Photo by Jeff Carpenter via Flickr
Japan is home to numerous traditions and celebrations, honoring cultural heritage, family, friends and events throughout the year. From weddings and birth celebrations to numerous matsuri’s, seasonal changes and the ringing in of the new year, Japanese traditions and celebrations are a wonderful way to learn about the culture. While many traditional celebrations are usually celebrated with close family, there is an emerging number of festivals and events that can be enjoyed by foreigners as well.
Like many cultures around the world, wedding celebrations in Japan are an elaborate affair, bringing two families together and honoring traditions. Most couples in Japan opt to have either a traditional Shinto wedding, or a “white wedding”, similar to a Protestant Christian wedding held in a hall or large venue. The former is held in a Shinto shrine, with the couple dressed in elegant kimonos, and with the bride also wearing a headdress and geisha-style makeup. The Shinto wedding style was made popular in 1900 when the Crown Prince Yoshihito took a bride, while the “white wedding” gained popularity after the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Both wedding styles are elegant affairs, often costing close to a years salary, but unlike most western weddings, they typically involve only immediate relatives and very close friends.
Photo by Simon Cumming via Flickr
Another joyous time, the birth of a child in Japan is also surrounded in celebration. On the child’s 7th day, or oshichiya, they are given a name, and on their 30th or 32nd day, or omiyamairi, the baby will be taken to visit a Shinto shrine. Gifts typically come one to two months after a child is born, as it is considered to be tempting fate if given before birth. As the child ages, birthdays will be celebrated with small parties, but as they enter adulthood, many Japanese chose to only celebrate with their partners.
The final celebration of life, a Japanese funeral, is also a time of tradition for most families. Japanese typically hold a wake, or otsuya, the evening before the funeral, or kokubetsushiki. At the otsuya, typically a Buddhist priest will chant a sutra and immediate family will offer respect to the deceased. To help with the costs of the funeral, guests will bring monetary contributions, depending on their relation to the deceased. The following day is the funeral, and later a cremation occurs.
Since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1873, New Years, or oshogatsu, in Japan has become a wildly celebrated time. A highlight is osechi ryōri, the traditional food eaten this time of year which is made up of sweet, sour or dried small plates. They keep without refrigeration, as this tradition dates back to the time before homes had electricity and shops would close for the holidays. In the past, families would prepare the meals together, but many now order from shops, making this tradition accessible to visitors across the country.
Photo by t.kunikuni via Flickr
On the first day of the year, it is tradition to watch the sunrise, or hatsuhinode, and to make a wish for the upcoming year. This tradition originates from the Shinto belief that Toshigami, the god of the new year, arrives when the sun rises to grant wishes. Some insist on climbing snowy Mount Fuji on this day, but most will visit various temples, shrines or parks across the country that welcome locals and tourists alike.
The Japanese also celebrate solstices, and equinoxes every year, a traditional time to celebrate the seasons and Eearth. Though all seasonal solstices and equinoxes offer great sights to visitors, a wonderful time to visit is during winter solstice, or Tōji, celebrating the departure of ‘yin’, cold and darkness, and welcome ‘yang’, the upcoming light and warmth. Tōji is celebrated by bathing with yuzu fruit, visiting onsens and enjoying warming foods. For visitors, consider visiting the famous Toji Matsuri at the Issan Shrin in Saitama City, or head to Hokkaido for the Sapporo Festival of Snow in January.
Photo by Charles Lam via Flickr
The Japanese also celebrate many festivals, or matsuri’s, throughout the year. The dates change dates every year, but many occur around traditional holidays like Setsubun, a celebration of seasonal division every spring, and Obon, the celebration of one’s ancestors in August. Typically held by local shrines or communities, they offer traditional food, and entertainment such as games, karaoke and large float displays. Some notable festivals to explore are Gion Matsuri, in July in Kyoto, Kanda Matsuri, in May in Tokyo and Tenjin Matsuti, in July in Osaka.
Tradition and celebration are extremely important to Japanese culture, and as a visitor, witnessing such events is an honor. Taking the time to better understand the highly traditional ways of Japan is extremely important, and whether visiting a widely celebrated festival or being invited into an intimate affair, it will help you gain insight to the uniqueness of Japan.