Japanese Holidays 2020 | Summer Holiday Guide

by Sugimoto Tea Company
Travel Guides, Japanese Culture

Summer in Japan means seasonal festivals, food, and activities. Here’s a guide to the Japanese summer holidays in 2020. 

Guide Contents:

A Guide on Japanese Summer Holidays and Traditions

Summer Solstice — June 21

While not an official holiday, there are different traditions that are observed across Japan during the longest day of the year — the summer solstice. This takes place around June 21 when the sun is at its highest position in the sky, which results in the longest day of the year.

Kanto and Kansai Regions — Ancient Culinary Traditions Tied to the Local Farming Industry

Traditionally, the Summer Solstice in the Kanto and Kansai region had close ties with the farmers in the area. This period signaled the peak of the rice-planting season and with this came unique culinary traditions to mark the occasion.

  • Kanto — During summer, wheat was abundant in the Kanto region since this was the time when farmers switched from planting wheat to rice. The farmers would share this wheat with everyone who helped them plant the fields, and together, they’d eat Komugi-mochi, which is a type of mochi made with flour.
  • Kansai — As a way to encourage a good harvest, farmers in the Kansai region feasted on ginger rice and octopus, the legs of which they believed to resemble the long roots of the rice plant.

Ise — Shinto Ritual at the Meoto Iwa

Some followers of Shinto welcome the Summer Solstice by visiting the Meoto Iwa (夫婦岩) located in the town of Futami in Ise, Mie Prefecture. It features two sacred rocks in the sea, which perfectly frame the sun rising on summer mornings.

Also known as “Wedded Rocks” or “Married Couple Rocks,” the bigger rock represents the husband while the smaller rock represents the wife. A straw rope called a “shimenawa rope,” which is used to identify sacred sites, connects the two rocks. This represents the division between the spiritual and earthly realms.

The summer solstice ritual starts before sunrise with a few warmup exercises. Later on, the participants will move into the sea and recite prayers. It will culminate with the participants kneeling into the water and singing the national anthem.

Tanabata — July 7 or August 7

The Tanabata or “Star Festival” is a celebration based on ancient Chinese folklore about a couple represented by the stars Vega and Altair. The two lovers are separated and are reunited only once a year — on the seventh day of the seventh month.

Depending on the region, Tanabata is celebrated around either July 7 or August 7. Originally, the seventh day of the seventh month was August 7 in the Chinese calendar. It was later moved to July 7 in line with the new calendar. However, some regions still choose to preserve the tradition of celebrating Tanabata on its original date in August.

Tanabata Decorations and Tanzaku

An interesting thing you’ll see only during Tanabata is the colorful decorations that people place on their houses and line the streets during this time. There are seven traditional Tanabata decorations that you’ll see, which are all made from colorful sheets of paper. These include:

  • Orizuru (Paper cranes)
  • Kuzukago (Paper trash bag)
  • Kamigoromo (Paper kimono)
  • Toami (Paper fishing net)
  • Kinchaku (Paper purse)
  • Fukinagashi (Streams of paper)
  • Tanzaku (Colorful strips of paper where people write down their wishes and are hung on bamboo branches)

Tanzaku is the most common and most recognized decoration for Tanabata throughout Japan. Each of the colors of the tanzaku represents a different type of wish.

  • Black (sometimes substituted with purple since black is associated with bad luck) — For wishes that relate to studying
  • Yellow — For friendship-related wishes
  • White — For wishes that are related to duty and responsibility, such as wishing for the fulfillment of goals
  • Red — For wishes related to one’s parents or ancestors
  • Blue or Green — For those who wish to improve themselves

Writing down your wish on the correct color can increase the chances of it being granted. These wishes are later set adrift in the river or burned.

BONUS: Want to try your hand at making your own Tanabata ornaments? Here’s an easy origami visual guide for Orihime and Hikoboshi, the lovers in the original story:

Tanabata Festivals Across Japan

While Tanabata celebrations may vary slightly across the country, you can expect some similarities whichever you visit. Paper decorations line the streets, which are filled with street vendors, from those selling popular street food favorites like yakitori and okonomiyaki, to various trinkets.

July Tanabata Festivals

  • Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri — Like most of the Tanabata festivals around Japan, the Shonan Star Festival gained popularity after WWII as a way of revitalizing the local economy. According to the official pamphlet of the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri, the festival can draw more than a million visitors. Festival attendees are treated to beautiful decorations that line the streets, live performances, and a variety of street food. (Note: The Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuriis cancelled for 2020 due to COVID-19.)
  • Shitamachi Tanabata Matsuri — Festival attendees to this Tokyo festival can expect a variety of live entertainment, from traditional dances and music performances to magic tricks. One of its main highlights is a parade that features motorcycle groups and local talents. (Note: The Shitamachi Tanabata Matsuri is cancelled for 2020 due to COVID-19.)

August Tanabata Festivals

  • Asagaya Tanabata Matsuri — Held in Suginami ward, the Asagaya Star Festival started in 1954, and is still considered one of the biggest Tanabata festivals to this day. One of its most recognizable features is the papier-mache decorations that hang from the roof of the Pearl Center. These come in the shape of anime, cartoon, and pop culture characters. They’re made by a range of community groups, including schools and local businesses. (Note: The Asagaya Tanabata Matsuri is canceled for 2020 due to COVID-19.)
  • Sendai Tanabata Matsuri — The Sendai Tanabata Festival can be traced back to the Edo Period (1603-1868). The Tanabata Festival was referenced in the poems of Lord Date Masamune who lived during that period. Today, the Star Festival in Sendai continues to draw tourists from all over the country who are hoping to get a glimpse of the beautiful bamboo decorations and illuminations created especially for the event. Various events like Tanataba craft workshops and live performances are also held. (Note: The Sendai Tanabata Matsuri is canceled for 2020 due to COVID-19.)

