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Monthly Events in Sapporo/Japan

January

The Japanese New Year, or ganjistsu, begins with the sound of joya-no-kane, Buddhist temple bells ringing 108 times, signifying ridding oneself of the 108 attachments or earthly desires accumulated during the past year. Seeing the sunrise or hatsuhinode from the mountains or on the horizon on New Year's Day is said to be auspicious.
On New Year's Day or soon after, many people visit a Shinto shrine to pray for good fortune in the coming year. They may buy special omamori or charms for health, safety, or love. Some of the most frequent visitors are students who are taking entrance exams that year. See photos of my hatsumode or first visit of the New Year to Hokkaido Shrine in 2004.
New Year's cards, or nengajo, are delivered exactly on New Year's day. They frequently have the design of one of the twelve signs of the Chinese astrological zodiac or eto. The year 2004 is the year of the monkey. It's exciting to get a whole stack of cards from friends and acquaintances all over, and may be the only contact they have throughout the year. If someone in the family has died the previous year, cards are not sent because the family, according to Buddhist tradition, is still in mourning.
Most Japanese children receive otoshidama or gifts of money in a decorated envelope from their parents. Before receiving them, it is traditional to kneel and bow, saying, "Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu. Kotoshi moo yoroshiku onegai shimasu." These words may be roughly translated as "Congratulations on the opening [of the New Year]. Please treat me well again this year." It is also customary to see these phrases the first time one greets friends and colleagues in the New Year.
The first three days of the New Year, people eat osechi-ryori. Originally osechi-ryori was in a special lacquered box and included grilled, boiled, and vinegared dishes that would keep for a while in order to reduce the work for homemakers during that time. Each of the contents has a special meaning for the New Year. For example, tai (sea bream) means medetai (auspicious and kobumaki means yorokobu (happiness. (a soup with mochi and vegetables) varies according to regional customs but is also an essential dish for celebrating the New Year.
At the end of the old, year, homes and shops are decorated with shimenawakazari (sacred straw rope), kadomatsu (gate pines), or a combined decoration of pine, bamboo, Japanese plum branches, and Japanese cranes, symbolizing longevity, constancy, prosperity, or good fortune. These are then burned in a festival called Dondo on January 15th. Also, inside homes is a display kagamimochi, or two pieces of roud rice cake, one on top of the other, symbolizing seats for the gods to sit on. They are eaten after being cut or broken on the 11th in a ceremony called kagamibiraki.
Coming-of-Age Day, which used to be on January 15th, was changed to the second Monday of January so in 2004 falls on the 12th. On that day there are special ceremonies for the young people who are turning 20, legally becoming adults, during the year.
[Excerpts from What's On In Sapporo?, Vol. 336, January, 2003, and Vol. 348, January, 2004, published by the Hokkaido International Women's Association.]


February

Setsubun, a traditional Japanese festival, takes place on the eve of risshun, the first day of spring on the ancient solar calendar, Feb. 3rd. Since the first day of spring used to be the first day of the new year according to the Chinese calendar, it was necessary to cleanse the house by chasing away all the bad luck before the new year. While chanting "one wa soto, fuku wa uchi" ("Out with demons! In with good luck!"), Japanese people scatter roasted soybeans or peanuts inside and outside their house to drive out sickness and misfortune represented by demons. The custom of throwing beans was brought back to Japan by a Japanese envoy to China during the Tang Dynasty. It is said that if you eat a bean for every year of your age, this will bring you good health.
[Excerpts from Hokkaido International Women's Association, What's on in Sapporo?, Vol. 324, January 2002, p. 2, and Japanese Traditions by students in the Japanese Studies Program at Lyon College, Batesville, Arkansas]
The main event in Sapporo during February is the annual Yuki Matsuri or Snow Festival, held in 2003 from February 5th through February 11th. Started in 1950 when a group of high school students built six snow sculptures in Odori Park, the festival now attracts over 2 million visitors from around the world.
In 1955 the Japanese Self-Defense Force began helping to move massive amounts of snow into the park to help build the sculptures, which sometimes take 2-3 weeks to build and some 2,00 cubic meters of snow to make. The process begins with the construction of a wooden form that is filled with snow. After the frame is removed, a variety of tools, ranging from power shovels to chisels, are used to shape the sculptures and apply the finishing touches.
In addition to snow sculptures of various sizes, fragile but dazzling ice sculptures are created a few days (sometimes the night) before the opening. At the three main sites in Sapporo, around 330 creations are on display. Even if you can't come to Sapporo for the event, you can see a Live Camcorder of the Snow Festival.


