Because Japan has two major religions, Shintoism and Buddhism, it celebrates festivals throughout the year. Every major shrine and temple observes at least one annual festival with events that might include traditional dances, colorful processions, and booths selling souvenirs and food. For an exhaustive list of events beyond those listed here, check http://events.frommers.com, where you'll find a searchable, up-to-the-minute roster of what's happening in cities all over the world.
New Year's Day, nationwide. The most important national holiday in Japan, this is a time of family reunions and gatherings with friends to drink sake and eat special New Year's dishes. Because the Japanese spend this day with families, and because almost all businesses, restaurants, shops, and museums are closed, it's not a particularly rewarding time of the year for foreign visitors. The best bets are shrines and temples such as Meiji Jingu and Sensoji Temple, where Japanese come dressed in their best (many wear traditional kimono) to pray for good health and happiness in the coming year. January 1.
Dezomeshiki (New Year's Parade of Firemen), Tokyo Big Sight, Odaiba, Tokyo. This annual event features agile firemen in traditional costumes who prove their worth with acrobatic stunts atop tall bamboo ladders. January 6.
Coming-of-Age Day, a national holiday. This day honors young people who have reached the age of 20, when they are allowed to vote, drink alcohol, and assume other responsibilities. They visit shrines to pray for their future; in Tokyo, the most popular shrine is Meiji Shrine. Many women wear traditional kimono. Second Monday in January.
Sumo Tournament, Kokugikan (sumo stadium), Tokyo (www.sumo.or.jp; take the JR or Oedo Line to Ryogoku Station). One of three Grand Tournaments held in Tokyo, held for 15 consecutive days in mid-January.
Setsubun (Bean-Throwing Festival), at leading temples throughout Japan. This festival celebrates the last day of winter according to the lunar calendar. People throng to temples to participate in the traditional ceremony of throwing soybeans to drive away imaginary devils and welcome spring. In Tokyo, popular sites include Kanda Myojin Shrine, Hie Shrine, and Sensoji Temple. February 3 or 4.
National Foundation Day (Kigensetsu), a national holiday. It celebrates the founding of Japan by Emperor Jimmy in 660 B.C. February 11.
Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival), observed throughout Japan. This festival is 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 showcase doll displays in their lobbies. March 3.
Daruma Ichi Doll Festival, Jindaiji Temple (take the Keio Line to Tsutsujigaoka Station). A daruma is a legless, pear-shaped doll modeled after Bodhidharma, who founded the Zen sect in the 6th century and is said to have lost the use of his limbs from sitting 9 years in the lotus position on the way to enlightenment. Stalls here sell daruma with blank spots for eyes -- according to custom, you're supposed to paint in one eye while making a wish; when your wish is fulfilled, you paint in the other eye. March 3 and 4.
Vernal Equinox Day, a national holiday. Throughout the week, Buddhist temples hold ceremonies to pray for the souls of the departed. March 20.
Sakura Matsuri (Cherry-Blossom Season). The bursting forth of cherry blossoms represents the birth of spring for Tokyoites, who gather en masse under the trees to drink sake, eat, and be merry. Popular cherry-viewing spots in Tokyo include Ueno Park, Yasukuni Shrine, Shinjuku Gyoen, Aoyama Bochi Cemetery, Sumida Koen Park in Asakusa, and the moat encircling the Imperial Palace, especially Chidorigafuchi Park. Late March to early April.
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, raised awareness about AIDS), featuring a parade of giant phalluses, some carried by transvestites. Needless to say, it's not your average festival, and you can get some unusual photographs here. First Sunday in April.
Buddha's Birthday (also called Hana Matsuri, or Floral Festival), nationwide. Ceremonies are held at every Buddhist temple, where a small image of Buddha is displayed and doused with a sweet tea called amacha in an act of devotion. April 8.
Asakusa Yabusama (Horseback Archery), Sumida Koen Park, Asakusa. Marksmen in traditional costume show their prowess in archery while galloping on horses. A Saturday in mid-April.
Kamakura Matsuri, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura. The festival honors heroes from the past, including Yoritomo Minamoto, 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 in April.
Yayoi Matsuri, Futarasan Shrine in Nikko. Featured is a parade of gaily decorated floats. April 16 and 17.
Showa Day, a national holiday. Named after Emperor Showa and celebrated on his birthday. April 29.
Golden Week, a major holiday period nationwide. It's a crowded time to travel, so making reservations is a must. Because so many factories and businesses close during the week, this is said to be the best time of year for a clear view of the city and beyond from atop Tokyo's tallest buildings. April 29 to May 5.
Constitution Memorial Day, a national holiday. The Japanese Constitution went into effect on this day in 1947. May 3.
Greenery Day, a national holiday. A new holiday, established in 2007, to promote and appreciate nature. May 4.
Children's Day, a national holiday. This festival is for all children but especially honors young boys. Throughout Japan, colorful streamers of carp are flown from poles to symbolize perseverance and strength, considered desirable attributes for young boys. May 5.
Sumo Tournament, Kokugikan (sumo stadium), Tokyo (www.sumo.or.jp; take the JR or Oedo Line to Ryogoku Station). One of three Grand Tournaments held in Tokyo, held for 15 consecutive days in mid-May.
Kanda Myojin Festival, Kanda Myojin Shrine, Ochanomizu, Suehirocho or Akihabara station (www.kandamyoujin.or.jp/English/top.html). 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-numbered years) on the Saturday and Sunday closest to May 15.
Grand Spring Festival of Toshogu Shrine, in 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 men escorting three palanquins through the streets. May 17 and 18.
