Friday, February 26, 2021

Things To Do in Japan

Asia Japan Things To Do in Japan

Nature in Japan

It should come as no surprise that in a country where more than 70% of the terrain is forests and mountains, outdoor activities abound.

Climbing one of Japan’s many mountains is within the means of any traveller. You can reach the top of some mountains almost entirely by car, or with just a short, easy walk. Mount Aso is one of the largest volcanic calderas in the world, and a paved road takes cars and pedestrians right to the top. Or take the cable car, advertised as the world’s first cable car over an active volcano.

About 300,000 people climb Mount Fuji every year, a mountain so famous as an icon of Japan that it hardly needs an introduction. On the most popular route, you need to use your hands for support, but no real climbing is required; you can easily climb Mount Fuji with proper clothing, basic equipment (sunscreen, headlamp, etc.) and 1-2 days in your itinerary. It is not a walk in the park, but it is easily doable if you are not too out of shape.

  • Visit one of Japan’s top 100 cherry blossom spots or take a walk amid thousands of cherry blossoms in Yoshino
  • Climb the 3776 m high Mount Fuji, an icon of Japan.
  • Climb Mount Aso to see one of the largest volcanic calderas in the world
  • Visit the snow-capped peaks of the country’s largest national park, Daisetsuzan.
  • Climb the 2446 stone steps of the sacred mountain Haguro through an amazing jungle.
  • Take a rafting tour on some of Japan’s last wild rivers in the Iya Valley

Recreational sport in Japan

Golf is popular with the Japanese, although it tends to be quite expensive and therefore exclusive. Land is just too valuable near cities, so golf courses have to pay a lot of money for land and are typically 1-2 hours’ drive outside the city. (Shuttles from the nearest train station are often available with a reservation). Midweek prices can be found from ¥6,000 upwards. Expect it to take all day, with travel time, a round of golf and relaxing in a hot bath afterwards. As most players are local businessmen, singles are not allowed on most courses (so make sure you have at least two players with you), and rental equipment has a limited selection (better to bring your own clubs and shoes, which you can send to the range cheaply.

With its snow-covered mountainous terrain, Japan is an excellent destination for skiing and snowboarding, even if it’s mostly local visitors. Japan’s climate means that many ski resorts get excellent powder snow, and lots of it: On average, ski resorts in the Japanese Alps get 10 metres and Hokkaido slopes get a whopping 14 metres or more! Skiing in Japan can be cheap compared to other countries, with cheaper lift tickets, cheap accommodation and cheap meals. Rental equipment is cheap, but as Japanese have smaller feet on average, consider bringing your own boots. The easiest way to get to many slopes is by public transport (trains and buses), and bring your ski/snowboard equipment to the slopes.

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Although Japan is an island nation, it is not really known for its beaches. There simply aren’t many beaches, as Japanese cities (many of which are on the coast) extend right up to the shoreline. Where there are beaches, they tend to be visited only in summer; once September 1 arrives, lifeguards stop patrolling the beaches and Japanese beachgoers disappear as a result. Surfing is reasonably popular as the surf can be very good on both coasts (during typhoon season [Aug-Oct] on the Pacific coast and in winter on the Sea of Japan coast).

Spectator sports in Japan

Baseball (野球 yakyū) is very popular in Japan and the popularity is historical (baseball was first introduced to Japan around 1870 by an American professor). For internationally travelling baseball fans, Japan is one of the great examples of baseball’s popularity outside the United States. Baseball is not only played in many high schools and by professionals, but is also referenced in many parts of Japanese pop culture. In addition, many Japanese players have risen to become top players in Major League Baseball. The official Japanese baseball league is known as Nippon Professional Baseball or simply Puro Yakyū (プロ野球), which means professional baseball, and it is considered by many to be the strongest professional baseball league outside the United States. The Japanese national baseball team is also considered one of the strongest in the world and won the first World Baseball Classic in 2006 and the second edition in 2009.

