Hatsumode (The first visit to a shrine or a temple)
Shogatsu (Japanese New Year) is from 1st to 3rd January. 1st January is called Ganjitsu/Gantan and is a national holiday in Japan.
Many people make their first visit to a shrine or a temple soon after the temple bells have pealed to usher in the New Year, or during the first week of the New Year. The first visit to a shrine or temple is called Hatsumode. It is not a very religious event but rather a custom. Some well-known shrines and temples can expect a few million visitors during the New Year holiday each year.
People throw money into an offering box and pray for safety, health and good fortune. After worshipping, they buy a good luck talisman or a sacred arrow with white feathers. It is fun to draw lots for a written fortune bearing a Chinese character symbolizing either good or bad luck. After reading the fortune, people tie the slip of paper to a branch of a tree in the shrine or temple precincts as the Japanese believe that the gods will double their good luck or minimize their bad luck.
Kisaragi (Another name of February)
February is the coldest month of the year in Japan and is also called Kisaragi, which means to wear layers of clothes.
Snowfall is heavy in Hokkaido and the coastal areas of the Japan Sea. Various snow festivals are held there in February. The Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido is especially famous for its ice statues of famous people or replicas of famous buildings created from snow and ice. Visitors are not only from different parts of Japan but also from all over the world.
February is also the time when entrance examinations to universities, colleges, high schools, including some private schools, and national junior high schools are carried out. These examinations are so difficult to pass that the experience is called Jukenjigoku (examination hell). Why are entrance examinations so competitive? It is because people believe that diplomas from top universities are the key to a good lifetime employment.
The 3rd of February is Setsubun (refer to Japanese Customs, February 2006). On the lunar calendar, this is when winter changes to spring. To celebrate the coming of spring and to drive evil spirits away, an event called Mame-maki(bean-throwing) is held at shrines, temples and even at home. It is said that we can stay healthy throughout the year if we eat the same number of beans as our age.
The next day, February the 4th, is Risshun, which means the first day of spring. Although the temperature stays low, plum blossoms and daffodils begin to bud and their fragrance floats in the chilly air.
After mid-month, Haruichiban (the first strong wind from the south) rages through the country. People long for the coming of spring.
Yayoi (Another name for March)
The month of March is also called Yayoi, which means to grow more and more.
Creatures come out of the ground, birds begin to sing and flowers start to bloom.
March 3rd is Hina-matsuri , a festival for girls. ( Please refer to the March “Festivals in Japan” under Regulars on our website).
The 3rd of March is also “Ears Day” (Mimi no Hi) observed since 1954. This is the day to think about caring for our ears. The shape of the Arabic numeral 3 resembles that of an ear, and the numeral 3 can be read as mi in Japanese, so March 3rd (3/3) sounds like mi mi, which means ears in Japanese.
March is the month when schools close and graduation ceremonies are held in every school, ranging from kindergarten to university, as the school year in Japan ends in March and begins in April. Many companies and banks have chosen March as the month for settling the year’s accounts, and it is also the month for filing income tax returns. As March is the end of the fiscal year, it is the busy season for transfers relating to jobs, schools and moving house. The transfer season causes a fuss in some families. For varied reasons such as their children’s education or care of elderly parents, some fathers today are forced to go to a new post alone and are separated from their families.
Uzuki is the month in which small white flowers called Unohana are in full bloom on the hedges.
As April draws nearer, temperatures rise and there are more and more warm days. Although snow may still be found in Hokkaido and Tohoku (North East area), in places south of the Kanto (central) area cherry trees and other spring flowers start to blossom.
April is the season for Ohanami (flower viewing; please refer to Japanese Customs April, 2006 for more information), It is a traditional spring event in celebration of sakura (cherry blossoms). Cherry trees begin to bloom first in warm Okinawa, then the blossoms come out in Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu (main island), and by May in Hokkaido. Around this time on the television weather reports, we can watch the progress of the “cherry blossom front”, which tells the time the cherry trees will bloom. When the sakura are in bloom, people take bento (lunch box) and sake (Japanese liquor) to some spot famous for the beauty of its sakura, and have a picnic or a drinking party under the cherry trees. Yozakura, white sakura outlined against the night sky, have a special beauty. Many people stay out to sing and dance till late in the evening .
Sakura last about a week or so, and then young leaves grow quickly to cover the tree with green. Even in today’s busy life, the Japanese never fail to show interest or talk about sakura in their daily conversations at this time of the year.
Satsuki (Another name for May)
Satsuki is the archaic name for the month of May. It is a contraction of the word Sanaezuki (Sanae Month). Sanae means “rice sprouts”. It is also "Azaleas Month", the month in which satsuki and azaleas are in full bloom.
Since many national holidays occur around the same time starting from Showa Day on 29th April till Children’s Day on 5th May, this week is called "Golden Week" (please refer to Japanese Customs, 2006).
Children’s Day on 5th May was formerly called Tango-no-Sekku, a day to celebrate the growth of boys. Today, Children’s Day is a day to celebrate the growth of both boys and girls, though even now families with boys hoist Koinobori (carp streamers). This practice originated from the Chinese legend that strong carps could swim upstream in the Yellow River to become dragons. Some people still observe the custom of taking a bath with iris leaves which are believed to drive away evil spirits.
Minazuki (Another name for June)
The characters in Minazuki literally mean “no-water-month”. However, itis a compound word of 水 (mizu), “water”, 無 (na) as a euphonious but no meaning and 月 (tsuki), “month”. Therefore, the actual meaning is “month of water”.