March

In Sapporo, March usually means the gradual melting of snow from waist-high to knee-high to ankle-high. It can be very slushy until dry pavement finally appears (although there are more and more areas with road heating.) There are still snowstorms from time to time. This year March came in like a lamb so . . .
On March 3rd, Japanese celebrate Hina Matsuri, or the Dolls' Festival for girls. Families with daughters display hina dolls with peach flowers on tiered platforms, and pray for the girls' happy futures. Traditional hina dolls include, starting from the top, the emperor and empress, three ladies-in-waiting, five court musicians, two administrators, and three court guards.
The origins of the Doll Festival go back more than 1,000 years to ancient Chinese purification rites. During the Heian period (794 - 1185) in Japan, paper images were used to exorcise impurities; also girls started playing with paper dolls. The tradition is that when a baby girl is born, her mother's parents buy a set of hina dolls for her. They are usually displayed a few weeks before the festival and put away soon after March 3rd. If not, it is said that girls might not marry or may marry late.
[Excerpts from Japanese Traditions by students in the Japanese Studies Program at Lyon College, Batesville, Arkansas]


April

All over Japan, spring is the beginning of new phases of life, particularly at school and work. Students start their new school year in April, and workers often begin a new job on exactly April 1st (no fooling!).
In Sapporo, it didn't at all seem like spring in 2000 with snow still up to the knees in many places. It was another month before flowers appeared. In addition, prior to the gubernatorial election on Sunday, April 11th, the streets were filled with noisy vans screaming out to the voters for their consideration of certain candidates. Nevertheless, the scent of spring was in the air.
April 29th is a holiday called Greenery Day in commemoration of the former Showa Emperor (Hirohito). This was the birthday of Emperor Hirohito, now known as Showa, who died in 1989. From the following year the name was changed to Midori no Hi in honor of the Emperor's passion for environmental issues. It is the first of a holiday week known as Golden Week, described below. For many Japanese, it means traveling, particularly to the site of their ancestors' grave.


May

All over Japan, Golden Week–a week encompassing three national holidays–takes place from April 29th through May 5th.
The first of the 3 holidays, April 29th, is described above. The second, May 3rd, is Kenpo Kinenbi or Constitution Day. On this date in 1947, the post-war constitution (kenpo) became law.
The third, on May 5th, is known as Kodomo no Hi or Children's Day. This holiday was originally called Tango no Sekku (Boys' Festival). Families with boys celebrate by flying koi nobori (carp streamers) and displaying gogatsu ningyo (May dolls). They enjoy special foods such as rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo or oak leaves. The leaves symbolize longevity and strength.
An extra holiday, Kokumin no Kyujitsu or People's Holday, was created on May 4th in order to make the Golden Week a continuous holiday period.
[Some information extracted from The Japan Zone.]
In addition, Sapporo has its annual Lilac Festival beginning May 21st, though this official city flower might not yet be in full bloom. Toward the end of the month, typical air masses bring chilly weather known as rira-bie or "lilac cold," named after the fragrant flower.
[Excerpts from What's On In Sapporo?, Vol. 292, May, 1999, published by the Hokkaido International Women's Association.]


June

There are two major events in Sapporo during June. One, the Hokkaido Jingu Reisai or Hokkaido Shrine Festival, is traditional, and the other, the Yosakoi Soran Matsuri or Yosakoi Festival is rather new.
The Hokkaido Shrine was built in 1869 and dedicated to the guardian deities for the reclamation of Hokkaido. Since the first festival in 1872, the annual fete has been observed except for twice during World War II. Gagaku (ancient court music and dance), noh drama, nodate (open-air tea ceremony), Japanese archery, and other arts are performed at the shrine in honor of the gods.
The festival features an annual parade around the city of the gods on portable shrines, called mikoshi-togyo, followed by highly decorated dashi (floats). Each float, drawn by people in traditional feudal attire, has a life-sized costumed mannequin on its roof which lifts up and down when the dancers on the float start dancing. The first procession was in 1878.
Nakajima Park, near my apartment, around has 500 roten or vendor's stalls, circus tents, and amusement booths. It's not exactly peaceful in my neighborhood! See photos.
The Yosakoi Festival takes place the second week in June. It features dancing performances by about 300 dancing teams with close to 40,000 participants. Several of my college students perform.
The festival was first promoted by a local university student as a cultural exchange between Kochi prefecture and Hokkaido. The rules of Yosakoi are to dance with naruko castanets in hand and to use some phrase of a Hokkaido folk song, Soran-bushi, to arranged music. There are several sites for the dancing, but the main contest site is in Odori Park (West 8).
[Some of this information was extracted from What's on in Sapporo?, Vol. 293, June 1999, Vol. 305, June 2000, and Vol. 365, June 2005, published by the Hokkaido International Women's Association.]


