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New Year (shogatsu or oshogatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan. Most businesses shut down from January 1 to January 3, and families typically gather to spend the days together.
Years are traditionally viewed as completely separate, with each new year providing a fresh start. Consequently, all duties are supposed to be completed by the end of the year, while bonenkai parties (“year forgetting parties”) are held with the purpose of leaving the old year’s worries and troubles behind.
Homes and entrance gates are decorated with ornaments made of pine, bamboo and plum trees, and clothes and houses are cleaned.
On New Year’s eve, toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles), symbolizing longevity, are served. A more recent custom is watching the music show “kohaku uta gassen”, a highly popular television program featuring many of Japan’s most famous J-pop and enka singers in spectacular performances.
January 1 is a very auspicious day, best started by viewing the new year’s first sunrise (hatsu-hinode), and traditionally believed to be representative for the whole year that has just commenced. Therefore, the day is supposed be full of joy and free of stress and anger, while everything should be clean and no work should be done.
It is a tradition to visit a shrine or temple during shogatsu (hatsumode). The most popular temples and shrines, such as Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, attract several million people during the three days. Most impressive are such visits at the actual turn of the year, when large temple bells are rung at midnight.
Various kinds of special dishes are served during shogatsu. They include osechi ryori, otoso (sweetened rice wine) and ozoni (a soup with mochi).
There are also a few games traditionally played on New Year, however, their popularity has decreased in recent times. Hanetsuki (Japanese badminton), takoage (kite flying), and karuta (a card game) are some of them.
A very popular custom is the sending of New Year’s cards, which are specially marked to be delivered on January 1. It is not uncommon for one person to send out several dozens of cards to friends, relatives and co-workers.
Christmas was initially introduced to Japan with the arrival of the first Europeans in the 16th century. But only in recent decades has the event become widely popular in Japan, and this despite the fact that Christians make up only about two percent of the population.
While christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, more and more people are taking up traditions such as decorating their home, giving presents to friends and celebrating the event with a special meal.
In a survey conducted by japan-guide.com among young Japanese people, a majority of 54 percent responded that christmas means something special to them, with women and teenagers showing a particular attraction.
Most enthusiastic about christmas, however, seem to be retail stores and shopping malls, where christmas trees, santa clauses and other seasonal decorations can be found several weeks in advance. Some public places also feature seasonal illuminations.
The traditional Japanese christmas food is the christmas cake, usually made of sponge cake, strawberries and whipped cream. In our survey, as many as 73 percent responded to celebrate christmas with a cake.
The birthday of the current emperor is always a national holiday. If the emperor changes, the national holiday changes to the birthday date of the new emperor.
A national holiday for honoring labour.
“Shichi Go San” means “Seven Five Three”. Girls of age three and seven and boys of age three and five are celebrated on Shichigosan, and it is prayed for their good health and growth. Shichigosan takes place on November 15 and is not a national holiday. On November 15 or the closest weekend, the young people visit a Shinto Shrine dressed up in kimono.
Odd numbers are considered lucky numbers. Long candies in bags that are decorated with turtles and cranes are given to the children. The candy, the crane, and the turtle, all symbolize longlivity.
A day for promotion of culture and the love of freedom and peace. On culture day, schools and the government award selected persons for their special, cultural achievements.
On that day in 1964, the Olympic games of Tokyo were opened.
Graves are visited during the week (ohigan) of the Equinox Day.
Respect for the elderly and longevity are celebrated on this national holiday.
Tanabata, also known as the “star festival”, takes place on the 7th day of the 7th month of the year, when, according to a Chinese legend, the two stars Altair and Vega, which are usually separated from each other by the milky way, are able to meet.
Because the 7th month of the year roughly coincides with August rather than July according to the formerly used lunar calendar, Tanabata is still celebrated on August 7th in some regions of Japan, while it is celebrated on July 7th in other regions.
One popular Tanabata custom is to write one’s wishes on a piece of paper, and hang that piece of paper on a specially erected bamboo tree, in the hope that the wishes become true.
Colorful Tanabata festivals are held across Japan in early July and August. Among the biggest and most famous ones are the Tanabata Festivals of Sendai in August and Hiratsuka near Tokyo in July.