One of the things I love most about Japan is how something is always being celebrated, whether it be a season, a flower or tree in bloom, or children. Ever since the weather warmed up and the sakura (cherry blossoms) bloomed, it seemed the festivals really began kicking into high gear and we hit as many of them as we possibly could!
We hit up the famous Ueno Park during sakura season, where hundreds of Japanese families were enjoying hanami (picnics to celebrate the transient beauty of the season).
We snuck in a long weekend in Kyoto, just in time for the biggest Geiko show of the year.
My son and I hit up the local Koinobori (carp banner) festival, in celebration of Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day) on May 5. This always falls during what’s known as Japan’s Golden Week because this and many other national holidays that take place in the same time frame mean businesses often simply shut down for the week and workers get as many as 10 days off.
Kodomo no Hi began as a holiday celebrating boys alone (Japan still celebrates both a Girls’ Day and a separate Boys’ Day as well), but in 1948 the government changed it to recognize all children and to give thanks for mothers. Obviously my kind of holiday. We packed up with some friends and drove out to the river to see the koinobori, which were so spectacular lined up and strung across the great expanse of water.
We spent the afternoon wading in the water, skipping rocks across its surface, eating festival foods, and playing traditional Japanese festival games like this goldfish scoop. The nets are made of a dissolvable paper, so you must try and catch your goldfish quickly, before it disappears! Shockingly, my toddler did not succeed in bringing home a goldfish, though he had fun trying!
Each city in Japan also hosts a city-wide festival, of which we’ve now been to many. They are a place for the community to come together in dance and celebration, and we were blown away by the experience.
We saw men carrying mikoshi (portable Shinto shrines) on their shoulders and chanting.
Drummers and musicians parading down the streets in traditional garb.
And got a few sneak peeks at Japanese summer fashion.
Just kidding! Most of the people taking part in the festival were dressed in traditional summer garb, known as jinbei for the men’s cotton shorts outfits, and yukata for the women’s cotton robes.
Hydrangea season is one of the most beautiful times in Japan and we took full advantage, driving down to Kamakura for a day trip to the Meigetsu-in shrine, founded way back in 1160. A national historic site in Japan, its famous for its hydrangeas and often known as the ajisai-dera (hydrangea temple). They did not disappoint. We waited in a long line of people that snaked up through the temple, stopping to take photos at pretty much each flower along the way, and gazing in awe at the endless expanse of blue hydrangeas, as big as my son’s head!
Fun fact about hydrangeas – their color, either blue, purple, or pink – is determined by the pH levels of the soil you plant them in. So if you want a different color of hydrangea, you can tinker with the soil until you get it right!
Toward the end of the month, after our fourth of July celebrations were over, we had one final festival to experience: the insane festival at our son’s yochien. We’d been warned in advance – it was an epic experience, if only for the parking lot zaniness alone.
It was also my son’s first chance to wear his traditional jinbei out on the town. Of course I bought him an Anpanman design – when in Tokyo, right?
It was incredible. It was fun to see the children and parents and teachers we are getting to know dress up in traditional clothes. Here’s our son with his sensei.
They had traditional games & dancing, and although we snuck off before the fireworks it was one of those evenings that have made our time in Japan so special.
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There are lots of festivals in Japan all year long…but especially in the summer.
I wrote about some of the main ones in the Tokyo area: