For the safety of our staff and volunteers, we will not offer in-person school visits for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year. Please contact us about setting up a virtual Japan in the Schools visit or activity, and take advantage of these resources that children and adults can access from home.
In the old calendar, the name for April is uzuki, which means the month Deutzia flowers bloom. In the modern calendar, this is the month of cherry blossoms, the national flower of Japan. From the end of March to mid-April, the whole country is covered by cherry blossoms which makes April a very special month.
Nyugakushiki (School Entrance Ceremony)& Nyushashiki (Corporate Entrance Ceremony)
The Japanese fiscal year starts on April 1. So does the school year. Because of that, April is the month for entrance ceremonies for schools and corporations.
Most school entrance ceremonies are conducted in the first week of April. The corporate ceremonies are usually conducted on April 1st. The large corporations’ ceremonies are often televised in the news. This is the month to start a new chapter of your life. Cherry blossoms and the new randoseru (Japanese school backpack) are in everyone’s memories.
Randoseru: Japanese Backpack for Elementary School Children
The backpack is very special and unique to Japan. Children start school at age 6. Most children get a new backpack called randoseru. Usually, parents or grandparents purchase them. Sometimes employers give them to the children of their employees. The backpack is made of leather or man-made leather. They are very sturdy, and often expensive. But the children are expected to use it for 6 years. Nowadays, they come in different colors, patterns and styles. The scenes of new first graders carrying brand-new backpacks is the sign of the spring in Japan.
Ohanami (Cherry Blossom viewing)
Blooming forecast Map
Japanese people love nature. In all seasons, people flock to enjoy the seasonal flowers and trees. The biggest such season is naturally the cherry blossom season. Every year in the spring, the forecast map shows when the expected peak time is in each region. This is the national pastime in spring in Japan. People pack Ohanami lunch and enjoy picnicking under the blossoms day and night.
Cherry Blossoms in Washington DC
In every spring, cherry blossoms cover the edge of the Potomac river in Washington DC. The planting of cherry trees in Washington DC originated in 1912 as a gift of friendship to the People of the United States from the People of Japan. Nowadays, many Sakura Matsuri (Cherry Blossom Festivals) are held in various cities in the US, like Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.
The old name for March is Yayoi, which means the month plants grow thick. The most important event of the month is Hinamatsuri on March 3.
March 3: Joshi no Sekku, Momo no Sekku, Hina Matsuri, Girls’ Day
In the old days, March 3 was joshi no sekku, one of five Sekku, or seasonal celebrations conducted in the Imperial court. This is a day to ward off evil spirits. People cut out paper or thin wood pieces into the shape of a person, rubbed them against their body, then let them drift away in the streams, believing the dolls took bad spirits with them. This custom still exists in different areas. It is called “nagashi bina”. The day is also called momo no sekku (peach festival). March in the Lunar calendar is more like April or May in the Gregorian calendar. Peach blossoms were in bloom then. Nowadays, it is called Hina Matsuri (doll festival) or Girls’ Day. It is the day to pray for healthy growth and happiness of girls.
By the Edo era, the dolls got more elaborate, and common people started to celebrate the festival.
A full set of hina dolls like the one pictured is seven tiers. It resembles the Imperial court with the Emperor and Empress on top. Girls celebrate with special food like chirashi zushi, clam soup, and shiro zake.
Hishimochi (diamond-shaped three-colored rice cake) is offered to the dolls.
Color or make your own origami hina ningyo.
The old name for February is kisaragi, which means the month of adding a layer of cloth because it is cold. But this is also the month to welcome spring.
立春：Risshun, The first day of Spring （The sun reaches 350 degrees celestial longitude）
In the Lunar calendar, Spring is considered the start of the new year. Risshun, the first day of spring, usually comes around February 4th.
節分：Setsubun, The day to divide the seasons
Setsubun is the day before Risshun (The first day of Spring). So, it is celebrated as the new year’s eve. This year, Setsubun comes on February second. The last time Setsubun fell on February second was 124 years ago. The length of one year is 365.2422 days. As we have a leap year to adjust the extra hours, it does the same to the lunar calendar. That is why the dates of the celebrations change.
Setsubun Rituals. The day to drive away evil.
Mame Maki (Bean Throwing)
It was believed the evil spirits were more active closer to the new year. To drive the spirits away, people threw roasted soybeans yelling “Fuku wa uchi,” (Good luck, come inside) and threw beans in the house, then yelled “Oni wa soto”, (Evil spirits go outside) while throwing beans outside of the house. People dressed like Oni (Evil) ran away as people threw beans at them. This ritual is very popular at home, shrines, and temples. You eat roasted beans to keep healthy and keep bad spirits away. Nowadays some places use peanuts in shells instead of roasted soybeans because it is more sanitary and easier to catch or pick them up to eat. Here is an interesting video about Oni and Setsubun by NHK.
Hiiragi iwashi (grilled sardine head on holly twigs)
It is said oni don’t like the smell of grilled sardines, and the thorny leaves of holly will pierce the oni’s eyes to blind them. This is an ancient tradition popular in certain regions of Japan like Nara or Tohoku.
Eho maki (Eating maki sushi facing the lucky direction of the year)
This is a fairly new practice made popular by the sushi industry, seaweed industry, convenience stores and supermarkets. There was such a game in Osaka as a social entertainment. In the 70’s, sushi and seaweed industries needed a boost, they started marketing this custom, eating a maki roll sushi as a whole, facing the lucky direction of the year. The idea was a big success. Now, you can see Eho maki rolls everywhere in Japan. In 2021, the lucky direction is South-South East. If you fancy, grab one roll, eat a whole roll without talking or take a break facing South-South East.
Setsubun fun crafts:
Make Oni Masks: Download, color, cut and make a mask.
Valentine’s Day Origami
Printable Heart Patterned Origami Papers
The old name for January is mutsuki, which means the month of harmony when family and friends get together. It is the month to welcome Toshigami (god of the New Year). People celebrate it for 15 days, called Oshōgatsu. Sanganichi (first three days) are the most important.
January 7 is an ancient seasonal celebration called nana kusa (seven herbs) when people eat rice porridge with seven herbs to wish for health. New Years decorations are taken down and burned on January 15. The Toshigami will go back to the sky with the smoke.
Oshōgatsu: New Year, January 1-15
Hatsu hinode: First sunrise of the year. It is considered very lucky to see the first sunrise of the year. In ancient times, it was believed that Toshigami will come with the sunrise.
Hatsu yume: The first dream of the year, during the night of January 1. It is said to be very lucky to dream about “Ichi Fuji (first, Mt. Fuji), Ni Taka (second, a hawk), San Nasubi (third, eggplant).”
Hatsumōde: First visit to shrines and temples which is usually done in the first three days. People visit shrines and temples to pray for luck and happiness in the new year.
Osechi ryōri, Ozōni and Otoso: New Year’s food and drink: Osechi-ryōri and Ozōni (soup with mochi) are auspicious foods we share with the New Year's god, Toshigami. Otoso is herbal sake. You eat them with special chopsticks that have points on both ends, one end for Toshigami, the other for humans.
Nengajō: New Year card
Otoshidama: New Year money, usually for children
Kakizome: First Calligraphy writing. Usually done on January 2, but at schools, it is done on the first day of school after break.
Traditional New Years games:
Tako-age: Kite flying
Hanetsuki: Badminton-like game using hagoita
Koma mawashi: Spinning Tops, using a rope to spin.
2021 is the year of the cow. Here is an origami model of a cow's face.
Japanese language lesson:
“Happy New Year” is Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. (formal): あけましておめでとうございます。
The old name for December is shiwasu, which means the month when even priests run around. It is the busiest month of the year. People start preparing for the new year by cleaning the house and taking care of all the matters which have to be concluded by the end of the year to be ready to start the New Year fresh. You will see the markets which sell New Years decorations and special food everywhere.
