Mochibana at Hakusa Sanso, Shoji screen at Ginkakuji, © Risa Sekiguchi, 2009
Sakura: Beauty and Sadness

Oshogatsu and Osechi-ryori
New Years, or Oshogatsu, may be Japan's most important holiday, but it isn't the best time to visit. Shops and restaurants are closed from December 28 to January 3, rendering the streets eerily quiet, except at temples and shrines, which are packed with families conducting hatsumode, the first temple visits of the year. On residential streets, homes display kadomatsu (pine, bamboo and plum decorations) next to closed doors graced with shimenawa (rice straw and paper decorations). But while a New Year visit to Japan might not be great for tourists, it's an ideal time for people with close Japanese friends who can join the celebration.

What can they expect? Oshogatsu is a special time of year when families gather together, from near and far, rather like Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays combined. Children are given otoshidama (gifts of money) by elders, and time is devoted to family, community, reflection and prayer. It's a time to start everyhing afresh, and no work is permitted on this sacred day, when even the chopsticks are pointed on both sides so the gods can partake in the feast. In order to prepare, the entire house is given a thorough cleaning, and a special type of ancient cuisine called osechi-ryori is either painstakenly prepared, or purchased from elegant kaiseki restaurants. MORE


Hina Matsuri (Girls' Day)
On March 3, we celebrate Hina Matsuri, a festival for girls with ancient roots. In homes across Japan, families display heirloom dolls — some passed down for generations — from mid-February until March 4th. This tradition dates back to the Heian era (794-1185), when it was popular for girls of the court to play with dolls. Since then, the dolls came to be viewed as caretakers of the girls’ health and happiness, warding off bad luck and bringing in good fortune. We can only imagine the dolls’ legacy, as they watch over generations of girls — through childhood, student life, courtship and marriage — as they grow up to become fine, strong women and have daughters of their own. Why do we take the dolls down on March 4? Well, it’s a superstition that dolls left on display too long delay the girls’ marriage. MORE

Hina ningyo

Cherry Blossom Festival
A visit to Japan during sakura (cherry blossom) season is a rare pleasure, and highly recommended. Although the weather can be chilly and damp, the hotels full and the streets clogged with revelers, the sight of the delicate blossoms and their intoxicating effect on the people make for a wonderful experience. I had thought it was sentimental hype until I found myself in Kyoto one year during the height of cherry blossom season. The city was awash in pink; enveloping me and everyone around me with their delicate fragrance; the petals falling, fluttering like gentle rain on the sidewalks and onto the hair of young women in their sakura-patterned kimonos. Since then, I haven’t missed a single season. MORE



O-Tsukimi, Japan's Harvest Moon Festival
O-tsukimi, the Japanese Harvest Moon Festival, evolved from the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival over 1200 years ago, but unlike its cousin, is celebrated quietly, often at home. Autumn flowers and susuki (pampas grass) are displayed, and seasonal foods, as well as tsukimi dango (small white rice dumplings), are offered to the moon in the family alter. MORE