New Year's Day is the most important national holiday in Japan. Because this is a time when Japanese are with their families and because virtually all businesses, restaurants, museums, and shops close down, it's not a particularly rewarding time of the year for foreign visitors. Best bets are shrines and temples, where Japanese come in their best kimono or dress to pray for good health and happiness in the coming year. January 1.
Tamaseseri (Ball-Catching Festival), Hakozakigu Shrine, Fukuoka. The main attraction here is a struggle between two groups of men, dressed only in loincloths, who try to capture a sacred wooden ball. The winning team is supposed to have good luck the entire year. January 3.
Dezomeshiki (New Year's Parade of Firemen), Tokyo Big Sight, Odaiba, Tokyo. Agile firemen dressed in Edo-Era costumes prove their worth with acrobatic stunts atop tall bamboo ladders in this parade. January 6.
Usokae (Bullfinch Exchange Festival), Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, outside Fukuoka. The object here is to pass wooden bullfinches from person to person, hopefully ending up with the golden bullfinch, thought to bring good luck. A giant fire is lit in the evening to drive away evil spirits. January 7.
Coming-of-Age Day, a national holiday. This day honors young people who have reached the age of 20, when they can vote, drink alcohol, and assume other responsibilities. On this day, they visit shrines throughout the country to pray for their future, with many women dressed in kimono. In Tokyo, the most popular shrine is Meiji Shrine near Harajuku Station. Second Monday in January.
Toka Ebisu Festival, Imamiya Ebisu Shrine, Osaka. Ebisu is considered the patron saint of business and good fortune, so this is the time when businesspeople pray for a successful year. The highlight of the festival is a parade of women dressed in colorful kimono and carried through the streets in palanquins (covered litters). Stalls sell good-luck charms. January 9 to January 11.
Ame-Ichi (Candy Fair), Matsumoto. Formerly a salt fair, this lively festival has featured traditional candy for the past century. Second weekend in January.
Toh-shiya, Kyoto. This traditional Japanese archery contest is held in the back corridor of Japan's longest wooden structure, Sanjusangendo Hall. Sunday closest to January 15.
Yamayaki (Grass Fire Ceremony), Nara. As evening approaches, Wakakusayama Hill is set ablaze and fireworks are displayed. The celebration marks a time more than 1,000 years ago when a dispute over the boundary of two major temples in Nara was settled peacefully. Fourth Sunday in January.
Sounkyo Ice Festival, Sounkyo Onsen. Ice sculptures, ice slides, frozen waterfalls lit in various colors, and evening fireworks are the highlights of this small-town festival. Mid-January to Mid-March.
Oyster Festival, Matsushima. Matsushima is famous for its oysters, and this is the time they're considered to be at their best. Oysters are given out free at booths set up at the seaside park along the bay. First Sunday in February.
Setsubun (Bean-Throwing Festival), at leading temples throughout Japan. According to the lunar calendar, this is the last day of winter; people throng to temples to participate in the traditional ceremony of throwing beans to drive away imaginary devils, yelling, "Evil go out, good luck come in." February 3 or 4.
Lantern Festival, Kasuga Shrine, Nara. A beautiful sight in which more than 3,000 stone and bronze lanterns are lit from 6:30 to 9pm. February 3 and August 14 and 15.
Snow Festival, Odori Park, and Susukino, in Sapporo. This famous 7-day Sapporo festival features huge, elaborate statues and figurines carved in snow and ice. Competitors come from around the world. Second week in February.
Saidaiji Eyo, Saidaiji Kannon-in Temple, Okayama. Thousands of loincloth-clad men grapple for sacred wooden sticks tossed by priests. Third Saturday of February at midnight.
Omizutori (Water-Drawing Festival), Todaiji Temple, Nara. This festival includes a solemn evening rite in which young ascetics brandish large burning torches and draw circles of fire. The biggest ceremony takes place on the night of March 12; on the next day, the ceremony of drawing water is held to the accompaniment of ancient Japanese music. March 1 to March 14.
Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival), observed throughout Japan. It's held in honor of young girls to wish them a future of happiness. In homes where there are girls, dolls dressed in ancient costumes representing the emperor, empress, and dignitaries are set up on a tier of shelves along with miniature household articles. Many hotels also display dolls in their lobbies. March 3.
Tokyo International Anime Fair, Tokyo Big Sight, Odaiba (www.tokyoanime.jp). One of the world's largest Japanese animation events draws more than 100 production companies, TV and film agencies, toy and game software companies, publishers, and other anime-related companies. Usually last weekend in March.