End of the Year Preparations
Ōsōji (Big Clean-up): December 13th is the day to start preparing for the New Year. People do serious clean-up at home, like cleaning cooking stoves, taking cobwebs off the ceilings, cleaning windows, and other chores, before putting up the New Years decorations.
Matsu-mukae(Welcoming the Pine): Kadomatsu is a decoration made of pine branches, bamboo, and plum branches. A pair of kadomatsu is set at the entrance of the house to welcome the New Year’s deity called Toshigami. Other decorations called shimenawa and shimekazari also decorate the doorways. Those decorations are the places Toshigami-sama descends on. Decorations must be put up by December 28th.
Mochi-tsuki(Rice cake pounding): Mochi is a special food for special occasions, especially the New Year. Mochi is the offering to the deity of New Year as well as food for us. Sweet rice is steamed and pounded to make mochi. Even though people buy mochi nowadays, they still have mochi-tsuki events in many neighborhoods.
Christmas: Other than for some Christians, Japanese Christmas is more commercial than religious. Retailers and public areas put up elaborate decorations, but not so much at home. Japanese “illuminations” (light displays) are probably the best in the world.
Young adults treat Christmas like a romantic occasion. Families with young children celebrate with cake and presents. Japanese Christmas cake is mostly European-style sponge cake with fresh or butter cream and fruits. Since there is no turkey in Japan, KFC has a big business there. Lots of people eat KFC for Christmas.
Ōmisoka (The last day of the year/New Year’s Eve): This is the day you finish cooking special food for the New Year and get ready to welcome New Year. Here are the things to do on Ōmisoka:
Toshikoshi Soba: Eat soba noodles before midnight to wish for a long life and break off the old year.
Joya no Kane: Temples ring their bells 108 times on New Year’s Eve to ring off the old year and purify people’s hearts. They say there are 108 sins or unwanted emotions, like greed, lust, envy, pain, etc. Every ring of the bell is believed to purify those sins. It usually starts around 11 PM.
The ancient name for November is shimotsuki (霜月)which means the month of frost. It is the start of winter, and the leaves will reach their peak colors.
November 23 - Niinamesai ( 新嘗祭) to “Labor Thanksgiving Day”
This is the most important Shinto ritual in the Emperor's court. The new crop of rice from various parts of Japan is gathered in the Imperial Palace. Along with the new crop the Emperor himself grew and harvested in the Palace, the new crops will be offered to the deities, ancestors, and spirits in thanks for the bounty of the last year and pray for a bounty of grains next year.
The Emperor himself will conduct this ceremony, which involves sitting for hours in an unheated room. Read more at Japan-Forward.com.
Niinamesai is also celebrated at many shrines. People used to wait to eat the new crop of rice until Niinamesai was over, but it’s not so common anymore.
After 1948, November 23 became a national holiday called “Labor Thanksgiving Day.” The holiday celebrates human and worker rights and people express gratitude to one another for work done throughout the year.
November 15 - Shichi Go San (七五三)
Shichi Go San means 7, 5, 3 is a traditional rite of passage and festival day.The girls who turn 3 and 7 and boys turn 5 celebrate their growth and well-being.
They get dressed up and visit neighborhood shrines for the blessings and thank the god for their health and happiness. Even though the date is technically the 15th, families usually visit shrines on weekends in November.They get chitose ame, rice candy in pink and white, to wish for a long healthy life.
November 2-4 - Karatsu Kunchi 唐津供日
Kunchi means festivals in Kyushu. Karatsu Kunchi is one of the three largest Kunchi festivals in Japan. It is designated as UNESCO Intangible cultural heritage.
This is a festival for Karatsu Shrine. There are 14 enormous festival floats, each belonging to a different neighborhood in the city.
