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During the winter, there are many traditional festivals and events in Japan. From New Year's customs to shrine visits and the Sapporo Snow Festival, there is much to see and do during this season. If you're visiting between December and February, take advantage of these cultural experiences.
Japanese winters last from December to February. Due to the Japanese archipelago's narrow and long shape, the climate varies in the winter: the southern islands tend to have mild weather while the northern areas receive heavy snow.
Nevertheless, you can enjoy numerous festivals and events unique to winter in Japan. Read on to see what events and festivals are held between December and February.
In Japan, New Year's Eve is called Omisoka. Misoka is the last day of any month; December 31 is special as it is the end of the year, resulting in "Omisoka."
In Japan, it's a busy day of festivity preparations, but many take the time to eat toshi koshi soba (buckwheat noodles that are eaten on New Year's Eve). These New Year's Eve meals are usually enjoyed with one's family. The long, thin buckwheat noodles symbolize longevity and healthy life.
Shrines and temples around Japan also hold New Year's events. At Shinto shrines, the head priest burns a fire throughout the night. They perform a great purification (called ooharae in Japanese), which is thought to purify worshippers of negativity.
Around midnight, the great temple bells are rung 108 times. There are various theories regarding this number. According to one theory, 108 is the number of worldly desires (klesha) (*1).
*1 Klesha: a Buddhist term that refers to those acts of consciousness that distress and torment humans.
In cities such as Oga and Katagami in Akita, there is a folk event where an ogre called Namahage visits houses on New Year's Eve.
The local men play the part of the ogre. Adorning themselves with large ogre masks and carrying knives to create a sinister look, they admonish children for evil thoughts. They visit houses, shouting things like, “Are there any bad children here?”
Similar events are held widely in the colder regions of Japan, such as Aomori, Iwate, Niigata, and Ishikawa prefectures, but the most famous is the Namahage in Akita.
Shogatsu is another name for January. It is also an event in which the Toshigami (the deity of the New Year) is welcomed into people's homes to bring a good harvest and to keep families happy and safe.
Nowadays, the period between January 1 through January 3 is referred to as Sanganichi. The days up to January 7 are known as Matsu-no-uchi. This whole period is Shogatsu, but some regions will even refer to the period up until January 20 as New Year's.
Shogatsu is said to be the oldest event in Japan and many different New Year-related customs continue to be passed on.
New Year decorations are one of these customs. A Japanese house will be decorated with kagami-mochi, which are layers of round mochi stacked on top of one another as an offering to the Toshigami.
Shimenawa, a rope of woven straw put at the front door, is also used to signify that the home is ready to welcome the Toshigami.
Picture from Meiji Jingu: Harajuku's Stunning Shrine
The first visit to the shrine after entering the new year is called Hatsumode. The visit is called hatsumode regardless of whether you are visiting a shrine or temple.
Places such as Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, and Kawasaki Daishi in Kawasaki have so many visitors that they are broadcast live on TV every year.
For Shogatsu, osechi cuisine is enjoyed along with a soup called ozoni with mochi (glutinous rice cakes, *2).
Osechi cuisine was originally food that was prepared as an offering to the Toshigami and was handmade in each household, but nowadays there are more people buying these dishes from restaurants and department stores.
The greeting for New Year's is "Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!" When you see someone for the first time in the New Year, you greet them with this phrase. If you are staying in Japan for the New Year, be sure to use this expression.
*2 Mochi: traditional Japanese food in which glutinous rice is steamed and crushed till the graininess is gone and then formed into round cakes.
The term Shichifukujin refers to the Seven Deities of Good Fortune in Japan. Shichifukujin-moude is the custom of visiting a shrine or temple where these deities are enshrined to pray for happiness and prosperity in the New Year.
Every year on the second Monday of January, the deities of good fortune enshrined at the various temples on the grounds of Sennyuji Temple in Higashiyama, Kyoto are opened to the public and attract many visitors from across Japan. Getting your fortune from the unique seven deities with their separate divine graces is an exciting experience.
Tooka Ebisu is a rite held at shrines honoring Ebisu, one of the seven deities of good fortune. The event takes place every year nine and eleven days after January 10. Ebisu shrines are mostly in the Kansai region, in areas like Osaka, Hyogo, and Kyoto. This deity, with his fishing rod, red snapper, and friendly smile is affectionately called Ebe-san.
The most famous of these rites is Osaka's Imamiya-Ebisu, with over 1,000,000 visitors coming to pray for good business here each year.
Picture from Setsubun: Japanese Encyclopedia
Setsubun, meaning the day dividing seasons, used to refer to each beginning of the four seasons, but now it only refers to spring. Every year it is held around February 3.
Mamemaki is held on Setsubun as a traditional event for removing evil and misfortune from one's home. People put roasted soybeans into a wooden square-shaped container (masu) and throw them out the door of the house while saying 'go away demons, come in happiness'.
Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in Chiba is known for its mamemaki ritual done by sumo wrestlers, TV personalities, and other celebrities every year on Setsubun.
Photo courtesy of Sapporo Business Tourism Bureau
Every year around the beginning of February, the Sapporo Snow Festival is held in Sapporo, Hokkaido. In 2023, the Sapporo Snow Festival will be held from February 4 to February 11 in Odori Park and Susuki.
Over one hundred ice and snow sculptures made with just pure white snow and clear ice are displayed at Odori Park. The park and works span for around 1.5 km in the center of Sapporo. These works are illuminated at night, too - the light-up usually lasts until 22:00 in Odori, and 23:00 in Susukino.
These festivals and events are the perfect chance for you to experience the traditional culture of Japan just by taking part in them. Enjoy them when you have the opportunity!
Main image: Shirakawa-go Village in winter. Photo from Pixta.
*This is an updated version of an article originally published in December 2015.