Hatsugama, literally "first kettle" is the first tea ceremony of the new year, and is always held in January. For students of tea, what makes Hatsugama so special is that this is the only time a teacher will prepare tea and a meal for his or her students. The entire tea ritual, usually taught only in sections for classes as it is quite lengthy and complex, is presented during Hatsugama in its entirety, and can be quite a moving experience. The host and guests wear formal kimonos suitable for this celebration, and if you are lucky enough to be invited to participate, you will certainly enjoy watching everyone dressed in their best traditional finery.
There are several hotels and other locations that offer tea ceremonis for foreign tourists throughout Japan, including the Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo, Imperial Hotel Tokyo and Hotel Okura Tokyo in Tokyo, and Nishijin Tondaya and Joukeian in Kyoto. Some hotels provide Hatsugama for guests during the month of January.
For 7 glorious days, from Feb. 5th - Feb. 11th, 2015, Hokkaido hosts the Sapporo Snow Festival, the northernmost island's most well-known winter event, and one of Japan's largest winter festivals. 2015 marks the 66th year that the city of Sapporo will dazzle and delight the over two million expected visitors with snow and ice statues and sculptures.
First held in 1950 by high school students, the festival consisted of a few snow sculptures, but has grown exponentially into an internationally known winter spectacular with visitors coming from far and wide, not only to enjoy the sights, but also to participate in sculpture contests with other teams from around the world.
There are three main venues: Odori Park is the main site, with snow sculptures both large and small, often internationally themed; Susukino, which exhibits around 100 ice sculptures; Tsu Dome, which boasts snow slides, snow rafting, and plenty of family fun activities.
All sites are open from morning until late. At night, the sculptures are illuminated, creating a beautiful sparkling snow and ice fantasyland. You can enjoy regional foods from all over Hokkaido, and there are staged performances and concerts, etc., often performed directly on the sculptures!
The Sapporo Snow Festival also has special package tours available from our partners.
For more information, please visit here.
For more information about the Snow Festival itself, please visit here.
As the days begin to lengthen and the weather warms, people in Japan celebrate the return of spring with festivals in all corners of the country. Many of these spring festivals (haru matsuri) are reenactments of historical events, and some have a bit of folklore thrown in as well. The level of skill of the performers is truly a marvel, and it is obvious how much time and energy has been spent in creating such glorious spectacles. The palpable excitement of appreciative spectators makes these festivals fun and boisterous affairs for everyone! Here is a sampling of some wonderful traditional haru matsuri!
Takayama in Gifu is home to one of what are considered the three most beautiful festivals in Japan, the Takayama Spring Festival. Dancers wearing spectacular hats, a shishimai (lion dance) are, among other entertainment, wonderful crowd pleasers, but the apex of the festival is the procession of the festival floats, or yatai, all built by the local craftsmen, adorned with breathtakingly dexterous large marionettes and cleverly constructed for easy maneuverability around town. When night falls, the magnificent floats turn into a magical vision, illuminated by traditional lanterns and creating an almost otherworldly effect.
For more information, visit here.
Held every year in Kyoto on May 15th, the Aoi Matsuri, or Hollyhock Leaf Crest Festival, is one of the 3 main annual festivals of the city; the others are Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages) and Gion Matsuri. Some sources claim it was the Emperor's offerings to the sacred spirits of the Shimogamo and Kamigamo shrines that appeased them and brought an end to a string of natural disasters that had devastated the region. This traditional offering became a festival that grew into the beautiful spectacle that it is today, with six hundred men, women and children parading in traditional Heian period dress, accompanied by oxcarts, men on horseback and giant flower bouquets. Hollyhock leaves were once believed to protect against natural disasters, and are used as decoration on clothes and vehicles of the procession. The parade, which takes about 5 hours, travels from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the Shimogama Shrine and the Kamogamo Shrine, where rituals are performed by designated members of the procession. Horseracing and mounted archery demonstrations are also part of the festival, and you don't want to miss the thrill of watching these skilled equestrians dressed in traditional garb perform. Watching this splendid festival is sure to make you feel like you've been transported back to the Heian period yourself!
For more information, visit here.
Every year, for three days in May, the Asakusa section of Tokyo, known for its "old town" feel due to traditional residences and streets that co-exist within the most modern of the modern cities, celebrates the Sanja Matsuri. This is one of the three main Shinto festivals held in Tokyo-and Sanja Matsuri is considered the rowdiest of them all! This festival is dedicated to the sacred spirits of the three men who founded the temple Senso-ji temple, which lies adjacent to the Asakusa Shrine. On the final (and most boisterous) day of the festival, three quite large and highly decorated mikoshi (portable shrines) that weigh about one ton each, are carried along the streets, bounced and jostled by the people shouldering them. Bouncing and jouncing the shrines up and down is believed to intensify the power of the spirit housed inside the mikoshi, and as a result, good luck will be showered down upon the onlookers and bearers. The proceeding two days of the festival are also chock-full of lavishly costumed performers and entertainers, musicians and the like, as well as other, smaller mikoshi which are also paraded through the streets. Shops and food stalls offer plenty of delicious food and souvenirs. This festival attracts about one and a half to two million visitors a year-this year, come join the fun!
