Japanese holidays and festivals in January

Japanese holidays and festivals: January

Like every country, Japan has its own days and festivals to celebrate. In this article, Inari will tell you more about the Japanese holidays and festivals that take place during the month of January.

New Year or Shōgatsu 正月

The New Year comes with a lot of customs in Japan, varying from traditional food to displaying mochor rice cakes and performing the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.

During the first week of January a lot of families love eating the traditional New Year’s dishes. The most popular is osechi-ryōri, a dish that is made with boiled seaweed, fish cakes, mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts, simmered burdock root and sweetened black soybeans. Another popular dish is ozōni, a soup with mochi and ingredients depending on the regions of Japan. Additionaly, mochi is also made and eaten during this time of the year. These rice cakes are made by patting boiled sticky rice with water and then hitting it with a giant wooden mallet. But be careful if you are offered one, they are very sticky and have been known to kill several people every year.

Mouth-drooling New Year food

Mouth-drooling New Year’s food

Mochi is also used for making Kagami mochi, a traditional New Year decoration consisting of two round rice cakes, a daidai, which is Japanese bitter orange, and a leaf attached on top. These decorations are often very ornamented and are sometimes truly a piece of art.

Rica cake art

Rice cake art

Other examples of customs for this time of the year are sending postcards and otoshidama.  Sending postcards for New Year is mostly used to tell relatives or far away friends that you are still alive and kicking. The post offices guarantee to deliver all the postcards on the 1st of January, so it can be a very busy time of the year for the Japanese Post. Ofcourse the Japanese children have something to look forward to as well. Japanese people give money to them on New Year’s Day. This custom is known as otoshidama. The Japanese children get a small decorated envelope, also known as  pochibukuro, with a certain amount of money depending on the age of the child. Most of the time they get more than ¥10,000.

Typical examples of pochibukuro

Typical examples of pochibukuro

After a week of indulging in lots and lots of food, it is customary to celebrate Jinjutsu 人日 or Human Day. On this day, that is also known as Wakana no sekku or Feast of Seven Herbs, the Japanese people settle their stomachs with a seven-herb rice soup or nanakusagayu. This custom is also traditionally accompanied by singing folk songs.

Herby soup

Herby soup

Coming of Age Day or Seijin no Hi 成人の日

Traditionally this Japanese holiday was celebrated every year on the 15th of January. However, since the introduction of the Happy Monday System in 2000, a system where certain holidays were put on a Monday so people could have a long weekend,  this Japanese holiday was changed to the second Monday in January. It is held for everyone who turned 20 between the second of April of the previous year and the first of April of the current year and is a ceremony where these people embrace new responsibilities and rights that they receive with the coming of age.

The young adults are invited to the local city offices to attend speeches by government officials and receive small presents. Each person celebrates this day by wearing traditional clothing. For women this is a furisode, a kimono with long sleeves, and a pair of zōri sandals. Men typically wear a dark kimono with a hakama, a traditional form of skirted pants, but many wear a formal Western suit and tie. Once the ceremony is done, everybody goes out in groups and celebrate their new rights of drinking and smoking by partying.

Party time

Party time

It’s interesting to note that during the past years there is a certain decline in attendance of this Japanese holiday. Due to the shrinking percentage of young people in Japan and the increase in young adults who don’t feel like they have reached true adulthood, this traditional Japanese holiday is losing popularity in modern Japan.

Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival 若草山焼き

If you are travelling around the City of Nara during the month of January, the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival is a must-see. During this festival on the fourth Saturday of the month, or a week later if the weather is bad,  the hills of Mount Wakakusa, overgrown by dry grass, are set ablaze. Mount Wakakusa is a 342 m high mountain that is elevated above the City of Nara, so the fire is visible throughout the city.

View of Nara from Mount Wakakusa

View of Nara from Mount Wakakusa

The origins of this festival are not exactly known. While one source mentions a boundary conflict between Nara’s great temples as the first burning of the hillsides, another claims that the people of Nara used these wild fires to drive away wild boars. One thing is sure though, this festival has already been celebrated for hundreds of years.

During the day of the festival, small events take place around the base of the mountain. One of these events is a throwing competition where people have to throw sembei or giant rice crackers as far as they can. Each year a lot of people are eager to pay ¥300 to participate in this event.

Better loosen up those muscles

Better loosen up those muscles

The actual burning of the hillside happens in the evening. At 5 pm a procession of about 30 people walks to the base of Mount Wakakusa and lights a bonfire. At this moment thousand of spectators have also taken place in front of the hillside. While the bonfire is getting bigger, a giant fireworks show is held for 15 minutes. Afterwards, a line of people walks towards the edge of the grass with a torch that was lit in the bonfire and set the mountainside on fire. Depending on the conditions of  the grass, the mountain can be on fire for 30 to 60 minutes. This year the festival will be held on the 23rd of January or the 30th if weather conditions are bad on the first date.

The burning mountain

The burning mountain

Yaedake Sakura Matsuri 八重岳 桜祭り

While the rest of Japan has to wait until March or April to look at the blossoming sakura trees, the people in Okinawa can already enjoy this at the end of January. Mount Yaedake in Motobu, a small town on Okinawa Island, organises a festival to start the Japanese sakura season. Because Okinawa is  640 kilometers south of the rest of Japan, the conditions for the blossoming sakura are better and they bloom a couple of months sooner.

The blossoming sakura of Motobu

The blossoming sakura of Motobu

During this festival a lot of events are organised. The most popular of these events is the annual crowning of Miss Sakura. Other events are the Motobu Junior High school brass band concert, dances, traditional taiko drumming and kids shows. Most of these events take place at the Yaedake Forest Cherry Blossom Park.

The crowning of Miss Sakura

The crowning of Miss Sakura

 

These are the most important Japanese holidays and festivals that take place in January. If you want to know more about this subject, feel free to contact us or write a comment.

We’ll be back next month to tell you more about the Japanese holidays and festivals that take place during February.

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