Japanese Seasonal Activities (to Do in Japan, or at Home)
There are many things that many people love about Japan. And one of them is that even today, plenty of very traditional practices and customs are a part of everyday life. This article is a short list of Japanese seasonal activities, various customs, and activities that can be fun to take part in. You can enjoy it while visiting Japan or at home in your own country.
There are many other common traditions and holiday activities that we did not have room to include, but we hope that this article gives you some ideas for things to do in whichever season you currently find yourself in!
To view a complete listing of our articles on Japanese culture, click here.
List of Japanese Seasonal Activities:
The most famous spring activity to do in Japan is, of course, cherry blossom viewing. But did you know that many people also go plum blossom viewing?
This is because:
- Plum blossom viewing season is a little earlier than the cherry blossom viewing season
- Plane tickets during peak cherry blossom viewing season can be quite expensive. So plum blossom viewing season is a lovely alternative option for those who want to experience Japan’s beautiful flowering trees. And best of all, it has fewer tourists around.
The dates on which the plum blossoms are in bloom are different from year to year, but it is generally from early to mid-February until early to mid-March.
節分 Setsubun is a winter-spring tradition that can be fun to do with friends or family. Setsubun is a holiday which occurs every year on February 3rd or 4th (the day before the traditional first day of spring). It’s a day on which some people perform a casual ritual cleansing activity meant to affect the coming year, called 豆まき Mamemaki.
How to do 豆まき Mamemaki:
- It involves either standing inside one’s house and throwing roasted soybeans outside, or
- Throwing roasted soybeans at a designated family member or friend who is playing the role of an “oni” (a traditional ogre).
- While throwing they will chant 鬼は外、福は内 Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi! (Ogres/bad luck out, good luck in!).
If you will be in Japan on July 7th, you will be able to experience the 七夕 Tanabata festival (what is Tanabata? Check out our Tanabata article here!).
If you will be in Japan during the summer but not on the 7th of July specifically, there are many other summer festivals to choose from.
These festivals are often regional. But wherever you are staying it is almost guaranteed that there will be a fairly large summer festival near you.
These festivals may include:
- Traditional dancing
- みこし Mikoshi procession (the carrying, usually by a large group, of a large platform atop which is an ornamental “housing” for the god of a local shrine)
- Food stalls
Around July 7th, there are many activities you can do at home for Tanabata. These include creating a wish tree or eating 流しそうめん Nagashi soumen (for more on these activities, see our Tanabata article).
Some other fun casual summer activities to do with friends (not tied to a particular date) are スイカ割り Suika Wari (literally “watermelon splitting”) and making てるてる坊主 Teru Teru Bouzu (literally “shining monk”) dolls!
How to do スイカ割り Suika Wari:
To do Suika Wari, you place watermelon on a clean tarp on the ground, and one person at a time takes turns trying to smash the melon with a wooden bat or stick. One person will be blindfolded and will attempt to smash the melon and then spun around for extra disorientation. Everyone who is not blindfolded must give them directions.
How to create てるてる坊主 Teru Teru Bouzu Dolls:
Teru Teru Bouzu dolls are small, simple, white dolls that are made from squares of cloth or tissue paper. They are hung in one’s window in order to wish for good weather to come the following day. Since Japan’s rainy season is from approximately late spring to mid summer, many people make and hang up Teru Teru Bouzu on rainy summer days.
(Click here to see how homemade Teru Teru Bouzu dolls usually look).
If you will be in Japan in mid-August, you will be able to experience the お盆 O-Bon festival.
The O-Bon festival occurs on slightly different dates every year (dates may also vary from region to region), but always in the autumn. O-Bon is a festival for remembering and showing respect for deceased family members. During O-Bon many people do things such as visit and clean family grave sites.
How the お盆 O-Bon festival is celebrated
If you are a visitor to Japan, you should make sure to spectate your local O-Bon festival. It usually includes lively and fascinating traditional dances. Towards the end of O-Bon, many locations set paper lanterns with a small fire inside afloat. This represents the spirits of the deceased leaving after their brief visit to the world of the living.
Some locations have other fire-related end-of-O-Bon customs, for example the giant mountainside fires that are lit near Kyoto City. Three of these fires are in the shape of enormous kanji (two of the kanji say 大 (“big“) and one says 法 (“dharma”)), and two are in the shape of line drawings (a boat and a Shinto torii gate). These five giant fires can be seen from many miles away.
Whether in Japan or at home, in mid-August you can also go outside at night with your friends and family for some 月見 Tsukimi (Moon Viewing)!
How 月見 Tsukimi is celebrated:
This might not seem like a particularly exciting activity. But much like cherry blossom viewing, it has a long history and has even become somewhat commercialized. At McDonald’s and other restaurants in Japan, for instance, there is a “Tsukimi Burger” (served only during certain months). This is a sandwich that has an egg patty in it with the yolk cooked to one side so that it looks like a full moon.
Aside from “Tsukimi Burgers,” other foods with egg (again, because of its resemblance to the moon) are popular to eat around the time that people participate in Tsukimi. Because in Japan there is a “rabbit in the moon” (as opposed to a man in the moon as in America), children sometimes complete Tsukimi coloring book pages or crafts involving rabbits.
If you happen to be in Japan during Christmas time and/or New Year’s, there are quite a few customs that it can be fun to take part in.
Christmas is a surprisingly romantic holiday in Japan. Many people put a lot of thought into their Christmas Eve dates with their significant other.
Small, intricately decorated Christmas cakes are popular purchases, as well as KFC fried chicken. (Although both of these items are so popular that you may need to order them far in advance of the holiday).
How New Year’s is celebrated:
New Year’s Day in Japan is a day for old traditions, and January 2nd is a day for modern traditions.
On New Year’s Day (or sometimes one or more days after New Year’s Day), many people make a ritual first visit of the year to a Shinto shrine for prayer and to purchase お守り O-Mamori. These are small good fortune charms often made of cloth.
January 2nd in Japan is a big shopping day because many stores on that day sell limited quantities of 福袋 Fukubukuro. These are essentially shopping bags that stores fill with an assortment of their merchandise. Buying Fukubukuro (literally “good-luck bags”) is a bit of a gamble. You have to purchase first and open the bag to know the contents, but generally, the bag as a whole is quite a good deal.
Aside from holiday activities, winter, in general, is also a great time to go to 温泉 Onsen, which are traditional (often open-air) hot springs!
Southern Japan does not get very much snow, but northern Japan does, and making snowmen is popular there just as it is in the West.
However, Japanese snowmen look a little different! While Western snowmen are typically three parts (head, body, and base), Japanese snowmen are typically two parts and usually do not have arms.
This is because the Japanese word for “snowman” is actually 雪だるま Yuki Daruma or “Snow Daruma”. (A daruma is a type of rounded traditional red doll that comes with unpainted eyes. The buyer makes a wish upon acquisition of the doll, and paints one of the eyes. If the wish comes true, the other eye is painted in).
(Click here to see how Daruma dolls usually look before their eyes are painted).
Along with snowmen, people in Japan also sometimes make 雪うさぎ Yuki Usagi or “Snow Rabbits”. These are small mounds of snow with long, thin leaves for ears and red berries or beads for eyes.
That’s our list of Japanese seasonal activities for now. At the time of this article’s publication it is August, so if you are in Japan right now, make sure you make plans to check out your local O-Bon festival!
And, if you’ve ever done any of these activities before, or if you’re planning to try one soon, leave us a comment and tell us what you thought of the experience!