

  • November

    Shichi-Go-San (literally means Seven-Five-Three) is a traditional rite of passage and a day of festivities in Japan for three and seven-year-old girls and three and five-year-old boys held on the 15th of November every year, though this day is not a national holiday.

    This custom originated in the Heian Period (794-1185) amongst the aristocratic and warrior classes where children—who were required by a Japanese custom to have shaven hair till the age of three—were allowed to grow their hair long. Five-year-old boys started wearing hakama (skirt-like pants worn by adult males) for the first time, and seven-year-old girls replaced the simple cords they used to tie their kimono with a traditional obi (a sash). By the Meiji Period (1868-1912), these practices, as well as the modern ritual of visiting a shrine to drive out evil spirits and pray for the children’s healthy growth, were adopted by commoners.

    On this day, chitose-ame (thousand-year candy), which is made of sweetened rice flour and maltose, is sold at many stores. They use special paper bags with pictures of turtles and cranes which symbolize longevity to mark the occasion.

  • December


    New Year’s Eve, 31st December is an important day in that it is the day to wrap up the old year and start preparing for the coming year. People listen to Joya-no-Kane, the watch-night bells of temples starting around 11:00 pm on New Year’s Eve and lasting till around 12:30 am on New Year’s Day, 1st January.

    The custom of ringing out the old year with temple bells on New Year’s Eve has been observed since the Nara Period (710 – 794 AD).

    Traditionally, monks took turns striking the temple bells 108 times in succession. However, nowadays many temples give opportunities to anybody who wants to strike the bell which has the power to drive away evil. According to a Buddhist belief, the 108 peals of the temple bell represent the 108 evil passions that beset mankind.

    When the last peal sounds, these earthly desires of humans are cast out and people greet the New Year in a pure state of mind.
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