Tickets for baseball games are usually easy to get, even on the day of the game, although popular games should of course be booked in advance. Tickets start at around ¥2,000, so if you’re interested, leave 4-5 hours free. You can usually bring food and drinks from outside, which is a good way to save some money instead of paying stadium prices (¥800 for a pint of beer); just have your bag checked and put your drinks in disposable cups. Especially in Osaka, it’s also popular to visit local restaurants or bars where the entire place is taken over by fans who sing, chant and cheer loudly throughout the game. The rules in Japanese baseball are not very different from baseball in the United States, although there are some minor variations. The biggest rivalry is between the Yomiuri Giants from Tokyo (a national favourite, although equally disliked by many) and the Hanshin Tigers from Osaka (widely known for having the most fanatical and dedicated fans, along with many cheers, songs and traditions).

It is also worth noting that there are two national high school tournaments in Japan each year that may attract more attention than the professional game. Both are played at Kōshien Stadium, a stadium in Nishinomiya City near Kobe that holds over 50,000 spectators and is also home to the NPB’s Hanshin Tigers.

  • The National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament, commonly known as Spring Kōshien (春の甲子園 haru no kōshien, or センバツ senbatsu) – Takes place in March, with 32 teams invited from around the country.
  • The National High School Baseball Championship, commonly known as Summer Kōshien (夏の甲子園 natsu no kōshien) – A two-week event in August, it is the final stage of a nationwide tournament structure. A total of 49 teams are taking part in the final phase – one from each prefecture in Japan, with second teams from Hokkaido and Tokyo.

Football (サッカー sakkā; “[club] football” to some English speakers) is also popular in Japan. The official league is the Japan Professional Football League (日本プロサッカーリーグ nippon puro sakkā rīgu), known as the J.League (Jリーグ J rīgu), whose highest division is the J1 League. Japan is one of the most successful Asian football leagues and has been at or near the top of the Asian Football Confederation rankings for decades.

Sumo wrestling (相撲 sumō) is a popular Japanese sport. The biggest events are the six top tournaments (本場所 honbasho) a year, each lasting 15 days. Sumo retains many traditions from its Shinto origins, and a single bout usually consists of many minutes of ritual and mental preparation, followed by only 10-30 seconds of wrestling. Sumo wrestlers lead regimented lives in training stables and devote themselves to nothing but building muscle and competing. A few foreign wrestlers are quite successful in the upper ranks, although new rules have put a limit on how many foreign wrestlers each stable can train.

Professional wrestling (プロレス puroresu) is also very popular. While it is similar to professional wrestling in other parts of the world in that the results are predetermined, its psychology and presentation are uniquely Japanese. Puroresu matches are treated as legitimate fights, with stories strongly emphasising the wrestlers’ fighting spirit and perseverance. As many Japanese professional wrestlers have a legitimate martial arts background, full-contact strikes and realistic submission holds are commonplace. The country has many promotions (companies that organise shows), the biggest being New Japan Pro Wrestling, All Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling NOAH. The biggest single event in the puroresu is New Japan’s show on 4 January (currently promoted as Wrestle Kingdom) at the Tokyo Dome, which is roughly comparable to WrestleMania in the US.

Games and entertainment in Japan

Karaoke (カラオケ) was invented in Japan and can be found in practically every Japanese city. Pronounced kah-rah-oh-keh, it is an abbreviation from the words “empty orchestra” in Japanese; many locals will have no idea what you are talking about when you use the English keh-ree-oh-kee. Most karaoke venues take up several floors of a building. You and your friends have a room to yourselves – no strangers – and the standard hourly rate often includes all-you-can-drink alcohol, with refills ordered from a phone on the wall or from the karaoke machine itself. The big chains all have an excellent selection of English-language songs. Old people prefer to sing Enka ballads in small neighbourhood bars.

