January 05, 2017

Holidays and Hanabi


If you want a job that cleans up on days off, work for the state department in a foreign country. When I was living in Osaka and confronted with the headache of filing taxes in the U.S. as well, I had to keep in mind that the American consulate was closed on U.S. and Japanese holidays.

Christmas isn't an "official" holiday in Japan. But it certainly is celebrated. It's turned into the U.S. equivalent of Valentine's Day, an excuse for couples to get all gooey over each other. In Japan, only guys get feted on Valentine's Day; White Day for girls is celebrated a month later.

(As you might imagine, guys get the better of the deal.)

Just about every holiday and local festival in Japan is accompanied by fireworks. Hanabi (花火) literally means "flower" + "fire."

Except on New Year's. At midnight on December 31, Buddhist temples ring their gong-like bells 108 times. If you're a real devotee, you get up early to watch the first dawn of the year (hatsuhinode). And then dress up in a kimono and visit the local Shinto shrine (hatsumoude).

Anything worth doing is worth doing en masse.

Meanwhile, nengajou, the equivalent of the Christmas card, are delivered on New Year's day in a coordinated burst of postal activity.

Japan has strict fireworks regulations for personal use. That's why sparklers are such a big deal in anime. There's a whole home-grown sparkler culture. Not like Utah, where July 4th and the 24th (Pioneer Day) sound like the climax of a Marvel superhero movie (fighter jets included).

But when it comes to official gunpowder-powered light shows, fireworks festivals aren't just bigger in Japan. They're huuuge. Especially during O-Bon, which is held in July or August (depending on the region's adoption of the Gregorian calendar). And Tanabata (July 7).


Local summer festivals and celebrations (compare to Pioneer Day in Utah and the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York and the Tournament of Roses parade in LA) put on big and elaborate parades followed by big and elaborate fireworks displays.

There are also regional fireworks festivals. Dancing, drumming, and float competitions (that can turn into demolition derbies) have been going on for centuries. And amusement parks and hot springs resorts that, like Disneyland, do it for the publicity and entertainment value.

For a little virtual touring, here's a "how-to" guide and a list of the major festivals.


The Tokushima Awa Odori festival gets national television coverage and has become a huge tourist attraction. You can find lots of videos on YouTube.

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