Design Festa, Tokyo Big Sight. Tokyo's biggest (and quirkiest) international art exhibition (www.designfesta.com) takes place biannually (2010, 2012, 2014, and so on), in May and October or November, with more than 8,500 artists from more than 30 countries working in mediums ranging from art and fashion to design, film, and music. Impromptu street performances, stalls with working artists, theaters and indoor and outdoor stages provide lots of entertainment. Mid-May.
Sanja Matsuri, Asakusa Shrine. This is one of Tokyo's best-known and most colorful festivals, featuring a parade of 100 portable shrines carried through the streets of Asakusa on the shoulders of men and women dressed in traditional garb. Third Sunday and preceding Friday and Saturday of May.
Sanno Matsuri, Hie Shrine, Akasaka (Tameike-sanno Station). One of Tokyo's largest, this first began in the Edo Period as a festival in which the shogun permitted participants to enter the grounds of Edo Castle. It features the usual portable shrines transported through the busy streets of the Akasaka district and more than 300 people dressed in ancient costumes. June 10 to 16.
Tanabata (Star Festival), celebrated throughout Japan. According to myth, the two stars Vega and Altair, representing a weaver and a shepherd, are allowed to meet only once a year, on this day. If the skies are cloudy, however, the celestial pair cannot meet and must wait another year. July 7.
Hozuki Ichi (Ground Cherry Pod Fair), on the grounds of Asakusa's Sensoji Temple. Hundreds of street stalls sell Hozuki (Lantern Plants), colorful wind bells, and festival snacks. July 9 and 10.
O-Bon Festival, nationwide. This festival is held in memory of dead ancestors who, according to Buddhist belief, revisit the world during this period. O-Bon Odori folk dances are held in neighborhoods everywhere. Many Japanese return to their hometowns for the event, especially if a member of the family has died recently. As one Japanese, whose grandmother had died a few months earlier, told me, "I have to go back to my hometown -- it's my grandmother's first O-Bon." Mid-July or mid-August.
Antique Jamboree, Tokyo Big Sight, Odaiba. One of Japan's largest antique shows features 500 Japanese, European, and American dealers. Weekend in mid-July.
Maritime Day, a national holiday. The holiday commemorates the vital role of the sea in Japan's livelihood and honors those involved in the marine industry. Third Monday in July.
Hanabi Taikai (Fireworks Display). Tokyo's largest summer celebration features spectacular fireworks displays over the Sumida River in Asakusa. Get there early and spread a blanket on the bank of the river or in Sumida Koen Park (near Kototoibashi and Komagatabashi bridges). There are also fireworks displays over Tokyo Bay in August. Last Saturday of July.
Waraku Odori, in Nikko. This is one of the most popular events for folk dances, with thousands of people dancing to music. August 5 and 6.
Sumo Tournament, Kokugikan (sumo stadium), Tokyo (www.sumo.or.jp; take the JR or Oedo Line to Ryogoku Station). One of three Grand Tournaments held in Tokyo, held for 15 consecutive days in mid-September.
Respect-for-the-Aged Day, a national holiday. Third Monday in September.
Yabusame (Horseback Archery), Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura. The archery performances by riders on horseback recall the days of the samurai. September 16.
Autumnal Equinox Day, a national holiday. September 23.
Health Sports Day, a national holiday, established in commemoration of the Tokyo Olympic Games. Second Monday in October.
Oeshiki Festival, Ikegami-Honmonji Temple, Ikegami (Ikegami or Nishi-magome station; www.honmonji.jp/English.html). This is the largest of Tokyo's commemorative services held for Nichiren (1222-82), who founded the Buddhist Nichiren Sect and died at this temple. A nighttime procession features lanterns and huge paper decorations joined by the sound of flutes and drums. October 12 and 13.
Autumn Festival of Toshogu Shrine, Toshogu Shrine in 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.
Culture Day, a national holiday. November 3.
Daimyo Gyoretsu, Yumoto Onsen, in Hakone. On this day 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 old days, as he traveled between Edo (present-day Tokyo) and his domain accompanied by his retainers. November 3.
Shichi-go-san (Children's Shrine-Visiting Day), held throughout Japan. Shichi-go-san literally means "seven-five-three"; it refers to children of these ages who are dressed in their best kimono and taken to shrines by their elders to express thanks and to pray for their future. In Tokyo, the most popular sites are the Meiji, Yasukuni, Kanda Myojin, Asakusa, and Hie shrines. November 15.
Tori-no-Ichi (Rake Fair), Otori Shrine in Asakusa. This fair features stalls selling rakes lavishly decorated with paper and cloth, which are thought to bring good luck and fortune. The date, based on the lunar calendar, changes each year. Mid-November.
Labor Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday. November 23.
Gishi-sai, Sengakuji Station. This memorial service honors 47 masterless samurai (ronin), 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 (site of their master's burial) with the enemy's head to place on their master's grave. December 14.
Hagoita-Ichi (Battledore Fair), Sensoji Temple. Popular since Japan's feudal days, this fair features decorated paddles of all types and sizes, as well as shuttlecocks and kites. Most have designs of Kabuki actors -- images made by pasting together silk and brocade -- and make great souvenirs and gifts. December 17 to 19.
Emperor's Birthday, a national holiday. The birthday of Akihito, Japan's 125th emperor, became a national holiday in 1989. December 23.
New Year's Eve, celebrated nationwide. At midnight, many temples ring huge bells 108 times to signal the end of the old year and the beginning of the new (each peal represents a sin). Many families visit temples and shrines to pray for good luck and prosperity and to usher in the coming year. In Tokyo, Meiji Shrine is the place to be for this popular family celebration; many coffee shops and restaurants in nearby Harajuku stay open all night to serve the revelers. Other popular sites are Kanda Myojin Shrine, Sensoji Temple, and Sanno Hie Shrine.