You operate the karaoke machine yourself. You can queue up songs to be played one after the other. (Remember that at 4 minutes per song, you could sing for an hour with 15 songs). These days, many machines use a tablet or touch screen that allows you to search for songs by various criteria; if you can set one of them to English, great. You can also search for songs in the phonebook-sized catalogues, which is what you need to do if you can’t get an English-language tablet, or on older machines that only have a big remote. Once you find the 4-6 digit number of the song, point the remote at the karaoke machine like a TV remote, enter the number (it will appear on the screen so you can check if it’s entered correctly; if not, press 戻る to go back), and press 転送 or “Send” to confirm and add the song to the queue.

Also ubiquitous are pachinko machines. Pachinko (パチンコ) is a form of gambling in which small steel balls are thrown into a machine; more balls are awarded depending on where they land. The air in most pachinko parlours is quite rough from tobacco smoke, sweat and hot machines – not to mention the deafening noise. (Legally, the balls can only be exchanged for prizes, but players always opt for “special prize” tokens, which they exchange for cash at a separate booth elsewhere in the building or in a nearby alley. As the stall is outside the premises, it is a separate transaction and therefore not illegal).

Video arcades (ゲームセンター gēmu sentā, or ビデオ・アーケード bideo ākēdo; not to be confused with a regular ākēdo, meaning “shopping arcade/street”), although sometimes difficult to distinguish from pachinko parlours from the outside, have arcade games rather than games of chance and are often several floors high. Video games are the norm here, although you may be surprised by the variety of games. In addition to the usual action and fighting games, there are rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution or the much easier-for-beginners Taiko Drum Master (太鼓の達人 Taiko no Tatsujin), hard-to-define oddities like Derby Owners Club (which can only be described as a “multiplayer online card-collecting role-playing horse racing simulator”), and bizarre inventions like Chō Chabudai-Gaeshi! (超・ちゃぶ台返し! “Super Table-Flip! “), where you literally bang on a table and flip it furiously to relieve stress while collecting points. Game centres also usually have non-video games, which almost always include claw raffles (usually UFOキャッチャー yūfō kyacchā or simply yūfō [note: UFO is pronounced like “you-foe” and not “you-eff-oh” as in English] from the popular Sega brand) where you can win anything from stuffed animals and jewellery to expensive smartphones and trinkets, as well as sophisticated photo sticker booths (プリクラ puri-kura, shortened from the brand name Print Club).

Japan’s national game is Go (囲碁 igo, or simply 碁 go), a strategic board game that originated in China. Players place their pieces so that they enclose as much territory on the board as possible; pieces cannot be moved but can be captured if they are enclosed in all four directions. Despite its Chinese origins, the game is usually known outside East Asia by its Japanese rather than its Chinese name, as it was originally introduced and promoted by the Japanese in the West. Not everyone plays Go by a long shot, but there are newspaper columns, television and professional players. Go is also played in the West, and there is a large and active English-language wiki discussing it. On a sunny day, the Tennoji district of Osaka is a good place to watch two Go masters play.

Besides Go, another popular board game in Japan is Shogi (将棋) or Japanese Chess. The general mechanics are similar to Western chess, with a few extra pieces that move in unique ways, but the main difference is that after capturing a piece, you can later “drop” it back into play as one of your own pieces. The use of discards makes shogi a much more complex and dynamic game than Western chess.

Mahjong (麻雀 mājan) is also relatively popular in Japan and is often played in Japanese video and arcade games, although it is associated with illegal gambling and mahjong parlours can be quite seedy. Mahjong uses tiles with a variety of Chinese symbols (such as bamboo and flowers) and characters. Players draw and place tiles and try to complete a hand with specific sets of tiles (four sets of 3 identical tiles or 3 in a straight flush, plus an identical pair). While the gameplay is similar, the scoring is drastically different from the various Chinese versions.

Music in Japan

The Japanese love music (音楽 ongaku) in all styles.

