Japan Is A Wonderland of Culture and Tradition. Don’t Miss These Popular Festivals for Families and The Opportunity to Immerse the Kids in A World So Different to Their Own.
Guest Post by Tiffy. Edited by Family Globetrotters.
Tiffy, a.k.a. AsiaTravelBug, is a travel planning freak, an ex-finance manager and currently a digital marketing ninja. Traveling has kept her sane from all the hustles and bustles of corporate life. Despite being a nervous flyer, Tiffy’s wanderlust has led her to visit Japan for 6 times (and counting). Her favorite cities are Kyoto and Tokyo and would choose to visit Japan over Paris in a heartbeat!
Japan continues to be a family destination of choice. Outside of the world of anime, Disney, or Akihabara, there is also a plethora of festivals and celebrations you can participate it. From honouring traditions to admiring beautiful flowers to thwarting off evil spirits, there are many popular Japanese festivals for families. As some of these festivals only come around once a year, planning your trip to coincide with these celebrations is well worth the effort.
POPULAR JAPANESE FESTIVALS FOR FAMILIES #1
Setsubun, Bean-Throwing Festival – February
Have you ever wanted to throw beans into a crowd without getting into trouble? Well, you can at the Setsubun festival and the best part is, no one will yell at you. In fact, it is highly encouraged! This unique festival sets off the Haru Matsuri, also known as the Spring Festival in Japan. It traditionally happens every year in early February (usually the 3rd or 4th) at all temples and shrines throughout the country which means no matter where you are visiting, you can join in on this celebration.
The traditional celebration of Setsubun is to throw soybeans outside the house or at an oni (demon). The act of throwing the beans is to drive away the bad spirits or rid the house of bad luck. If you wish, you can just pick up an oni demon mask from a convenience store and be attacked! I’m sure the kids would have a field day. After throwing the beans you are meant to eat the same number of beans as your age plus an additional one to ensure good health in the new lunar year ahead. Nowadays, you can get colourful sugar-coated Setsubun mame if the roasted soybeans aren’t to your taste. Limiting your 5-year-old to only eating 5+1 is another matter!
POPULAR JAPANESE FESTIVALS FOR FAMILIES #2
Hina Matsuri, Doll Festival – March
Whether you like dolls or have children traveling with you that do, this festival involves many gorgeous dolls on display. The dolls used are often expensive family heirlooms that are beautiful to look at. It is usually held on March 3rd and is a place where people can enjoy foods like hishi-mochi, which are rice cakes, rice and sweet saki and rice and red beans boiled together. During this time of early spring, the Peach Blossoms are usually beginning to bloom, which symbolises feminism. Other traditions during this festival are to send dolls out to sea, which gives hope to sending off evil spirits. During this part of the festival, it is said that any impurities or evil spirits will pass from girls to dolls as they float away.
POPULAR JAPANESE FESTIVALS FOR FAMILIES #3
O-Shogatsu, New Year’s – January
Celebrating the New Year is always exciting and filled with anticipation, no matter where you travel. Whilst there are some similarities to bringing in the New Year as the rest of the world, there are some unique Japanese traditions. Essentially, we are saying goodbye to one year and welcoming the upcoming year. In Japan, the New Year’s Eve festival is held in January and helps them celebrate a fresh start.
Traditionally, women and girls dress up in fancy kimonos to celebrate the opportunity for renewal. It is also a time for families to spend together reflecting on the year that has just concluded. It typically begins with a nice, quiet family dinner and then continues outside with prayer, fortune telling, and saki stops along the way. There are also bonfires in which people burn bamboo. To conclude the ceremony at midnight, the temple bells are rung to remove bonnou, or trouble for the coming year.
POPULAR JAPANESE FESTIVALS FOR FAMILIES #4
Seijinshiki, Coming of Age Day – January
This festival celebrates all the beautiful teenagers who have turned into adults in the last year. Anyone who has turned 20 years old is the center of this celebratory festival that is not only for the families of those coming of age but also for onlookers. It is another festival held in January, usually on the second Monday of the month. Both ladies and gentlemen who are coming of age will dress up in gorgeous and traditional Japanese clothing. Men wear kimonos known as haori and women wear very exquisite silk kimonos along with fur wraps.
An interesting tidbit about these outfits is that they are usually so traditional and fancy that many people opt to rent the clothing. As a visitor, you can view the well-dressed new adults in the city square or town hall. In some cities, the mayor will make an inspiring speech that reminds them of their new role as adults in the community.
POPULAR JAPANESE FESTIVALS FOR FAMILIES #5
Kanbutsu-e, Buddha’s Birthday – April
This traditional celebration each year honours the day Gautama Buddha was born. If you are not familiar with the name, Gautama Buddha is the founder of Buddhism, a religion or philosophy that is practiced all over the world. When travelling to other places around the world with your family, it is always a great idea to learn about and experience new cultures. Being exposed to other faiths and different types of celebrations, even if you and your family are not religious, is an enjoyable way to show respect for the country you are visiting.
Children will appreciate the Japanese kids dressed up in festive robes parading through the yards. Other traditions during this festival are kambutsu-e, which is a baptismal ceremony and it involves sweet tea being poured over small statues of Buddha. This festival takes place on April 8th every year.