Kanamara Matsuri, Kanayama Shrine, Kawasaki (just outside Tokyo). This festival extols the joys of sex and fertility (and more recently, raises awareness about AIDS), featuring a parade of giant phalluses, some carried by transvestites. You'll definitely get some unusual photographs here. First Sunday in April.
Buddha's Birthday (also called Hana Matsuri, or Floral Festival), observed nationwide. Ceremonies are held at all Buddhist temples. April 8.
Kamakura Matsuri, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, Kamakura. This festival honors heroes from the past, including Minamoto Yoritomo, who made Kamakura his shogunate capital back in 1192. Highlights include horseback archery (truly spectacular to watch), a parade of portable shrines, and sacred dances. Second to third Sunday of April.
Takayama Spring Festival, Takayama. Supposedly dating from the 15th century, this festival is one of Japan's grandest with a dozen huge, gorgeous floats that are wheeled through the village streets. April 14 and 15.
Gumonji-do (Firewalking Ceremonies), Miyajima. Walking on live coals is meant to show devotion and to pray for purification and protection from illness and disaster. Daishoin Temple. April 15 and November 15.
Yayoi Matsuri, Futarasan Shrine, Nikko. Yayoi Matsuri features a parade of floats embellished with artificial cherry blossoms and paper lanterns. April 16 and 17.
Golden Week is a major holiday period throughout Japan, when many Japanese offices and businesses close down and families go on vacation. It's a crowded time to travel; reservations are a must. April 29 to May 5.
Hakata Dontaku Port Festival, Fukuoka. Citizens, dressed as deities, parade through the streets clapping wooden rice paddles. May 3 and 4.
Children's Day is a national holiday honoring all children, especially boys. The most common sight throughout Japan is colorful streamers of carp -- which symbolize perseverance and strength -- flying from poles. May 5.
Takigi Noh Performances, Kofukuji Temple, Nara. These noh plays are presented outdoors after dark under the blaze of torches. May 11 and 12.
Kanda Festival, Kanda Myojin Shrine, Tokyo. This festival, which commemorates Tokugawa Ieyasu's famous victory at Sekigahara in 1600, began during the Feudal Period as the only time townspeople could enter the shogun's castle and parade before him. Today this major Tokyo festival features a parade of dozens of portable shrines carried through the district, plus geisha dances and a tea ceremony. Held in odd-numbered years (with a smaller festival held in even years) on the Saturday and Sunday closest to May 15.
Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival), Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrines, Kyoto. This is one of Kyoto's biggest events, a colorful parade with 500 participants wearing ancient costumes to commemorate the days when the imperial procession visited the city's shrines. May 15.
Kobe Matsuri, Kobe. This relatively new festival celebrates Kobe's international past with fireworks at Kobe Port, street markets, and a parade on Flower Road with participants wearing native costumes. Mid-May.
Shunki Reitaisai (Grand Spring Festival), Nikko. Commemorating the day in 1617 when Tokugawa Ieyasu's remains were brought to his mausoleum in Nikko, this festival re-creates that drama with more than 1,000 armor-clad people escorting three palanquins through the streets. May 17 and 18.
Sanja Matsuri, Asakusa Shrine, Tokyo. Tokyo's most celebrated festival features about 100 portable shrines carried through the district on the shoulders of men and women in traditional garb. Third Sunday and preceding Friday and Saturday of May.
Mifune Matsuri, Arashiyama, on the Oigawa River outside Kyoto, is when the days of the Heian Period (during which the imperial family used to take pleasure rides on the river) are reenacted by some 20 boats and people in costume. Third Sunday in May.
Takigi Noh Performances, Kyoto. Evening performances of noh are presented on an open-air stage at the Heian Shrine. June 1 and 2.
Hyakumangoku Matsuri (One Million Goku Festival), Kanazawa. Celebrating Kanazawa's production of one million goku of rice (1 goku is about 150kg/330 lb.), this extravaganza features folk songs and traditional dancing in the streets, illuminated paper lanterns floating downriver, public tea ceremonies, geisha performances, and -- the highlight -- a parade that winds through the city in reenactment of Lord Maeda Toshiie's triumphant arrival in Kanazawa on June 14, 1583, with lion dances, ladder-top acrobatics by firemen, and a torch-lit outdoor noh performance. June 8 to June 14.
Sanno Festival, Hie Shrine, Tokyo. This Edo Period festival, one of Tokyo's largest, features the usual portable shrines, transported through the busy streets of the Akasaka District. June 10 to June 16.
Otaue Rice-Planting Festival, Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine, Osaka. In hopes of a successful harvest, young girls in traditional farmers' costumes transplant rice seedlings in the shrine's rice paddy to the sound of traditional music and songs. June 14.