Trivia: Americans who wish to experience this festival need not go far since various organizers around the U.S. do their own Tanabata festivals. Japanese gardens and Japanese culture groups are among the top organizers and hosts for these types of events.

Marine Day — Third Monday in July (July 20, 2020)

Marine Day (海の日) is a day to celebrate the ocean and its importance in Japanese culture. Relative to other Japanese holidays, it’s a newer holiday since the Japanese only started observing Marine Day in 1996.

Until 2003, Marine Day was celebrated on July 20. However, along with other fixed-date holidays, Marine Day was later moved to the third Monday of July as part of a government initiative called “Happy Monday,” which sought to provide more long weekends within the year.

Marine Day Traditions

It’s not uncommon for people to visit the beach during this holiday to take advantage of the summer weather.

Another tradition that some people take part in during Marine Day is mud-ball throwing. Here, people throw dried mud balls filled with Effective Microorganisms (EM) into the sea. This is beneficial for the ocean as it helps remove the contaminants on the ocean floor. It’s also common for seaside towns to organize beach clean-up drives.

One popular event held on Marine Day is the Marine Day Lantern Festival in Odaiba. This festival takes place at the Odaiba Beach Front Park where paper lanterns are lit up on the shore. From this area, you could also get a good view of Rainbow Bridge while trying out some local delicacies like grilled oysters.

Meanwhile, over at the Port of Yokohama, spectators are treated to a fireworks show and a parade of floats. This alludes to the original event that inspired Marine Day. On July 20, 1876, the Meiji Emperor successfully arrived at the Port of Yokohama from his trip north of the country.

Other popular Marine Day destinations include aquariums and public pools, which also organize their own Marine Day events.

BONUS: Marine Day is all about showing appreciation to the ocean and the bounty it provides. Celebrate Marine Day at home with this fish recipe.

Obon — July 13-15 or August 13-15

Like Tanabata, Obon may be celebrated in either July or August depending on which calendar the organizers are following. This is a major holiday season that rivals the activity and travel during New Year’s and Golden Week.

Obon traces its roots to Buddhism and is meant as a time to honor ancestors. The traditions people follow vary based on region. Here are some of them:

Okuri-Bon and Toro Nagashi

As the Obon festival is ending, families light up lanterns called Okuri-bon and proceed to the graves of their ancestors. These lanterns are used to guide the spirits of deceased family members back to their grave.

Floating lanterns called Toro Nagashi have also become popular in recent years. These can be seen floating in lakes or rivers and serve the same purpose — to guide the soul of the departed as they pass on to another realm.

Bon Odori

Bon Odori refers to the traditional dances performed during Obon. Traditionally, the dances were performed to welcome spirits and help them on their way. These days, they serve as entertainment during Obon festivals.

The way the dance is performed varies per region, but a typical way of performing it is to form a circle and dance around a specially-made stage called a yagura. This is also where the musicians will be since these dances are danced to live music. In other regions, props like fans, tenugui (colorful towels) and kachi kachi (wooden clappers) are also used.

Mountain Day — August 11

The newest holiday on this list is Mountain Day, which was first celebrated in 2016. It’s a day that honors the mountains and its significance to Japanese society. Additionally, this holiday is also meant to remind people to take care of nature and preserve it for the next generations.

Mountain Day is celebrated on August 11 because, in kanji, eight (representing the eighth month, August) resembles a mountain while 11 resembles two trees. Unlike other holidays on the “Happy Monday” scheme, Mountain Day is always celebrated on the same day. *Due to Tokyo Olympic Game, Mountain Day was moved to different date in 2020 (8/10) and 2021 (8/9).

Mountain Day Traditions

Since this holiday is dedicated to the appreciation of the mountains and the bounty it brings, it’s typical to celebrate Mountain Day by visiting the mountains, whether by going up the trails or riding a mountain bike. Camping along the trails or on the base of the mountain is also a good way to spend this holiday.

Another popular destination where one can appreciate the mountains is the *onsen, which exists because of the volcanic nature of the country.

What is an onsen? Onsens refer to the natural springs that are littered around Japan. Although this term is often associated with hot springs, cold springs can also be classified as onsens if its waters are at least 25 degrees and contain at least one of the minerals specified in the 1948 Onsen Law.

Trivia: Mountain Day isn’t unique to Japan, and in fact, there are two other recognized Mountain Day celebrations abroad.

Health and Sports Day — Second Monday in October (October 12, 2020)

Health and Sports Day is a Japanese holiday that encourages sport and having an active lifestyle. It was first celebrated in 1966, two years after Tokyo hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics.

Until 2000, this holiday was celebrated on October 10, which was the day of the Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony in 1964. Like Marine Day, Health and Sports Day was also moved to a designated Monday, specifically the second Monday in October, as part of the “Happy Monday” scheme.

In some areas, local governments may organize health checks to educate older adults on the risks associated with a lack of exercise.

Field Day (運動会 Undō-kai)

Since Health and Sports Day promotes an active lifestyle, it’s typical for schools to hold their annual Field Day on this holiday. The Japanese take Field Day seriously, with teams practicing weeks before competition day.

Among the activities one will typically encounter on this day include Japanese team games like tamaire and o-tama, relay races, track meets, scavenger hunts, and tug-of-war.

Want to learn more about Japanese culture, including information on events and traditions? Check out our blog!

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