Holidays in Japan
The most important holiday in Japan is New Year’s (Oshōgatsu), which pretty much shuts down the country from December 30 to January 3. Japanese head home to their families (which means massive transport congestion), eat festive foods and head out to the neighborhood temple at the stroke of midnight to wish in the New Year. Some Japanese often travel to other countries as well, and prices for airfares are very high. Wild drunken parties are extremely rare, however, and Japanese don’t shoot off fireworks for the occasion (except for a few theme parks at midnight). Large cities with ex-pat bars are the only place for whooping it up. Expect banks and museums to be closed for the entire holiday period. Some restaurants may open right after New Year’s Day, and some stores trying to squeeze out more revenue may be open as well. Convenience stores are the only guaranteed places that don’t close, so they are always open to get food or yen at those with machines that take foreign ATM cards.
From late March to early April on average (in May in Hokkaido), Japanese head out en masse for hanami (“flower viewing”), a festival of picnics and drunken revelry in parks, cleverly disguised as cherry blossom (sakura) viewing. The exact timing of the famously fleeting blossoms varies from year to year and Japan’s TV channels follow the progress of the cherry blossom front from south to north obsessively. It is actually impossible to accurately predict when the blossoms will come out until about a month before they do, but there are several online sources to check on the forecasts.
The longest holiday is Golden Week (27 April to 6 May, but varies slightly), when there are four public holidays within a week and everybody goes on extended vacation. Trains are crowded and flight and hotel prices are jacked up to multiples of normal prices, so it can be a bad time to travel in Japan, but the weeks immediately before or after Golden Week are excellent times. It is also wisteria and azalea season, which is extremely beautiful. What you need to know is that there is a big exodus of people from the big cities at the start of Golden Week and their return at the end. As long as you are not fighting the Japanese for the same seats on trains or rooms at hot spring resorts, etc., Golden Week can be easily navigated – and the big cities are in fact emptier than normal.
Summer brings a spate of festivals designed to distract people from the intolerable heat and humidity. There are local festivals (matsuri) and impressive fireworks competitions (hanabi) throughout the country. Tanabata, on 7 July (or early August in some places), commemorates a story of star-crossed lovers who could only meet on this day.
The largest summer festival is Obon, held in mid-July in eastern Japan (Kanto) and mid-August in western Japan (Kansai), which honors departed ancestral spirits. Everybody heads home to visit village graveyards, and transport is packed.
Many cities and villages throughout Japan have their own unique seasonal matsuri. If you are visiting a specific place, it may be wise to check to see what is coming up and when it is taking place.
Lunar holidays such as equinoxes may vary by a day or two. Holidays that fall on a weekend may be observed with a bank holiday on the following Monday. Keep in mind that most Japanese people take additional time off around New Year’s, during Golden Week, and during Obon. The most important festival is New Year’s Day, and many shops and restaurants close for at least 2 days during this period, so it might not be an ideal time to visit. However, convenience stores remains open, and many temples conduct New Year’s Day fairs, so it’s still not difficult to find food to eat.
- January 1– New Year’s Day (ganjitsu or gantan)
- January 2 and 3– New Year’s Bank Holidays
- January 9 (Second Monday of month)– Coming-of-Age Day (seijin no hi )
- February 11– National Foundation Day (kenkoku kinen no hi )
- March 20– Vernal Equinox Day (shunbun no hi )
- April 29– Showa Day (showa no hi ) – first holiday of Golden Week
- April 30– Showa Day Observed
- May 3– Constitution Day (kenpō kinnenbi )
- May 4– Greenery Day (midori no hi )
- May 5– Children’s Day (kodomo no hi ) – last holiday of Golden Week
- July 16 (third Monday of month)– Marine Day (umi no hi )
- September 17 (third Monday of month)– Respect-for-the-Aged Day (keirō no hi)
- September 22– Autumnal Equinox Day (shuubun no hi )
- October 8 (second Monday of month)– Sports Day (taiiku no)
- November 3– Culture Day (bunka no hi )
- November 23– Labor Thanksgiving Day (kinrō kansha no hi)
- December 23– The Emperor’s Birthday (tennō tanjōbi)
- December 24– Emperor’s Birthday Observed
- December 31– New Year’s 2013 Bank Holiday
The Japanese calendar
The Imperial era year, which counts from the year of ascension of the Emperor, is often used for reckoning dates in Japan, including transportation timetables and store receipts. The current era is Heisei and Heisei 30 corresponds to 2018. The year may be written as “H30” or just “30”, so “30/4/1” is April 1, 2018. Western years are also well understood and frequently used.