Japanese traditional music (邦楽 hōgaku) uses a variety of instruments, many of which originated in China but developed into unique forms after being introduced to Japan. The most commonly used instruments are

  • the shamisen (三味線) – a 3-stringed plucked instrument similar in some respects to a banjo
  • the shakuhachi (尺八) – a bamboo flute
  • the koto (箏) – a 13-stringed plucked zither (like a dulcimer)

Taiko (太鼓) are Japanese drums. (In Japanese, taiko simply means “drum”. Wadaiko (和太鼓, “Japanese drums”) is more specific, but taiko is usually understood to mean “Japanese drums” as it is in the rest of the world. A Western drum set would be called doramu setto, doramu kitto or doramusu). Taiko drums are unique to Japan and range in size from small hand drums to huge 1.8 metre (72 inch) stationary drums. Taiko also refers to the performance itself; these physically demanding instruments can be played solo or in a kumi daiko ensemble and are very common at festivals.

Traditional Japanese music can be divided into several categories. Gagaku is instrumental or vocal music and dance performed for the imperial court. Several forms of Japanese theatre use music. Jōruri (浄瑠璃) is narrative music with the shamisen, and min’yō (民謡) is folk music such as work songs, religious songs and children’s songs.

Outside of traditional Japanese music, these instruments are not widely used, and the more obscure instruments are slowly dying out. However, a few popular artists like the Yoshida Brothers and Rin’ have combined traditional instruments with modern western musical styles.

Western classical music (クラシック[音楽] kurashikku [ongaku]) is popular in Japan among people of all ages; although it is not heard every day, it is certainly more popular than in many Western countries. There are 1,600 professional and amateur orchestras in Japan. Almost half of these are based in Tokyo, including eight full-time professional orchestras with confusingly similar names such as NHK Symphony Orchestra, Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Concert dress is casual, except for business people coming straight from work.

With the arrival of Western pop music, Japan created its own unique forms of pop music. These have largely died out, with the exception of enka (演歌), sentimental Western pop-style ballads composed to resemble traditional Japanese music and typically sung in an overly emotional style. Enka is also on the decline; it is often sung by older people at karaoke, but it is rare to find a young person who enjoys it.

Jazz (ジャズ jazu) has been very popular in Japan since the 1930s, with the exception of a brief hiatus during World War II. Often there are recordings only in Japan that cannot be found in other countries. Jazz cafés are a common way to listen to jazz. Decades ago, it was forbidden to talk in most jazz cafés, as only serious enjoyment of the music was expected, but today most jazz cafés are more relaxed and less moody.

Of course, the most popular kind of music today is pop music. J-pop and J-rock are flooding the airwaves and are sometimes even internationally popular: L’Arc~en~Ciel and X Japan have played sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden, while The 5.6.7.8’s cover of “Woo Hoo” has found its way into the UK Singles Chart after being used in Kill Bill: Volume 1 and some TV commercials. Punk, heavy metal, hip-hop, electronic and many other genres also find niches in Japan where they get their own Japanese interpretation.

J-pop is often associated with idols (アイドル aidoru), music stars produced by talent agencies. Typically marketed as “up-and-coming” artists, most idols achieve only brief fame with a single hit song that is typically repetitive, catchy and does not require much skill to sing; yet the public eagerly welcomes each new idol, just as they did last month and will do again next month. A few idol groups, however, are emerging as long-lasting acts: SMAP and Morning Musume have been popular for decades, with more than 50 top 10 singles each, while AKB48 has risen to become the best-selling female group in Japan.

Concerts (ライブ raibu, “live”) are easy to find. Depending on the event, you can buy them in shops (with a numerical code to identify the right concert), online, in record shops or in various advance lotteries. (Some sellers require a Japanese credit card with a Japanese billing address, so you may have to try several methods to find one you can use). You can buy day tickets at the venue, provided the concert is not sold out, but large venues may not even sell tickets at the door. Instead of general admission, tickets may be numbered to divide the audience into smaller groups that are admitted one at a time. Music festivals (ロック・フェスティバル rokku fesutibaru, abbreviated ロックフェス rokku fesu or simply フェス fesu) are also popular and attract tens of thousands of people. The Fuji Rock Festival is the largest festival in Japan and actually covers many genres. The RockInJapan Festival is the largest festival where only Japanese artists are allowed to perform.

