12 Month Journey in Japan (January – December)

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colors of japan
Source: Yiannis Theologos Michellis

No matter when you plan your journey to Japan, you’ll find beautiful surroundings and things to do in month of the year. While Spring is famous all over the world for the country’s gorgeous cherry blossoms, every season has something unique to offer with festivals, events, and activities all their own. Plus, each season is so dramatically different from the last, even the same places will look like they’ve completely changed their outer appearance.

This article will take a look at every month in Japan so you can see the vast array of things happening in the particular month you’d like to visit.

January

Hatsumode
Source: Wikimedia

Whether you want to go skiing in Hokkaido or check out the first sight of cherry blossoms of Japan in Okinawa, you’ll find weather comes in a wide range in wintertime. But what remains the same is all across the country, people will be celebrating New Years in the first week of January. While the celebrations are more subdued compared to other holidays, they are still very important in Japanese culture. It’s a time for families to reunite and pray for good luck in the coming year. Many people throughout the country will be visiting shrines on the first day of January. If you’re in Tokyo, check out Meiji-Jingu Shrine in Harajuku or Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa. In Kyoto, many visitors will head to Fushimi Inari Taisha to make their prayers.

ozoni
Source: Bert Kimura

And don’t miss out on a traditional bowl of ozoni, a Japanese soup containing mochi rice cakes. Having this soup ensures more good luck. Or, if you want to spend a little more, opt for the osechi – a large bento box beautifully laiden with a range of cold foods meant to last a few days.

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  • Place: Fushimi Inari Taisha
  • Address: 68 Yabunouchi-chō, Fukakusa, Fushimi-ku
  • Tel: 07-5641-7331
  • Website: http://inari.jp/

February

setsubun
Source: Hetarllen Mumriken

While February still carries the cold winds of winter, it’s a great time to gear up for the spring season and revel in the coming warmth.

A quirky celebration one will witness on February 3rd is Setsubun. Setsubun is sort of like the US’s ground hog’s day where people herald the coming of spring. Traditionally, they throw beans at an oni – or Japanese devil – in order to scare off evil from the previous year and bring luck for the coming season. Parents will buy oni masks and let their kids throw beans at them in an adorable role-playing game. You can find Setsubuun celebrations at most major shrines in Japan where people will throw beans at the crowds. In Tokyo, head to Kanda Myosin shrine near Akihabara to take part in the bean-throwing fun. Yoshida shrine in Kyoto will hold the biggest celebration in the area there. The Shinsho-ji Temple in Narita also holds a Setsubun festival which attracts all the top sumo wrestlers and celebrities.

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  • Place: Yoshida Shrine
  • Address: 30 Yoshidakaguraokacho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto
  • Tel: 075-771-3788
  • Website: www.yoshidajinja.com

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Then get ready for Valentines like you’ve never seen in the West. In Japan, men are completely off the hook on this day as it’s the women’s responsibility to buy chocolates for loved ones, friends, and possibly that secret crush. Shops specializing in the sale of chocolate will pop up everywhere while others will offer special Valentines-themed edibles.

valentines
Source: Timothy Boscarino

If you’re up North in Hokkaido during this time, don’t miss the Sapporo Snow Festival held annually for one week in February. The festival hosts some of the biggest and most professionally made snow sculptures you’ll ever see in your life. Started in the 1950’s when schoolchildren began showcasing snow sculptures in Odori Park, the festival has since grown to accommodate over 2 million visitors per year. Check out some of the most surreal snowscapes imaginable both in the day and illuminated at night.

sapporo snow festival
Source: hirotomo t

March

sakura
Source: YukiNoSato

With the coming of warm weather comes a transformation all across the country into one of the most gorgeous scenes you’ll see all year. Cherry blossom season is well on its way for most of Japan in this month. Even though Okinawa saw the blooms come and go in January, the opening of the petals slowly makes its way Northward through Japan mostly in this month. Go to Kyushu in the South to get your first glimpse of sakura in mid-March. Tokyo and the Kansai area (which houses Kyoto and Osaka) will join the wave in late March to April. While Hokkaido will be the last major island to see its blossoms spring up in mid-May.