July

The Pacific Music Festival, founded by Leonard Bernstein, is held at two primary sites in Sapporo, Kitara Hall and Sapporo Art Park. Michael Tilson Thomas and Charles Dutoit were the artistic directors at the 11th annual festival in 2000. Talented young musicians from all over the world audition to study and perform. Other world-famous musicians and groups also perform in over 50 concerts throughout the month.
Tanabata, the Festival of the Star Vega, is held on the 7th of July in most parts of Japan but a month later in Hokkaido. Legend has it that two young lovers who had served for Heaven had neglected their duties to see each other. The wrathful Heaven punished them by ordering that they meet, on the Milky Way, for no more than one day a year.
[Some of this information was extracted from What's on in Sapporo?, Vol. 307, August 2000, published by the Hokkaido International Women's Association.]


August

"Japanese, both religious and secular, respect Obon, Aug. 13th-16th, during which most workers take holidays. Obon is actually called Urabon in Buddhism. Ura is the pain from starvation in Sanskrit, and bon is the food container or salvation from that pain in Chinese. By the seventh century, these foreign ideas had combined with the indigenous faith to make Obon rituals. It is believed that descendants can comfort ancestors' spirits by offering food during Obon.
"Bon Odori stems from Medieval Japan when the culture of city dwellers began to flourish. Besides comforting the souls of ancestors, it aimed at releasing people's energy in mass dancing. Today, there remains little religious significance."
Near my home, on August 15th there is a special ceremony releasing paper lanterns on small boats with names of the deceased on the Kamokamo River. Also, at Higashi Honganji Temple on the hillside of Mt. Moiwa, there is Mantoe, a ritual lighting of lanterns.
[Some of this information was extracted from What's on in Sapporo?, Vol. 283, August 1998, published by the Hokkaido International Women's Association.]


September

September, rather than being the beginning of the school year in Japan, is the month when many schools begin the second semester after the short summer holiday of only a month or so.
There are two main holidays throughout Japan: September 15th is Keiro no hi or Respect-for-the-Aged Day, and September 23rd is Shubun no hi, the Autumnal Equinox.


October

October is a beautiful month in Sapporo, but it's chilly and the first snowfall often occurs towards the end of the month. The beautiful fall colors start in the mountains surrounding the city and gradually creep downward until even urban areas, including my neighborhood, are ablaze with color.
The festival called Shichi-Go-San or Seven-Five-Three is celebrated on November 15th in most of Japan. However, because of its cold climate, Hokkaido observes the holiday (not a national holiday) on October 15th. At that time (actually the nearest Sunday), girls who are 3, boys who are 5, and both boys and girls who are 7 are dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos. The parents then take them to a local Shinto shrine to thank the gods for helping the children reach their current age. In addition, the Shinto priest offers prayers for their good health, fortune, and protection. See shichigosan for a clear explanation. Since there's a large shrine across the street from my apartment and a smaller one a few blocks away, I have a chance to see the children all dressed up like large dolls.


November

Although there are still leaves on the trees near the beginning of November, by the end of the month there's snow on the ground, which will last through the end of March. Also, Sapporo has a rather unique festival in early November: the annual Chrysanthemum Festival. Through the 3rd of November, the underground shopping malls are filled with blocks of huge, award-winning chrysanthemums in white, yellow, and purple. There are also exquisite tiny chrysanthemum bonsai on display.
There are two national holidays throughout Japan in November: Bunka no Hi or Culture Day and Rodo Kansha no Hi or Labor Thanksgiving Day. Although there may be special activities connected with these holidays, for many people it's a time to rest and get ready for the end of the year.


December

Throughout December, Odori Park–a long, narrow park extending for several blocks in the center of Sapporo–is decorated with white lights, a practice called "White Illumination." It's a fantastical sight.
Christmas in Sapporo is always a white one and celebrated much the way it is in other parts of Japan. Christmas Eve is a time for fried chicken, frosted Christmas cakes, and non-alcoholic champagne. Those who make love that evening are said to have a long-lasting relationship, so the love hotels in Susukino are packed with young couples.
For music-lovers, the tradition is go to a concert of Beethoven's 9th. In fact, my chorus generally sings the piece twice during the month of December. (See music).
At the end of the year, it is traditional to do a major household cleaning or osoji. Then the traditional New Year's feast, osechi, is prepared in many households. Traditional food includes otoso (spiced sake) and zoni (rice cakes boiled with vegetables).
[Excerpts from What's On In Sapporo?, Vol. 335, December, 2002, published by the Hokkaido International Women's Association.]


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Last updated June 16, 2005.