Japanese fans can be just as fanatical as music lovers elsewhere. They follow their favourite bands on tour and work together to get front row tickets; they may have spent more than you to attend the same concert, so don’t feel like you “deserve” a good seat just because you paid to come from abroad! If there are several bands on the programme and you don’t like the one playing, Japanese fans consider it natural to leave your seat so others can enjoy it up close; staying in your seat just so you can save it for later is inconsiderate. Many songs feature furitsuke, ritualised hand gestures that the crowd performs along with the music, these days often with handheld lights. The band may create some of the movements, but most is organically generated by the fans (usually those in the front rows). The moves are unique to each song, which makes for an impressive sight when you realise the entire audience has memorised them; you can try to learn a few moves by watching closely, or just relax and enjoy the show.

Performing Arts in Japan

Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a type of dance drama. It is known for the elaborate costumes and make-up worn by the performers.

Noh (能 ) is a type of musical drama. While the costumes superficially resemble kabuki, Noh relies on masks to convey emotion and tells its story through the lyrics, which are written in an older form of Japanese (difficult to understand even for native speakers).

Traditionally used as a comic pause between acts in a noh play, kyōgen (狂言) consists of short (10-minute) plays that often use stock characters. These are much more accessible than noh, as they use more of a speaking voice and are typically in early modern Japanese, which is easier for modern audiences to understand (much like Shakespearean English).

Bunraku (文楽) is a type of puppet theatre.

Comedy in Japan is very different from the Western style. Japanese are very sensitive about making jokes at the expense of others, so Western-style stand-up comedy is not very common. Most Japanese comedy is based on absurdity and non-sequiturs. Most Japanese also love puns (駄洒落 dajare), although these can cross the line into groan-inducing oyaji gyagu (親父ギャグ “old man gags/jokes”, or in other words, “dad jokes”). Don’t even try sarcasm; it is almost never used by Japanese people and they will probably take your statement at face value instead.

The most common and well-known type of stand-up comedy in Japan is manzai (漫才). There are usually two performers, the “straight man” (tsukkomi) and the “funny man” (boke). The jokes are based on the funny man misinterpreting or finding funny the straight man’s lines, and are delivered at a breakneck pace. Manzai is typically associated with Osaka, and many Manzai performers use an Osaka accent, but Manzai performances are popular throughout the country.

Another traditional type of Japanese comedy is rakugo (落語), comedic storytelling. A lone performer sits on stage and tells a long and usually complicated funny story. He never gets up from a sitting, kneeling position, but uses tricks to convey actions such as standing up or walking. The story always involves a dialogue between two or more characters, which the storyteller portrays with voice pitch and body language. Rakugo translates very well; a few performers have made a career out of performing in English, but they mostly perform at special events as a form of cultural education and in videos on the internet. Still, you may be able to find a performance in English to attend.

A few troupes do Western-style stand-up and improv comedy in English. These attract an international audience: foreign visitors, expats and even a lot of English-speaking Japanese. In Tokyo, the main groups include Pirates of Tokyo Bay, Stand-Up Tokyo and the long-running Tokyo Comedy Store. Other groups include ROR Comedy and Pirates of the Dotombori in Osaka, Comedy Fukuoka, NagoyaComedy and Sendai Comedy Club.

Japanese culture

Japan is famous for geisha, although they are often misunderstood in the West. Literally translated, the word 芸者 (geisha) means “artist” or “artisan”. Geishas are entertainers, whether you are looking for singing and dancing, party games or just nice company and conversation. While some (but not all) geishas may have been prostitutes more than a century ago, this is no longer part of their profession. (To add to the confusion, some prostitutes called themselves “geisha girls” during World War II to attract American troops.) Geisha train from a young age to be exquisite, high-class entertainers. Maiko apprentices have it the hardest; they wear colourful, multi-layered kimonos and extravagant obi sashes, and always wear the labour-intensive all-white face make-up. As they mature, except on special occasions, geishas wear more discreet clothing and make-up, letting their natural beauty and charm shine through instead. Geishas are now often hired by companies for parties and banquets. Traditionally, it takes an introduction and connections to hire a geisha, but nowadays many geishas make more of an effort to showcase their talents in public appearances. In Japan’s largest cities, it’s easy to spot a geisha if you look in the right part of town. Kyoto is home to the oldest and most famous geisha community in the world; Tokyo and Osaka, of course, have their own. Yamagata and Niigata are known for their historically prestigious connections to geisha, although the scene is less active these days. You can also find geisha in some cities like Atami and Kanazawa, where they tend to be less exclusive and cheaper to book.