Ukai (Cormorant Fishing), Nagara River near Gifu and Kiso River in Inuyama (near Nagoya). Visitors board small wooden boats after dark to watch cormorants dive into the water to catch ayu, a kind of trout. Generally end of May to October.
Tanabata Matsuri (Star Festival), celebrated throughout Japan. According to myth, the two stars Vega and Altair, representing a weaver and a shepherd, are allowed to meet once a year on this day. If the skies are cloudy, however, the celestial pair cannot meet and must wait another year. Celebrations differ from town to town, but in addition to parades and food/souvenir stalls, look for bamboo branches with colorful strips of paper bearing children's wishes. July 7.
Hozuki Ichi (Ground-Cherry Pod Fair), Tokyo. This colorful affair at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa features hundreds of stalls selling ground-cherry pods and colorful wind bells. July 9 and 10.
Yamakasa, Fukuoka. Just before the crack of dawn, seven teams dressed in loincloths and happi coats (short, colorful, kimono-like jackets) race through town, bearing 1-ton floats on their shoulders. In addition, elaborately decorated, 9m-tall (30-ft.) floats designed by Hakata doll masters are on display throughout town. July 15.
Gion Matsuri, Kyoto. One of the most famous festivals in Japan, this dates back to the 9th century, when the head priest at Yasaka Shrine organized a procession to ask the gods' assistance in a plague raging in the city. Although celebrations continue throughout the month, the highlight is on the 17th, when more than 30 spectacular wheeled floats wind their way through the city streets to the accompaniment of music and dances. Many visitors plan their trip to Japan around this event. July 16 and 17.
Obon Festival, nationwide. This festival commemorates the dead who, according to Buddhist belief, revisit the world during this period. Many Japanese return to their hometowns for religious rites, especially if a family member has died recently. As one Japanese whose grandmother had died a few months before told me, "I have to go back to my hometown -- it's my grandmother's first Obon." Mid-July or mid-August, depending on the region.
Tenjin Matsuri, Temmangu Shrine, Osaka. One of Japan's biggest festivals, this dates from the 10th century when the people of Osaka visited Temmangu Shrine to pray for protection against diseases prevalent during the long, hot summer. They would take pieces of paper cut in the form of human beings and, while the Shinto priest said prayers, would rub the paper over themselves in ritual cleansing. Afterward, the pieces of paper were taken by boat to the mouth of the river and disposed of. Today, events are reenacted with a procession of more than 100 sacred boats making their way downriver, followed by a fireworks display. There's also a parade of some 3,000 people in traditional costume. July 24 and 25.
Kangensai Music Festival, Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima. There are classical court music and Bugaku dancing, and three barges carry portable shrines, priests, and musicians across the bay along with a flotilla of other boats. Because this festival takes place according to the lunar calendar, the actual date changes each year. Late July or early August.
Hanabi Taikai (Fireworks Display), Tokyo. This is Tokyo's largest summer celebration, and everyone sits on blankets along the banks of the Sumida River near Asakusa to see the show. It's great fun! Last Saturday of July.
Fuji Rock Festival, Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata. Japan's biggest outdoor rock festival, with an impressive lineup of international acts in a beautiful mountain setting. Last weekend in July.
Oshiro Matsuri, Himeji. This celebration is famous for its noh dramas lit by bonfire and performed on a special stage on the Himeji Castle grounds, as well as a procession from the castle to the city center with participants dressed as feudal lords and ladies in traditional costume. First Friday and Saturday of August.
Peace Ceremony, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima. This ceremony is held annually in memory of those who died in the atomic bomb blast of August 6, 1945. In the evening, thousands of lit lanterns are set adrift on the Ota River in a plea for world peace. A similar ceremony is held on August 9 in Nagasaki. August 6.
Tanabata Matsuri, Sendai. Sendai holds its Star Festival 1 month later than the rest of Japan. It's the country's largest, and the entire town is decorated with colored paper streamers. August 6 to August 8.
Matsuyama Festival, Matsuyama. Jubilant festivities include dances, fireworks, a parade, and a night fair. August 11 to August 13.
Takamatsu Festival, Takamatsu. About 6,000 people participate in a dance procession that threads its way along Chuo Dori Avenue; anyone can join in. Food stalls are set up in Chuo Park, and there's also a fireworks display. August 12 to August 14.
Toronagashi and Fireworks Display, Matsushima. A fireworks display is followed by the setting adrift on the bay of about 5,000 small boats with lanterns, which are meant to console the souls of the dead; another 3,000 lanterns are lit on islets in the bay. Evening of August 15.
Yamaga Lantern Festival, Kumamoto. Women dressed in yukata dance through town with illuminated paper lanterns on their heads, and there's also a fireworks display. August 15 and 16.