It’s always tricky getting the timing right since once the blooming starts, visitors have a week to see it in action before the petals fall to their inevitable demise. But rest assured, the Japan Weather Association produces a forecast every year to help viewers make plans.

Take in the natural beauty around you and don’t forget to join a hanami – a sakura viewing party – while you’re in town. Gorgeous viewing locations abound. Some of the most famous viewing spots across the country include Naka-Meguro in Tokyo, Hirosaki Park in Aomori, Odawara Castle Park in Kanagawa, or Takatojoshi Park in Nagano.

Hirosaki castle in cherry blossom festival season
Source: Yuichi Shiraishi

And if you’ll recall from February, Valentine’s Day was a little bit one-sided between the ladies and gents. Well, White Day is here to rectify the imbalance as March 14th is allocated for men to give women chocolates or cookies in reciprocity. Stores will be decked out with sweet treats to give to your female counterparts, so don’t forget to pick up some sugary delights on this day.

white day
Source: Danny Choo

April

naka meguro sakura
Source: Toshihiro Oimatsu

Sakura season will continue this month as warm, sunny weather approaches and many places in Japan get into the height of hanami season. But if you’ve gotten your fill of watching the blooms, there’s no shortage of other events you’ll want to check out.

Kanamara Matsuri
Source: Takanori

In recent years, the Kanamara Matsuri, or Festival of the Steel Phallus, has gotten a lot of media attention. Yes, this is the famous penis festival we’ve all heard about in the news. It’s held annually on the first Sunday of April at a Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki. Watch a giant pink phallus paraded on the streets both to celebrate fertility and ward off sexually transmitted diseases. It’s said the tradition began in the 1600s when local prostitutes would pray at the Kanamara Shinto shrine in Kawasaki for protection against what they thought was a curse on the woman’s vagina at the time. Now, we know it was probably syphilis, a common STD during the Edo era.

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takayama spring festival
Source: Paul Robinson

History and culture buffs won’t want to miss the Takayama Spring Festival in Takayama from April 14th – 15th. Nestled in this cozy mountain town in Central Japan, the town hosts a festival celebrating the coming of spring with 12 tall floats that are considered priceless antiques. Several of the floats have in fact been designated important cultural assets of Japan.

crowded train station
Source: Takeshi Fujisawa

The very end of April marks the beginning of Golden Week, a national holiday in Japan that spans from April 19th through May 5. The holiday dates are fixed and may not be consecutive depending on the year. But one thing is certain, this is the biggest national holiday season in Japan, meaning trains, hotels, and sightseeing spots will all book up months in advance. Most foreign visitors will avoid traveling in Japan during this week to avoid the increased prices and long waitlists. If you do come to Japan during this time, make sure to book transportation and accommodation ahead of time.

May

hakata dontaku
Source: フェレス

As the temperature increases this month, so do all the festivals and outdoor events. The largest festival during Golden Week is located in Fukuoka and takes place May 3rd and 4th. At Kushida Shrine, next to Tenjin Station, you’ll have no problems running into the Hakata Dontaku Festival where teams of extravagantly costumed dancers as well as decorated floats called hana jidosha (flower cars) parade down the streets.

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  • Place: Kanda Shrine
  • Address: 1-41 Kamikawabatamachi, Hakata Ward, Fukuoka, Fukuoka Prefecture
  • Tel: 09-2291-2951

 

sanja matsuri
Source: Yoshikazu TAKADA

After wrapping up Golden Week, head to Tokyo to participate in one of the largest and wildest festivals of the city, the 700-year-old Sanja Matsuri. The celebration is held annually on the third Saturday in May. Crowds gather in Asakusa and parade around three main shrines. The saying goes they’re meant to honor two fishermen and a village elder who in the seventh century held a memorial service for a statue of the goddess Kannon that the fishermen found floating in a nearby river.