The tea ceremony (茶道 sadō or chadō) is not unique to Japan or even Asia, but the Japanese version stands out for its deep connection to Japanese aesthetics. Indeed, the focus of a Japanese tea ceremony is less on the tea and more on making guests feel welcome and appreciative of the season. Because of the influence of Zen Buddhism, the Japanese tea ceremony emphasises a uniquely Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi (侘寂). A very rough translation might be that wabi means “rustic simplicity” and sabi means “beauty that comes with age and wear”. The rustic bowls used in the tea ceremony, usually in a handmade style that is not quite symmetrical, are wabi; the wear to the glaze of the bowl from use and the nicks in the pottery, often done intentionally, are sabi. Seasonality is also extremely important; a tea ceremony venue is typically small and simple, with sparse decoration chosen to match the season, and usually a picturesque view of a garden or the great outdoors.

The tea used in the tea ceremony is matcha (抹茶). During the ceremony, the host adds this tea powder to water and stirs it vigorously to obtain a foamy consistency. The bright green matcha is quite bitter, so the tea ceremony also includes one or two small sweets (菓子 kashi); their sweetness balances the bitterness of the tea, and the snacks are also chosen to match the seasons. Both the tea and the food are presented on seasonal serving dishes that are as much a part of the experience as the food.

There are tea houses all over Japan where you can be a guest at a tea ceremony. The most common type of ‘informal’ ceremony usually lasts 30 minutes to an hour; a ‘formal’ ceremony can last up to 4 hours, although it includes a much more extensive kaiseki menu. It might be worth looking for a ceremony that is at least partially conducted in English, or hiring a local guide, otherwise you may find the finer details of the ceremony quite obscure. While casual dress may be acceptable at informal ceremonies today, you should check if there is a dress code and probably try to dress up a little anyway. Trousers or long skirts would certainly suit well, but more formal ceremonies would require a suit; muted clothing is best so as not to distract from the ceremony itself.

Uji is often called the “tea capital of Japan”; it is famous for matcha, which has been produced here for over a thousand years. Shizuoka grows 45% of Japan’s tea crop, and more than 70% of Japanese teas are processed there (even though they are grown elsewhere). Kagoshima is the second largest grower, where the warm, sunny climate and different varieties of the tea plant produce teas known for their distinctive, full-bodied flavour.

Festivals in Japan

In Japan, there are an estimated 200,000 festivals (祭 matsuri) during the year. Festivals are held for a variety of reasons, the most common being to give thanks (e.g. for a successful rice harvest) and to bring good luck. Although most festivals are small events sponsored by local shrines or temples, there are hundreds that are large citywide affairs, any of which would be a nice addition to your itinerary if they overlap with your schedule.

The main event at many large festivals is a parade of floats, usually lifted by several dozen men and carried by hand. Often the kami (spirit/deity) of a shrine is ritually placed in a portable shrine (mikoshi) and carried through the neighbourhood as part of the parade. At some festivals, anyone can help carry a chariot for a few minutes. Fireworks (花火 hanabi) are also a common event at festivals, especially in summer; in Japan, this is the most common use of fireworks. The rest of the time is spent enjoying the stalls and entertainment. Food stalls offer traditional festival dishes such as takoyaki, shaved ice (かき氷 kakigōri) and skewered hot dogs. A traditional game at the festivals is goldfish scooping (kingyo sukui): whoever can catch a goldfish with the flimsy paper scoop gets to keep it. Other common games are ring toss and cork shooting.