Daimonji Bonfire, Mount Nyoigadake, Kyoto. A huge bonfire in the shape of the Chinese character dai, which means "large," and other motifs are lit near mountain peaks; it's the highlight of the Obon Festival. August 16.
Eisa Festival, Okinawa Island. Dance teams compete in lively folk performances to the accompaniment of drums, three-stringed sanshin, and other instruments. Late August.
Yabusame, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, Kamakura. Archery performed on horseback recalls the days of the samurai. September 16.
Okunchi Festival, Suwa Shrine, Nagasaki. This 370-year-old festival, one of Kyushu's best, illustrates the influence of Nagasaki's Chinese population through the centuries. Highlights include a parade of floats and dragon dances. October 7 to October 9.
Marimo Matsuri, Lake Akan, Hokkaido. This festival is put on by the native Ainu population to celebrate marimo (a spherical weed found in Lake Akan) and includes a pine torch parade and fireworks. Early October.
Takayama Matsuri (Autumn Festival), Takayama. As in the festival held here in April, huge floats are paraded through the streets. October 9 and 10.
Nagoya Festival, Nagoya. Nagoya's biggest event commemorates three of its heroes -- Tokugawa Ieyasu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Oda Nobunaga -- in a parade that goes from City Hall to Sakae and includes nine floats with mechanical puppets, marching bands, and a traditional orchestra. Second weekend in October.
Naha Tug of War, Naha, Okinawa. Anyone can join in this tug of war with the world's largest rope (186m/619 ft.), once held to welcome Chinese ambassadors. Second Sunday in October.
Nada no Kenka Matsuri (Nada Fighting Festival), Matsubara Hachiman Shrine, Himeji. Men shouldering portable shrines jostle each other as they attempt to show their skill in balancing their heavy burdens. October 14 and 15.
Doburoku Matsuri, Ogimachi, Shirakawago. This village festival honors unrefined sake, said to represent the spirit of God, with a parade, an evening lion dance, and plenty of eating and drinking. October 14 to October 19.
Nikko Toshogu Shrine Festival, Nikko. A parade of warriors in early-17th-century dress are accompanied by spear-carriers, gun-carriers, flag-bearers, Shinto priests, pages, court musicians, and dancers as they escort a sacred portable shrine. October 17.
Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages), Kyoto. Another of Kyoto's grand festivals, this one began in 1894 to commemorate the founding of the city in 794. It features a procession of more than 2,000 people dressed in ancient costumes representing different epochs of Kyoto's 1,200-year history, who march from the Imperial Palace to Heian Shrine. October 22.
Ohara Matsuri, Kagoshima. About 15,000 people parade through the town in cotton yukata, dancing to the tune of local folk songs. A sort of Japanese Mardi Gras, this event attracts several hundred thousand spectators each year. November 2 and 3.
Daimyo Gyoretsu (Feudal Lord Procession), Yumoto Onsen, Hakone. The old Tokaido Highway that used to link Kyoto and Tokyo comes alive again with a faithful reproduction of a feudal lord's procession in the olden days. November 3.
Shichi-go-san (Children's Shrine-Visiting Day), held throughout Japan. Shichi-go-san literally means "seven-five-three" and refers to children of these ages who are dressed in their kimono best and taken to shrines by their elders to express thanks and pray for their future. November 15.
Tori-no-Ichi (Rake Fair), Otori Shrine, Tokyo. This fair in Asakusa features stalls selling rakes lavishly decorated with paper and cloth, which are thought to bring good luck and fortune. Based on the lunar calendar, the date changes each year. Mid-November.
Gishi-sai, Sengakuji Station, Tokyo. This memorial service honors 47 ronin (masterless samurai) who avenged their master's death by killing his rival and parading his head; for their act, all were ordered to commit suicide. Forty-seven men dressed as the ronin travel to Sengakuji Temple (the site of their and their master's burial) with the enemy's head to place on their master's grave. December 14.
Kasuga Wakamiya On-Matsuri, Kasuga Shrine, Nara. This festival features court music with traditional dance and a parade of people dressed as courtiers, retainers, and wrestlers of long ago. December 15 to December 18.
Hagoita-Ichi (Battledore Fair), Sensoji Temple, Tokyo. Popular since Japan's feudal days, this Asakusa festival features decorated paddles of all types and sizes. Most have designs of kabuki actors -- images made by pasting together padded silk and brocade -- and make great souvenirs and gifts. December 17 to December 19.
New Year's Eve. At midnight, many temples ring huge bells 108 times to signal the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Families visit temples and shrines throughout Japan to pray for the coming year. December 31.