The floats were made from the Edo period (1819) through the Meiji period (1876) in the shape of creatures such as Shishi lions, helmets, sea breams and so on. The floats are made by layering hundreds of sheets of washi paper, shaped with a mixture of wood powder, hemp, and lacquer on a frame. Then they painted them with lacquer, decorating them with colored lacquer and gold leaf. They are the world's largest lacquered art pieces.
The floats weigh two to three tons, and each of them is adorned in fine detail with intricate decorations. By looking at them up close, you’ll see their charm like you’ve never seen it before. They are the pride of each neighborhood.
Starting on the evening of the 2nd, 200-300 adults and children pull each float around the city.
The ancient name for October is kaminazuki (神無月)which means the month with no god. The mythology says all the gods in Japan gather to meet at Izumo Ōyashiro Shrine in Shimane prefecture. There will be no gods elsewhere except for one god who stays behind to protect people. In Izumo, they called it kamiarizuki (神在月) which means the month with gods. There are many celebrations held at Izumo shrine during kamiarizuki.
October in Japan usually is the best time of the year. The trees start to change colors, the weather is often perfect, and it is the harvest time. Rice is the main crop in Japan. The first harvest of rice will be offered to the gods. Food is best in October: matsutake mushrooms, chestnuts, apples, Asian pears, persimmons, sweet potatoes, Pacific saury fish are must haves for autumn.
Lots of fun activities like grape picking and sweet potato digging are very popular.
There are harvest festivals at many shrines.
Otsukimi, Moon Viewing
Jidai Matsuri Festival in Kyoto (Festival of Ages)
Jidai Matsuri is one of three renowned festivals in Kyoto. It is held in Kyoto on October 22nd. It was started in 1895 to celebrate the 1,100th year anniversary of Emperor Kammu establishing the imperial palace in Kyoto and making it the capital of Japan.
According to Japan Travel, “The participants of the parade are dressed in accurate costumes from almost every period of Japanese history, as well as famous historical figures. There are about 2,000 participants and it takes two hours to watch the entire procession pass by.” Unfortunately, this year’s festival was cancelled because of the pandemic.
Taiiku no Hi, Health and Sports Day
Usually the second Monday in October, the date was changed for this year only to July 24, the day of the opening ceremony of the Olympics which was unfortunately postponed. They also changed the name to Sports Day. It is a day for everyone to enjoy sports and outdoor activities.
This holiday was started in 1966 on October 10, to commemorate the day of the opening ceremony of 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Various sporting events are usually held all over Japan.
Halloween in Japan
Halloween started to be known in Japan in the 1990s. The biggest difference from the U.S. is they do not do trick-or-treating. Halloween in Japan is like a huge adult cosplay party. Thousands of people gather in costumes in Shibuya on Halloween night. It is becoming more problematic lately. Some schools have trick-or-treating on a small scale as a part of English class and cultural learning.
There is a Halloween Parade in Tokyo Disney Sea. You also can also buy special Halloween cakes and candies, but they are very different from those in the US.
Try making origami Halloween decorations. Both diagrams are from OrigamiClub.com.
In September, the days get shorter and the nights gets longer. The ancient name “Nagatsuki” came from Nagayotsuki which means the month of long nights.
Choyo no Sekku, September 9th
This is one of five sekku celebrations. Sekku are seasonal ceremonies which were traditionally held in the Imperial Court. They are January 7(Nanakusa), March 3(Jomi, Girl’s Day), May 5(Tango, Boy’s Day), July 7(Tanabata), and September 9(Choyo). It was believed the “yang” power gets too strong on days the odd (yang) numbers is the same on the month and the date. It is considered inauspicious, so to counter the danger, sekku events were celebrated. Nine is the strongest yang number in yin-yang concept. Choyo no sekku is the double ninth, so it is the most powerful. Chrysanthemum was used as an herb for longevity. To avert bad luck and ward off evil spirits, chrysanthemum flowers were soaked in water or sake and drunk for health and longevity. They used wads of silk to catch the flowers’ dew and the wad was used to wipe the body or face to keep them young. Because of that tradition, it is also called Chrysanthemum Sekku.
