Translated by MATCHA_En
Japan's Essential Winter Events: December-February 2019-2020
Written by MATCHA
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.
Winter Events in Japan - Festivals and Celebrations
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 are warm to the northern areas receive heavy snow. Despite this weather, you can enjoy numerous festivals and events unique to winter.
Continue reading to see what events and special occassions are held between December and February.
December Festivals and Events
Omisoka (New Year’s Eve)
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." It's a busy day of preparation, but many take the time to eat toshi koshi soba (buckwheat noodles that are eaten on New Year's Eve). This is done with family to await the coming of the near year. This custom is practiced to wish for longevity, with the long, thin buckwheat noodles being the symbol of a long, 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 you of bad deeds and negativity.
During the changing of the day, monks at the temple will sound the great bell 108 times. The reason why the number 108 was chosen has various theories behind it. One theory supposes it represents a year, and one says that it refers to the number of worldly desires (klesha) (*1) of humans.
*1 Klesha: a Buddhist term that refers to the acts of consciousness which distress, torment, bother and pollute the bodies and soul of humans.
In cities such as Oga and Katagami in Akita Prefecture, 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.
Festivals and Events in January
Shogatsu (New Year's)
Shogatsu is another name for January. It is also an event in which the Toshigami (the deity of the New Year) is welcomed in one's home to wish for a good harvest and to keep the family 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 as Shogatsu, but some regions will even refer to the period up until the 20th 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.
Putting New Year decorations is 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. Shime-nawa, 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 (Shibuya), Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto) and Kawasaki Daishi (Kawasaki) have so many worshipers that they are broadcast live on TV every year.
For Shogatsu, osechi cuisine is eaten along with a soup called ozoni with mochi (*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!" 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.
Shrine and Temple Visits for Shichi Fukujin Mode
The term Shichifukujin refers to the Seven Deities of Good Fortune in Japan. Shichifukujinmode is the custom of visiting a shrine or temple where these deities are enshrined during New Year’s to pray for the year's happiness and prosperity.
Every year on the second Monday of January, the deities of good fortune enshrined in the various temples on the grounds of Sennyu-ji 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, which 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 god, with his fishing rod, red snapper and friendly smile is affectionately called Ebe-san.
Most famous of the rites is Osaka's Imamiya-Ebisu, with over 1,000,000 visitors coming to pray for good business here each year.
Festivals and Events in February
Picture from Setsubun/Mame Maki - 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. Putting roasted soybeans into a wooden masu (an old Japanese cup-like item), the beans are thrown while saying 'go away demons, come in happiness'.
Chiba prefecture's Naritasan Shinsho-ji Temple is known for its mamemaki ritual done by sumo wrestlers, TV personalities, and other celebrities every year on Setsubun.
Sapporo Snow Festival
Photo courtesy of Sapporo Business Tourism Bureau
Every year around the beginning of February, the Sapporo Snow Festival is held in Sapporo, Hokkaido. For 2020, it will be held from January 31 to February 11.
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 lasts until 22:00 in Odori, and 23:00 in Susukino.
Take in Winter Events
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!
*This article is a revision for 2019 of the original which was published on December 27th, 2015.