Holidays in Japan
The most important holiday in Japan is the New Year (お正月 Oshōgatsu), which largely paralyses the country from 30 December to 3 January. Japanese go home to their families (which means massive traffic jams), eat festive food and go to the neighbourhood temple at midnight to welcome the New Year. Many Japanese also often travel to other countries, and air ticket prices are very high.
In March or April, the Japanese head out en masse for hanami (花見, literally “flower viewing”), a festival of outdoor picnics and drunken debauchery in parks cleverly disguised as cherry blossom viewing (桜 sakura). The exact timing of the famous fleeting blossoms varies from year to year and Japan’s TV channels obsessively track the progress of the cherry blossom front from south to north. Top sakura spots like Kyoto are packed with tourists. The peak Hanami period often coincides with the start of the new school and financial year on 1 April, which means many people are out and about and hotels in major cities are full.
Japan’s longest holiday is Golden Week (29 April to 5 May), when there are four public holidays in one week and people go on an extended holiday. Trains get crowded and airfare and hotel prices rise to many times normal, so this is a bad time to travel in Japan, but the weeks immediately before or after Golden Week are excellent choices.
Summer brings a flood of festivals to distract people from the unbearable heat and humidity (comparable to the US Midwest). All over the country there are local festivals (祭 matsuri) and impressive fireworks competitions (花火 hanabi). Tanabata (七夕), on 7 July (or early August in some places), commemorates a story of lovers who could only meet on that day.
The biggest summer festival is Obon (お盆), which takes place in mid-July in eastern Japan (Kanto) and mid-August in western Japan (Kansai) to honour the ancestral spirits who have died. Everyone makes their way home to visit the village cemeteries and the transport is full.
National holidays in Japan
- 1 January – New Year’s Day (ganjitsu 元日, gantan 元旦 or o-shōgatsu お正月)
- 2 and 3 January – New Year holidays
- Second Monday in January – Coming of Age Day (seijin no hi 成人の日)
- 11 February – National Foundation Day (kenkoku kinen no hi 建国記念の日)
- 21 March – Spring Equinox Day (shunbun no hi 春分の日)
- 29 April – Showa Day (showa no hi 昭和の日) – first holiday of the Golden Week.
- 3 May – Constitution Day (kenpō kinnenbi 憲法記念日)
- 4 May – Greenery Day (midori no hi みどりの日)
- 5 May – Children’s Day (kodomo no hi こどもの日) – last holiday of the Golden Week.
- Third Monday in July – Navy Day (umi no hi 海の日)
- 11 August – Mountain Day (yama no hi 山の日)
- Third Monday in September – Day of Respect for Elders (keirō no hi 敬老の日)
- 23 September – Autumn Equinox Day (shuubun no hi 秋分の日)
- Second Monday in October – Sports Day (taiiku no hi 体育の日)
- 3 November – Culture Day (bunka no hi 文化の日)
- 23 November – Workers’ Harvest Festival (kinrō kansha no hi 勤労感謝の日)
- 23 December – The Emperor’s Birthday (tennō tanjōbi 天皇誕生日)
- 31 December – New Year’s holiday
Holidays based on the seasons, such as the equinox, may vary by one or two days. Additional holidays, also called compensatory holidays, are usually added when a public holiday falls on a Sunday and in cases where two dates for public holidays are close to each other.
Remember that most Japanese take extra time off around New Year, during Golden Week and during Obon. The main festival is New Year’s Day, and many shops and restaurants close for at least 2 days during this time, so it may not be an ideal time to visit. However, shops remain open and many temples hold New Year fairs, so it is not difficult to find something to eat.