POPULAR JAPANESE FESTIVALS FOR FAMILIES #6
Hanami, Festival of Cherry Blossoms – March to May
Another very popular festival you may have heard of is the Cherry Blossom Festival. This festival honours the beautiful spring flowers. Hanami means “flower viewing” and is another celebration of spring and the season to come. It is a great event to get out into the fresh air with the family. Many people go to the local parks and sit around with a picnic to enjoy the wonderful flowers.
Other traditions include tea ceremonies, dances, beauty pageants and parades for all to see. The timing for the viewing is a bit trickier than some of the other celebrations. That’s because the Cherry Blossoms may begin blooming anywhere from March to May. It also will depend on which region of Japan you are visiting. The farther North, the earlier, and the farther South, the later the trees blossom. For the most accurate information, you can check out the websites for the areas you hope to visit. They can usually give a pretty good idea of when the festivals will take place.
POPULAR JAPANESE FESTIVALS FOR FAMILIES #7
Shichi-go-san, 7-5-3 Festival – November
Another festival that honours and celebrates children is the 7-5-3 festival for both boys (age 5) and girls (ages 7 and 3). It takes place every November 15th and each child being celebrated dresses up for all to see in their best Kimono. As time goes on and this ceremony changes, boys also may wear their best suits in place of the Kimonos. The festival is traditionally to rid the children of bad luck.
The Japanese have beliefs that some ages bring natural bad luck, so to thwart it off, they go to the shrine on this day and pray for the future of these special children. One of the most important parts of this celebration is to take a lot of family photos. Grandparents tend to splurge during this time to capture long lasting memories. If you would like to be part of these celebrations, one of the most popular Shichi-go-san destinations in Tokyo is Hie Shrine in Akasaka.
POPULAR JAPANESE FESTIVALS FOR FAMILIES #8
Tanabata Matsuri, Story of Two Star Crossed Lovers – July or August
If you and your family would like to make wishes and hang them on bamboo branches, then this can be a fun festival to celebrate if you are traveling to Japan in July or August. It traditionally takes place on July 7th or August 7th of every year and it varies because it is based on the lunar calendar. The traditional story that is the basis for this celebration is that two stars fell in love and were reunited by a bridge in the Milky Way. Their names, Kengyu and Shokujo, mean respectively, Cowherd star and Weaver star.
The most famous Tanabata festival is held in Sendai. The main features of the festival are thousands of colourful streamers adorning the buildings and shopping centres which is meant to resemble forests. Each streamer is about 3 to 5 metres in length, is constructed out of washi paper and then hung from 10m long bamboo poles.
According to Trip Savvy, in addition to the streamers, there are smaller paper decorations that include kimono to ward off bad health and accidents; a net for good harvests; cranes for long life, health and safety; a purse for good business; a trashbag for cleanliness; and paper strips for good handwriting, which people often write wishes on and hang from a bamboo branch. These items are also hung from the bamboo poles or worked into the design of the streamers themselves.
POPULAR JAPANESE FESTIVALS FOR FAMILIES #9
Obon, Festival of the Dead – July
The Festival of the Dead is a Japanese tradition of paying respects to ancestors and loved ones who have passed away. Japanese families of the deceased take the time to clean and care for grave sites and houses in the hopes that their loved one will come back to visit for the duration of the festival. Once the sun goes down, the lights are turned off except for the lanterns displayed in the houses. Also, in the graveyards, lanterns and incense light the way. This festival is celebrated in the middle of July from the 13th – 15th. On the last day, okuri-dango or rice dumplings are offered up to the loved ones as a farewell treat.
The Japanese believe that once a person has passed, they go to a celestial world they call Meido. There is also a dance held in different places throughout the cities to commemorate the holiday. One of the most famous bonfire festivals as part of this tradition is the Gozan Okuribi (or Daimonji) in Kyoto, which attracts thousands of visitors every year.
POPULAR JAPANESE FESTIVALS FOR FAMILIES #10
Tango no Sekku, Children’s Festival for Boys – May
While the girls have Dolls Day, the boys have this day. The festival, which has a couple of different names such as Kodomo-no-hi, shobu-no-sekku, and tango-no-sekku, traditionally involves handing out medicinal irises which are believed to ward off illness in the young boys. This is a National Holiday and marks the end of Golden Week.
While this is an older tradition, and irises are not handed out everywhere, it is a special day set aside to pray for the health and prosperity of boys in the family and throughout the city and country. Sometimes families will fly banners of carp because the fish is said to be a symbol of strength and energy. The carp are known for using their strength and perseverance to swim upstream against the current.
The strong current is a symbol of obstacles that young children, especially boys, can experience throughout their lives. The idea is that the energy and strength is an example of how the boys should live their lives. The hope is that not only will the boys be healthy and prosper, but that they will also show determination and hard work as they grow into men. For planning purposes, this festival happens traditionally every year on May 5th and around the country there are many events for families to partake in.
Japan certainly embraces its time old traditions and we should be blessed that we’re able to partake in these popular festivals for families. No matter whether you are a young child or just young at heart, we have no doubt you will enjoy these celebrations.
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