For more information, visit here.
When the temperature rises, you might think the best thing to do is to get a nice chilled drink and try not to move - but you'd be wrong! The best thing to do is to get yourself over to one of the high-octane, rowdy, vibrant matsuri (festivals) that percolate throughout Japan and dance yourself into a frenzy of fun! The atmosphere is always genial and spectators are welcome to jump in!
Hanagasa Matsuri Festival (Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture) Aug. 5-7, 2015
Originating in 1963, this is a fairly recent festival, but it can hold its own with the oldest! This dance festival attracts over one million visitors annually. The hanagasa, straw hats decorated with the prefectural flower (safflower), are worn by dancers-about 10,000 individuals divided into more than 100 groups. The dance procession is led off by elaborate floats, and the vigorous shouts of "Yassho! Makkasho!" help to increase the mood to fever-pitch! A variety of traditional, perfectly synchronized dances are intertwined with unique and creative ones. Spectators are, of course, encouraged to participate!
Danjiri Matsuri (Kishiwada City, Osaka Prefecture) Sept. 13-14, 2015
You may be thinking that "danjiri" sounds a bit like "dangerous," and with good reason! Danjiri is a general term for "float-pulling", and there are several danjiri matsuri in Japan. This one, however, which started in 1703, stands out for the sheer intensity and (seeming) danger that is the core of the festival. Approximately 35 portable floats each weighing about four tons are raced by teams (usually about 500 - 1,000 people are needed to maneuver the floats) which tow their charges around the city streets at what seem to be recklessly high speeds. Leaders of each team jump up and down on top of the floats, shouting and yelling, and included in the cacophony are drums and bells being played at ear-splitting decibels. Visitors may join in the shouting and the rest of the fun-just be careful-you might not want to get too close to those four ton floats.
Nebuta Matsuri (Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture) Aug. 2-7, 2015
Nebuta means a float depicting a brave warrior figure, usually from Japan's history. There are other Nebuta festivals in other cities, but this one attracts the most visitors each year, and has been designated one of Japan's significant intangible cultural assets. It is one of the three largest festivals in the Tohoku area. About 20 huge beautifully illustrated paper floats illuminated from the inside are paraded through the streets of the city. Loud chanting during the procession, accompanied by musicians and dancers called "haneto" add to the dazzling atmosphere. Tourists are welcome to join, as long as they wear the proper costumes, of which can be bought or rented locally.
Awa Odori Dance Festival (Tokushima City, Tokushima Prefecture) Aug. 12-15, 2015
Nicknamed "Fool's Dance," Awa Odori harkens back to a time about 400 years ago. A mind-blowing dance spectacle, amateur and veteran dance groups assemble in downtown Tokushima accompanied by musicians playing traditional instruments and performing on outdoor stages, demonstrating unusual dance steps which they have often improvised to raise the difficulty bar on the original, and rather simple, steps. With a combination of streamlined and synchronized groups, and not-so-streamlined and synchronized groups creating a riotous and fun mood, visitors to the festival get the urge to jump on in! You may be lucky to get some impromptu dance lessons by members of the dance troupes!
Whether you've been dancing or not, all the activity around you is sure to give you a roaring appetite, and the wealth of food vendors (yatai) selling all sorts of local treats is quite a sight in itself to behold. The sheer variety and wonderful flavors of the carnival food create a fantastic background for the festivals, and add to the unique experience of the festivals.
Thinking about traveling to Japan next year? Whether you're on the East or West coast, early 2015 will be a time to get lots of pertinent info and great deals on how to go and what to do once you get there from JNTO experts!
Come and visit JNTO's booths at The New York Times Travel Show, January 23-25, 2015 at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, and the Los Angeles Travel and Adventure Show, February 21-22, 2015 at the Long Beach Convention Center. You'll meet Japan travel pros who can help you plan the best visit for you.
Visitors to the booths at the New York Times Travel Show can also enjoy an experience of a lifetime-trying on an authentic Japanese suit of armor!
From March 20 to April 12, 2015, Washington will celebrate spring as only D.C. can, with the National Cherry Blossom Festival! Visitors can view the blossoms via photo safaris, bus or boat tours, etc. There will be fireworks, fitness activities, and of course the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade! Tons of family fun, great dining, and all sorts of merchandise will be available so you can get your own special souvenir from this year's festival! Check out the "Petal Pass," which can get you exclusive deals throughout the festival!
For more information, please visit here.
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