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kanda matsuri
Source: xin beitou

In odd-numbered years, you can also celebrate at the Kanda Matsuri at Kanda Shrine in Tokyo.  The hectic parades feature over 200 mikoshi and include musicians, dancers, and floats. It began at the beginning of the Edo era as a demonstration of prosperity under the new regime.

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hokkaido shrine
Source: Kentaro Ohno

See the last remaining sakura blooms of the year in the Northern island of Hokkaido. A favorite viewing location is Hokkaido Shrine in Maruyama Park, Sapporo. Wide, open spaces in the park allow for large groups of hanami viewing parties.

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June

rainy japan
Source: Zengame

I hope you brought your umbrella because it’s going to get rainy this month. With the exception of Hokkaido, all the rest of Japan will be getting some wet weather due to the onset of rainy season. But don’t worry, there’s no stopping Japanese locals from going out and having fun. And since June will see fewer tourists, you’ll also probably end up saving a few bucks on accommodation and transportation.

Sanno Matsuri will be held in Tokyo this year – a treat since it’s only held once every two years. This year, the parade will be held at Hie Jinja June 7th-17th. Dating back to the Edo era, this is one of the only festivals permitted by the Shogun to enter the grounds of Edo Castle. The modern matsuri will be a real sight to see as it claims the title of being one of the wildest in Tokyo.

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  • Place: Hie Jinja Shrine
  • Address: 2 Chome-10-5 Nagatacho, Chiyoda, Tokyo 100-0014
  • Tel: 03-3581-2471
  • Website: http://www.hiejinja.net/en

July

gion matsuri
Source: Takeshi Kuboki

Rainy season will continue this month for much of Japan but will abait in the most Southern islands. So it’s a great time to visit Okinawa or Southern Kyushu and get in some beach time. July is also a heavy hitter for various outdoor events. One of the largest and most famous in the country is Gion Matsuri in Kyoto. The long-lasting festival spans almost the whole month from July 1st to July 29th. But it peaks The peak is the Yamaboko Junko (float parade) on July 17th and July 24th. The massive floats can weigh an impressive 12,000 kilograms or more.

tenjin matsuri
Source: Nestor Lacle

Another impressively large festival you’ll want to see is Tenjin Masturi in Osaka from July 24th-25th. Literally translated as the festival of the Gods, the festival packs fireworks, mikoshi, geisha, river boat bonfires and a parade of 3000 people in 8th century Imperial court costumes.

mt fuji from the top
Source: Azlan DuPree

And if you just want to get away from it all, you can go to Mt Fuji where climbing season has just begun. The opening date of the season will depend on weather conditions but it does open in this month. The climb is quite a challenge and some people report altitude sickness. But if you’re ready for the physical challenge, you will be rewarded with some amazing views and the satisfaction of having climbed Japan’s highest mountain.

August

adachi fireworks
Source: Marufish

In both July and August, many summer fireworks shows will start getting scheduled all around Japan. All kinds of fireworks go on display, often with some outlining the shapes of popular cartoon characters. But the mother of them all is probably the Omagari National Fireworks Competition held in the city now named Daisen in Akita Prefecture. Held on the fourth Saturday of August, only the most elite of pyrotechnics professionals are invited to participate.

But if you can’t make it out to Daisen that day, there are numerous shows being held pretty much every weekend in every major city across Japan. The festivals are meant to be enjoyed by friends. Large groups will often bring picnic gear and lay out on prime areas for viewing. So wherever you are, put on your yukata and head over to one of these events. It’s a great way to beat the heat of the hottest month of the year.

September

tokyo sumo
Source: Better Than Bacon

While much of Japan will still be hot, temperatures will finally begin to cool down and the onset of typhoon season, while wet and windy, will be welcome reprieve from the heat. If you haven’t already checked out a sumo fight, check out the Sumo Autumn Basho, one of the last chances you’ll have in the year to see this traditional wrestling match. The 15 day tournament runs from September 11th – 25th in Tokyo. They start early in the morning and last until the evening, progressively going up the ranks in sumo wrestlers as they go along.

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japanese grand prix
Source: Michael Elleray

Either in September or October, Japan will also host the Japanese Grand Prix, the very last race of the Formula One season. Since it’s the last race, it has a good chance of being the one to decide the champion. The race is held at Suzuka Circuit in Suzuka City near Nagoya. Often featured in video games, this circuit is considered one of the most challenging.

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October

Niihama taiko festival
Source: WEB_OYAJI

Fall is finally making its way into the country and you’ll probably start seeing trees begin to take on bright yellow and orange hues. Even if sakura season steals the show in Japan, fall leaves have a magical beauty all their own. If you’re in Shikoku, check out one of Japan’s most unique festivals, the Niihama Taiko Festival from October 16th-18th. The festival hosts 47 floats shaped like giant taiko drums which get bounced around in the air in front of upwards of 300,000 spectators.

Equally as physical, the Kurama Fire Festival in the village of Kurama near Kyoto involves feats of strength using fire. The acts are viewed as a rite of passage for the local youth. The festival starts at nightfall and begins with children carrying small torches under parent supervision. Teenagers follow with much larger torches and are then followed by men carrying dangerously huge torches weighing 100 kilograms. It culminates in a walk up to Yuki-jinja Shrine carrying a giant mikoshi.

Information

  • Place: Yuki-jinja Shrine
  • Address: 1073 Kuramahonmachi, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture
  • Phone: 07-5741-1670
  • Website: http://www.yukijinjya.jp/

shibuya halloween
Source: Big Ben in Japan

End the month with one of Japan’s newest but instantly popular imported holidays, Halloween. This holiday only gained popularity a few years ago as a result of aggressive marketing by Tokyo Disney Resort. But it’s become one of the most beloved in no time at all. The greatest action will be in Tokyo’s Shibuya district where hordes of people go all out dressed up as their favorite characters.

November

Yabusame Archery
Source: Kazu Letokyoite

Typhoon season is over and much of Japan is entering the height of fall season. Leaves are probably turning a deep red this month and Hokkaido may see heavier snowfall start at the tail-end of the month. Autumn festivals celebrating the changing of the season abound throughout Japan. Head to Meiji Shrine in Tokyo November 1st-3rd for the Meiji Shrine Autumn Festival, three days of traditional Japanese cultural demonstrations such as archery and sumo wrestling. If you’re at any major Shinto Shrine, you may happen to witness Shichigosan, a ceremony for kids of lucky ages where they get to wear their very first kimono.

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munich christmas festival
Source: MIKI Yoshihito

Up North in Hokkaido, you can find a slice of German culture at the Munich Christmas Market in Sapporo, where stalls and shops offer Christmas items, hot wine, and German food. The monthlong market in Odori Park begins on November 25 and is meant to celebrate Sapporo’s relationship with its sister city of Munich. Enjoy a number of concerts, indoor workshops, and Santa sightings at this cozy slice of holiday cheer.

December

tokyo tower christmas illumination
Source: Manish Prabhune

December is a magical time of year in Japan with every major city lighting up their streets with glowing decorations for the holidays. Nights are long and the crisp air carries the cold coming of winter and people in most parts of the country are bundling up for warmth. See some of the most amazing Christmas illuminations in the streets of cities like Tokyo, Sapporo, Kobe, and Sendai.

chichibu night festival
Source: d’n’c

Celebrate the night at the Chichibu Night Festival in Chichibu City on December 2nd and 3rd. Centered around Chichibu shrine, the festival features floats, mikoshi, and a rare winter fireworks display. The floats used in this festival contain portable kabuki stages with ornate wooden carvings. The festival reaches a climax on the night of the 3rd when participants climb up a hill called Dangozaka with a mikoshi. Climbing hills carrying mikoshis are a challenging and sometimes dangerous endeavor. Feel the excitement in the air as they perform this trying physical feat.

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Have a good trip and travel!

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Asia, Japan