January 1st Most companies and banks close from 29 December to 3 January. Vast numbers of Japanese travel home or go on vacation at this time, and most schools, companies, etc. hold End of the Year parties (bonenkai) and New Year Parties (shinnenkai). Children are given money (otoshidama). On New Year’s Eve, people eat buckwheat noodles (toshikoshi soba = i.e. Long life noodles) and just before midnight, temples ring a gong 108 times (joya no kane). And there are of course countdown parties as in the West.
Coming of Age Day (Seijin-no-hi)
January 9th Those whose 20th birthday falls between April of the preceding year and March of the current year celebrate their coming of age on this day. Girls dress in the most beautiful formal kimono with fur collars. The sight is beautiful – have a camera on hand, but be sure to ask before you snap pics of them.
End of Winter (Setsubun)
February 3rd Roasted beans are thrown about the house and in shrines and temples to frighten away evil spirits. Not a public holiday.
National Foundation Day (Kenkoku-kinen-no-hi)
February 11th This day commemorates the foundation of the Japanese Nation. On this day in 660 BCE, the first Emperor Jimmu took the throne. There are rituals at shrines.
February 14th Girls give chocolates to boys. Not a public holiday.
Girls’ Day (Hina-Matsuri)
March 3rd Families display a shelf of dolls dressed in the court style of the Heian period. Not a public holiday.
March 14th The opposite of Valentine’s Day. Boys give marshmallows and white chocolate to girls. Not a public holiday.
Vernal Equinox (Shunbun-no-hi)
Showa Day (Showa-no-hi)
April 29th This day is the birthday of the former Showa Emperor and is the start of the Golden Week holiday period in which many Japanese take the whole week off.
Constitution Day (Kenpo-kinen-bi)
May 3rd Celebration of the post-war constitution of Japan. There are sometimes demonstrations on this day for (or against) changes in the constitution.
Greenery Day (Midori-no-hi)
May 4th This day is a day for environmentalists, the equivalent of the American Arbor Day.
Children’s Day (Kodomo-no-hi)
May 5th Traditionally this used to be Boys’ Day. People put up cloth carp (koinobori) on poles outside the house and place warrior dolls on stands inside. They make offerings of rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves (kashiwamochi) and boiled (chimaki). The holiday marks the end of the Golden Week.
Star Festival (Tanabata)
July 7th This is the day on which the two lovers, Altair and Vega, are no longer separated by the Milky Way. On this night people put little bamboo trees in their garden and decorate them with papers with wishes written on them. Such wishes are supposed to come true. Not a public holiday.
Marine Day (Umi-no-hi)
3rd Monday in July First observed in 1997. There are events about navigation on this day.
August 13-15 The festival of souls. Japanese visit the graves of their ancestors at this time and leave food offerings. They also dance and, in some places, light paper lanterns. Note that Hiroshima was bombed on 6 August, Nagasaki on 9 August and World War II ended on 15 August, all dates very close to this holiday. Although this is not officially a holiday, many offices, including some government offices, may be closed at this time. Some companies provide their employees with a week holiday at this time. This is also a busy travel time in Japan.
Respect for the Aged Day (Keiro-no-hi)
3rd Monday in September There are special events on this day for those who are over 100 years old.
Autumnal Equinox (Shuubun-no-hi)
Around September 23
Health and Sports Day (Taiiku-no-hi)
Second Monday in October Parents attend athletics events at their children’s schools. The date commemorates the first Olympic games in Tokyo on October 10th, 1964.
Culture Day (Bunka-no-hi)
November 3rd The Emperor gives tribute to distinguished contributors to culture of the past year on this day.
Seven Five Three Day (Shichi Go San)
November 15th Girls aged three and seven and boys aged three and five are given candies representing cranes and turtles as symbols of longevity. Children visit Shinto shrines dressed traditionally either on this day or the nearest weekend. *Not a public holiday
Labour Thanksgiving Day (Kinrou-kansha-no-hi)
November 23rd Japanese give thanks to their Gods for the harvest on this day. The Emperor sends messengers carrying the first harvest of the year to the Ise Jingu shrine.
Emperor’s Birthday (Tenno-tanjyo-bi)
December 23rd The birthday of the current emperor Akihito (born in 1933). His reign is called Heisei, which means Succeed at Peace. There are special programs on television about the Imperial family on this day.
December 25th Christmas is not a public holiday in Japan. Some families give presents to their kids and many couples go out to romantic dinners on Christmas Eve. People often buy ridiculously expensive Christmas Cakes (tiny little blobs of highly decorated sugar-goodness.)