Shogatsu (New Year)
Bringing in the New Year is taken very seriously in Japan. Shogatsu, the Japanese New Year celebration, falls on the familiar date of January 1 per the Gregorian calendar, but the celebration in Japan is stretched out days before and after. It is considered one of the biggest festivals in Japan.
Shogatsu is observed by enjoying many traditional foods that vary between regions in Japan. Many people start the New Year by eating soba (buckwheat) noodles at midnight for good health. At dawn, the Emperor of Japan prays for the nation.
Twice a year, once on the vernal equinox, usually in March depending on the lunar calendar, and again on the autumnal equinox in September, Japanese families visit family tombs and cemeteries, taking flowers, incense and sweets to decorate the graves and to leave as gifts. On September 15, Keiro-no-hi, is Respect for the Aged Day when the elderly are honored for their contributions to life in Japan.
Hanami (Cherry Blossom Festival)
Hanami, which literally translates to ‘flower viewing’ in Japan, is a Japanese tradition of celebrating the beauty of Japanese flowers, the most popular being the cherry blossom tree. Cherry blossom trees are grown all over Japan, admired by locals, tourists and people all over the world. In the larger cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, the cherry blossom festival is held around the end of March and the beginning of April.
Thousands of people flock to public spaces such as parks to admire the true beauty of the cherry blossom tree, holding feasts and picnic underneath the pink flowered trees. The celebrations normally involve eating, drinking, playing and listening to music.
If there is one big holiday in Japan to plan around, it is Golden Week! Fail to do so and you could find yourself spending much of your trip waiting in queues.
Golden Week is the busiest time to travel in Japan, it is not just a little busy but very busy. Four different, back-to-back Japanese festivals hit just as spring weather is turning pleasant. Japanese people take advantage by planning vacations; hotels, flights, and ground transportation fill up. Many businesses close for at least a week. Shrines and attractions in popular cities become very busy.
One of the country's most poetic holidays takes place on July 7th. The Star Festival, Tanabuta, is rooted in the legend of two stars, lovers who were separated by the Milky Way, but managed to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. Japanese write wishes on paper, tying them to branches or at the entrance to their homes, hoping the wind will carry the wishes to the stars.