1st June is “change of clothes day”. As summer is hot and humid, all who wear uniforms change their clothes to summer-weight uniforms. Many students wear white shirts with short sleeves. Today, some of the uniforms of office workers or schools are designed by famous fashion designers and getting more and more refined and tasteful than before. At home, when the weather is sunny and dry, winter clothes are put out to air, and summer clothes replace them in the closet.
The day of the year when daylight is longest is called Geshi, and the Summer Solstice is around the 21st every year. In Tokyo, this day is 14 hours and 35 minutes long ,which is 5 hours longer than the Winter Solstice in December.
June is also the month when public officials and company employees get bonuses. Bonuses are given twice a year, usually in June and December.
Hazuki (Another name for August)
Hazuki means Leaf Month
An old legend believes that the moonlight gets brighter as the leaves of the great laurel tree in the moon turn bright yellow around this time of the year.
Since the Pacific Ocean high pressure system is very strong at the beginning of August, there are hot, sunny days with record-high temperatures throughout the country.
At the end of World War II, two atomic bombs were dropped over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the American military forces. It was the first and only case in the history of mankind that atomic bombs were used. The record shows that 90,000 - 120,000 people died in or within four months of the explosion in Hiroshima, while 60,000 ·70,000 died in Nagasaki. Thousands more who survived the blasts have died from its effects, or are still being poisoned and suffering from other injuries.
The 6th and the 9th are dates in memory of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while the 15th is that of the end of World War II. Determined that such tragedy should never be repeated, all over Japan, rallies and several events are held to pray for peace at the Atomic Bomb Memorial Parks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on these dates.
Nagatsuki (Another name for September)
Nagatsuki means " a long month" or "a long moon". Many poets appreciate the beautiful moon in the sky during long autumn nights.
1st September is "Disaster Prevention Day". On this fateful day in 1923, a big earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 - 8.2 on the Richter Scale hit the Kanto area. Records show that 99,331 were killed, 43476 missing, 103,733 injured, 128,266 houses ruined, 126,233 half-ruined and 447,128 burnt.
To prevent such a tragedy from happening again, earthquake and fire drills are held in schools, municipal offices, companies and communities all over the country in the hope that disasters like the Great Kanto Earthquake will not be repeated.
17th September is "Respect-for-the-Aged-Day". It was instituted in 1966 as a national holiday because it was recognized that the number of aged people would increase rapidly in future and the whole nation should have a clear awareness of it. In Japan, as in China, people traditionally celebrate their longevity as well as their health on their 60th and 70th birthdays as well as their 77th, 88th and 99th birthdays because double numbers are favoured, with a saying that luck also doubles in those years.
Kannazuki (Another name for October)
Kannazuki means “Godless Month”. It is said that gods all over Japan gather at Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture to decide who is going to marry whom. Since no gods stay in local shrines, people call October “Godless Month”. However, in Izumo, people call the month, Kamiarizuki, also meaning “Month with gods”.
8th October is Fitness Day. On 10th October 1964, the opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympic Games was held. In commemoration, the 2nd Monday of October every year became the day to enjoy sports. On this day, kindergartens, schools, communities and companies organize field days.
Later in the month, there are more sports events such as the Fall Emperor’s Cup Horse Racing, the Japan Series of professional baseball and the fall nationwide sports events.
In October, it is neither too hot nor too cold; the weather is calm and comfortable. With fine and fresh autumn days one after another, this is the season for outings. Families venture out to orchards to enjoy pear-picking or apple-picking. On the hills and in the fields, fruits are ripening. Kindergarteners and schoolchildren go out for chestnut-gathering and sweet potato-digging expeditions. At the urban greengrocers, autumn fruits and vegetables such as matsutake mushrooms, pears, chestnuts and persimmons are displayed in abundance.
Newly-harvested rice appears at the store around this time of the year. Autumn fishes such as mackerel, sardines and saury pike are also in season.
Shimotsuki (Another name for November)
In the Tohoku (north-east) area, frost starts to form on the ground this month. The name of the month, “Frost Month”, or “Shimotsuki”, gives warning to farmers to prepare for the coming severe winter.
At the end of the month, Tori-no-Ichi Festivals are held in some shrines in and around the Tokyo area. It was originally an autumn harvest festival among farmers who made offerings of tori (chicken) to a nearby shrine. This practice became popular among the townsfolk of the Edo period during the 17th and 18th centuries. In return for their offerings, the farmers received a rake from the shrine. People associated a rake with the idea of gathering money or wealth, and the festival gradually changed its meaning. Today, it is thought to be a festival for merchants who wish for good business throughout the year, and ornamental rakes decorated with many things that symbolize money are sold in the precincts of the shrine on the day of the festival.
Every year about this time the cold North wind begins to blow, and the Hokkaido, Tohoku and Hokuriku (the Northern area facing to the Japan Sea) areas brace themselves for a full-scale snow season. And even in households in the central area of Japan, people are pulling out heaters they had stored in closets during the summer in preparation for winter
Shiwasu (Another name for December)
The word Shiwasu formed from the Kanji for “priest” and “run” derives its meaning from the tradition that in the olden days, priests visited parishioners at the end of the year. Therefore, they were busy running from place to place to finish their duties.
On the 15th, post offices begin accepting New Year cards for delivery on New Year’s Day. Post offices employ extra staff in order to be able to deliver all the cards on the 1st of January.
Christmas on the 25th is not a national holiday, but people enjoy Christmas no matter what their religions are. Towns are decorated with Christmas trees, the melody of Jingle Bells resounds in the air and people spend the day merrily giving each other presents and eating Christmas cakes.
The 28th is the last working day of the year for government and municipal offices. On this day, most of the public offices and private companies begin vacations that last through the New Year.