Though Japan has often been criticized for throwing itself headlong into the 21st century at the expense of its culture and tradition, one thing is certain - in Japan holidays remain a vital cultural component. Though often obscured by the ubiquitous neon of downtown Tokyo and the proliferation of fast food restaurants, centuries-old festivals and more contemporary Japan holidays are observed and enjoyed throughout the year. To witness and participate in these ancient rituals is an opportunity that makes a trip to Japan all the more worthwhile. A highlight of the calendar of Japan holidays, then, is a helpful tool to any traveler planning a trip to the land of the rising sun.
Japanese festivals, or matsuri, seem to be happening at any given time in Tokyo and Kyoto. The New Year festival begins at the stroke of midnight on the 31st of December when every temple bell throughout the country begins to toll. The bells toll a total of 108 times to represent the 108 evil human passions. The New Year bell ringing ritual is known as Joya no Kane, and the public at large can be seen in their finest kimono, paying respects and actually striking the temple bells.
After the New Year holiday, Golden Week is the next major festival. A celebration of the arrival of spring, Golden Week begins on April 29 and usually stretches until the middle of May. In Kyoto, you can watch as local geisha in traditional costume perform ritual dances at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater in Gion. Kyoto also hosts many lively blossom viewing parties during Golden Week. Indeed, the true attractions of this festival are the myriad cherry, azalea, and rhododendron blossoms that shower both city sidewalks and the countryside.
The festival of Obon punctuates the mid August heat. One of the most ancient of Asian holidays, Obon is the time when spirits of the dead revisit the world of the living to drink some sake, tell a few stories, and generally enjoy the earthly comforts they can't access in the afterlife. During Obon, Japanese citizens usually return to their hometowns to clean up grave sites and offer prayers to the souls of their departed ancestors. Like many Asian holidays, Obon is a week-long affair lasting from August 13 to 19. For travelers visiting Japan, the highlight of the festival occurs when lamps and fires are lit by families to guide the spirits of their departed ancestors during their earthly sojourn.
Near the Kiyomizu-dera (once an ancient burial site) in Kyoto, thousands of these paper lanterns are strung by gravestones, and the grounds remain open to visitors throughout the night. The festival's finale occurs on the 16th of August at 8 pm when the dead are sent back to the other world with the light of immense bonfires in the shape of Chinese characters burning from each of Kyoto's five hills. As far as Japanese festivals go, Obon is an amazing display and one of the most awe inspiring and spiritual of all Asian holidays.
Japanese festivals continue throughout the autumn months in the rural areas when many city dwellers head to the country side to admire the fall multicolored foliage. Also worth seeing in November is the annual Grand Tea Ceremony at the Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine in Kyoto. Perhaps the most precise of Japanese festivals, the ceremony is conducted by venerable tea masters in memory of an honored shogun who first conducted such a ceremony at the spot in 1587.