Whatever time of year you find yourself coming to Japan – even if only for a short visit – you will almost certainly find something special to do, see or try. There are a multitude of season-specific happenings throughout the year – aside from traditional Japanese festivals and a growing number of Western imports, there are various opportunities to taste special edition foods and drinks, enjoy more contemporary celebrations or simply have a good drink.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of every annual festival and event in Japan, but rather an overview of the distinct atmosphere of each season and some things you can enjoy as the months roll by.
When I arrived in Tokyo in mid-December, I was just in time to enjoy the best of the city’s winter illumination displays. While back home public illuminations are specifically a Christmas and New Year thing, in Japan you can generally enjoy them for the duration of the winter season, starting in mid-November and with the last of them disappearing around Valentine’s Day.
Christmas celebrations in Japan are quite unique, with the day itself seeing a rush for the special “Kentucky Christmas” fried chicken sets from KFC. These are so popular that they can be reserved well in advance. Strawberry shortcake is the other quintessential Japanese Christmas food.
New Year too is different to what I was used to back home – rather than getting drunk and watching fireworks (which does happen here too of course, but on a smaller scale) crowds of people flock to shrines for hatsumoude, the first prayer of the year, while for those who stay home the annual televised singing contest Kouhaku is pretty much essential viewing.
A rather more commercial Japanese New Year staple is the fukubukuro sales, which generally happen in the first week of January across many stores. These “lucky bags” contain a variety of products, and while some advertise their contents other are a complete surprise – worth a try if you enjoy an element of mystery in your shopping and don’t mind risking disappointment!
Almost as soon as New Year is behind us the hype begins for Valentine’s Day, with huge sections of shops and department stores given over to chocolate and chocolate making supplies for ladies who want to treat the men in their lives. And once the day itself has passed, it’s generally not long before the famous limited edition sakura Starbucks drinks make their appearance, along with myriad other sakura-themed products.
The cherry blossoms won’t actually appear for another six weeks or so, but in the meantime you can enjoy another blossom-centric period of celebration: the plum blossoms generally bloom around late February/early March and can make for a rather more chilled hanami experience.
By the end of March, the sakura are blooming and hanami season begins in earnest. Short-lived and intense – the blossoms and accompanying merriment are generally around for about two weeks in total – hanami is more than simply “looking at flowers”; visit any park and you will find much of the ground space swathed in tarps, upon which huge crowds of people will be picnicking, socialising, and quite often drinking themselves into oblivion beneath the clouds of pink.
Ueno and Yoyogi parks are the most popular spots and will undoubtedly be extremely busy, but smaller local parks and riversides can offer a more relaxed and low key flower viewing experience. A personal favourite of mine is the stretch of the Kamo River which runs adjacent to the Keio Inokashira line – start from Takaido, enjoy a peaceful stroll along the riverside path and finish-up at another major hanami spot, Inokashira Park.
Ushering-in summer is the month long rainy season, generally around June-July. Be prepared for many heavy downpours and occasional typhoons. Summer in Japan can be tough for those of us from cooler climates – it is long, extremely hot and humid. With the constant screeching of cicadas, it is also very loud. But despite these discomforts there are still many things to be enjoyed , especially as summer is the traditional festival season – check out the local shrines and temples to see what they have going on.
Also, be sure to see some firework displays – fireworks are very much a summer thing in Japan, as opposed to back home where they are synonymous with November 5th. Last year I went to watch the Arakawa River fireworks and, despite the rain, I felt happy to join the throngs of yukata-clad revellers as we took in the elaborate, hour-long display.
Come October, the summer heat has generally died-down and people are getting into an autumnal mood. Pop into any hundred yen shop and you will find an array of plastic autumn foliage rubbing shoulders with an abundance of Halloween goods. Halloween has become pretty popular as an opportunity to decorate the house with spooky things, dress up, and have parties. If you’re feeling brave, check out the mayhem of Shibuya crossing on the night of October 31st, where huge crowds costumed crowds tend to congregate.
A few weeks later the autumn leaves will be at their best, with several places offering night time light-ups to emphasise their red and oranges shades. It is generally said that, along with spring, this is the best time of year to visit Japan.
And as the leaves fall down, the winter illuminations begin to pop up – it’s time to do it all over again.
While it is easy to get caught-up in the excitement of such a whirlwind of celebration, as time goes on it is likely that a little ennui may begin to creep in. Next time I’ll be looking at the fine line between finding your comfort zone and getting stuck in a rut.