Festivals are a time for the neighbourhood and community to come together and celebrate, whether it’s a family, young couples dating or just a group of friends. Almost everyone dons a colourful yukata, while many of the people working the festival wear Happi coats. (Street clothes are also perfectly fine).

List of known festivals:

  • Sapporo Snow Festival (さっぽろ雪まつり Sapporo Yuki-matsuri) in Sapporo(February, 7 days from the second week) – artistic snow and ice sculptures.
  • Hakata Dontaku in Fukuoka (3-4 May) – Japan’s largest festival, attracting over 2 million people during Golden Week.
  • Kanda in Tokyo (May, Sat-Sun closest to May 15 in odd-numbered years)
  • Hakata Gion Yamakasa in Fukuoka (1-15 July) – famous for speeding one-ton cars
  • Gion in Kyoto (July, the whole month, but especially 14-17 and 21-24)
  • Nebuta in Aomori (2-7 August)
  • Awa-Odori in Tokushima (12-15 August) – Folk Dance Festival

There are also several nationwide festivals:

  • New Year (正月 Shōgatsu) (31 December – 3 January)
  • Hina matsuri (3 March) – during the “doll festival” families pray for their girls and display dolls of the emperor and his court
  • Tanabata (around 7 July; in Sendai, 5-8 August; some places are based on the lunar calendar) – sometimes called the “star festival”, celebrates the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (the stars Vega and Altair), who could only meet on this day of the year
  • Obon or Bon (three days, usually around 15 August, but date varies by region) – when the spirits of the deceased return to this world; families have reunions and visit and cleanse the graves of ancestors
  • Shichi-Go-San (“Seven-Five-Three”) (15 November) – for girls between 3 and 7 years and boys between 3 and 5 years.

Some local festivals are more eccentric. Hari Kuyō (“needle memorial”) festivals are held all over Japan to give thanks to old or broken needles and pins. Hadaka (“naked”) festivals are actually common throughout Japan, but the most famous is the Eyō Hadaka matsuri at Saidai-ji in Okayama. Thousands of men, clad only in loincloths, scramble to catch auspicious sacred objects that are thrown into the crowd to bring them a year of good luck. Naki Sumō (“crying sumo”) festivals across Japan have competitions where two sumo wrestlers holding babies see which baby cries first, while priests provoke them by making faces and putting on masks. And the Kanamaramatsuri in Kawasaki is famous for celebrating male genitalia.

Check the JNTO website for a list of several dozen festivals throughout the year in English.

Hot springs in Japan

As a nation made up of volcanic islands, it is not surprising that hot springs are commonplace in Japan. Foreign visitors usually visit hot springs by staying at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, most of which offer hot springs as one of their main attractions (the other main attraction is usually the elaborate kaiseki meals). This requires some research and planning to decide where you want to go (most ryokan are in small rural towns) and to fit it into your schedule (a visit to a ryokan usually lasts from 5pm to 10am, plus travel time, which is often lengthy), but is a popular holiday activity for foreigners and locals alike.

Visiting hot springs is also possible during the day. Many hot springs are independent baths open to the public, and ryokan typically sell day passes for access to their private baths.

Japanese have pondered for centuries what the best hot springs in the country are, and they have come up with quite a few. Beppu is famous for its hot spring hells, a series of hot springs in a variety of colours from thick, slippery grey (from suspended mud) to blue-green (from dissolved cobalt) to blood-red (from dissolved iron and magnesium). The hells are not suitable for bathing (they are just too hot, although there is a footbath next to one with some pale red and still very hot water), but many others in the Beppu Onsen are. Hakone may not be the best hot springs in Japan, but it’s about an hour outside Tokyo and on the way to Kyoto and Osaka, so it’s a popular destination. Shibu Onsen in Yamanouchi near Nagano is famous for wild monkeys that come down from the snow-capped mountains to sit in the hot springs. (Don’t worry, there are separate baths for humans).