Keirou no hi (Respect for the Aged Day)
This is a fairly new national holiday designated in 1966 to honor the elderly. It was celebrated on September 15 until 2003. It is changed to the third Monday of September to make a long weekend. People spend the day with grandparents, give gifts, etc.
Otsukimi, Moon Viewing
“Chushu no Meigetsu” The beautiful moon in mid autumn. The autumn harvest moon is celebrated on 15th night of 8th month of the lunar calendar. It is called Jugoya (15th night). On the solar calendar, it changes every year and usually falls in mid-September to early October. This year, it will be on October 1st.
People enjoy the beauty of the moon and wish for a good harvest and healthy life by putting offerings like dango (round mochi-like rice cake), chestnuts, taro, and sweet potatoes. Pampass grass was believed to ward off evil spirits and protect the harvest. It also looks like mature rice plants, which are not quite ready at the time of Jugoya, so they put pampass grass in place of rice.
Rabbit in the moon
What do you see in the moon? In Japan, we say a rabbit is pounding mochi in the moon. See the pattern of the dark area? Do you see a rabbit? In different countries, people see different things in the moon, a lady reading a book, a lion, a crab etc.
August is the hottest month of summer in Japan, but in the old calendar, which is about a month ahead of the Gregorian calendar adopted in the Meiji era, it was already autumn. The old name for August is Hazuki. “Ha” means leaves. It meant the month when the leaves change colors and fall off the trees.
Obon is the Japanese Buddhist Festival to celebrate the spirits of one’s ancestors. Their spirits come home on August 13th and go back on the 15th. Some parts of Japan, like Tokyo, follow the new calendar and celebrate it in July, but most of Japan celebrates it in August.
Cucumber horses and eggplant oxen are the traditional decorations. It is said that the spirits ride the horses to come home and go back on the eggplant oxen. To welcome spirits and see them off safely, ogara, stems of the hemp plant, are burnt in an earthenware plate at the front door steps. Offerings are set up on the altar for spirits.
Obon is also a time for family reunions. This is the busiest travel time in Japan. People travel to visit their hometowns to see family and visit ancestors’ graves. Villages and towns often have festivals during Obon. Bon Odori dances and hanabi taikai (fireworks displays) are the most popular. It is a fun time for adults and children, and the whole family can enjoy festival games and food stands. Unfortunately, the festivals are mostly canceled because of COVID 19, so this year most people will stay home during the Obon holidays.
Yukata is a cotton casual kimono for summer. People wear them at the festivals, especially at Bon Odori. Everyone can join and dance. Dancers often wear yukata with the same pattern, like uniforms, for Bon Odori. Jimbei are casual kimono-style tops and pants that are also worn at festivals and in the summer.
Japan enjoys a lot of seasonal food. Here are a couple of summer favorites.
You can also enjoy it at home with these fun machines.
Kakigori（かき氷): Japanese style shaved ice
Shaved ice is a favorite summertime sweet. The ice is shaved very finely and flavored with all kinds of syrup, anko(sweet azuki bean paste), and other toppings.
You can buy a kakigori maker and make it at home too. It is a lot of fun.
Origami: Paper crane
This is probably the most known origami model in the world. The crane is an auspicious bird in Japan. The legend says it lives for a thousand years. It is a symbol of longevity. This traditional origami model has been folded for hundreds of years. There are many origami paper crane tutorials online. This is an easy one to follow. It is challenging, but worth a try.
In 1945, the USA dropped two atomic bombs on two cities in Japan which killed 129,000-226,000 people, mostly civilians. These are the only uses of nuclear weapons in armed conflicts. The bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. This year is the 75th year since the bombs were dropped.
The story of “One Thousand Cranes” became famous to the world by the book called, “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” by Eleanor Coerr. The book is based on the true story of a girl called Sadako Sasaki.
Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. She developed leukemia when she was 11 years old. She started to fold one thousand cranes wishing for better health, but she died at age 12. After her death, Sasaki's friends and schoolmates collected donations from all over Japan to build a memorial to her and all of the children who had died from the effects of the atomic bomb.
In 1958, a statue of Sasaki holding a golden crane was unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Strings of a thousand cranes were sent from all over the world, surrounding the monument. The story of Sadako has come to symbolize the hope that no child will ever again be killed by an atomic bomb. At the bottom of this statue, there is a plaque that reads "This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world."
To wish for eternal peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons, people fold one thousand cranes and send them to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are displayed at the peace memorials in both cities.
July in Japan is the beginning of summer. After the rainy season, it gets hot. Japanese school does not startsummer vacation until July 22, Marine Day, which is the day the beaches open. The old name of the month is fuzuki or fumizuki, which means the month of literacy.
Tanabata 七夕 Star Festival
The seventh day of the seventh month is the Tanabata festival, also called the star festival. Tanabata is the biggest festival in July.
The festival originated in China, where women wished that their weaving and sewing skills would improve with needles with five color strings.
In Japan, it was combined with the original Japanese custom, and became an official court event in the Heian Period. By the Edo period, ordinary people started celebrating the festival by putting bamboo trees on the roof with paper decorations.
Nowadays, people write a wish on long pieces of paper and hang them on to the bamboo branches along with other paper decorations. Some cities like Sendai are famous for celebrating this festival with elaborate decorations.
The story of the two stars is a love story. Orihime, a weaver (Vega) who is a daughter of the emperor of the sky, and Hikoboshi, a cow herder (Altair), were in love and got married, but they were so happy together, they forgot about their work. The emperor became enraged and separated them on each side of the milky way. They were only allowed to meet once in a year on the seventh night of the seventh month. Watch the Tanabata story video.
How to make Tanabata decorations:
Cut origami or construction colored paper in a rectangle big enough to write your wish. Punch a hole on top and use string to tie them on bamboo branches.
Summer Vacation(夏休み, natsu yasumi)
The Japanese school year starts in April and ends in March. The summer vacation is usually from July 21 until August 31. Because it is in the middle of the school year, children get homework and projects they have to work on during the vacation.
Here is an easy project often given to elementary school students. Grow a plant from a seed, like a sunflower or morning glory, and keep a plant journal to see how the plant grows every day.
Things you need:
Put soil in your container, plant a seed, water and watch it grow. If you want to try something different, cut a cherry tomato in half and plant it.
Enjoy Your Summer!
June in Japan is a wet month. The rainy season, tsuyu, lasts for about a month. The ancient name for the month is minazuki. There are various explanations of the kanji, which means the month without water, but main interpretation is the month of water. Strange, isn’t it?
Teru-teru Bozu (Shine monk doll)
Children make teru-teru bozu dolls in hope that next day will be sunny. It looks just like a Halloween ghost doll. Wrap a paper ball with square paper or cloth and tie around the neck with a piece of string or ribbon. Hang it from the eaves. Listen to the teru-teru bozu song.
Taue 田植え (Rice Planting)
Between April and June, Japanese farmers transplant young seedlings of rice to the rice paddies. Rice is more than just a main crop in Japan. It is a very important part of Japanese culture. There are many rice planting festivals.
Nowadays, planting is mainly done by machinery, but some small farmers still plant seedlings by hand. The Emperor plants his own rice field in the Imperial palace grounds. He does everything from germination to harvesting by hand. The rice he harvests is used for Imperial ceremonies. To teach the importance of rice farming, some schools teach students how to plant rice by hand.
Chatsumi (Tea Picking)
This is the month the new crops of tea were picked. There is a special day to start picking new tea leaves. It is called hachiya (88th night from the first day of the spring). It is usually on May 2nd or 3rd. The new tea crop is called shincha. It has very delicate flavor and is cherished by people.
Tango no sekku - Children’s Day
Traditionally, this important holiday for children was a boy’s day. Families with sons fly koi nobori (carp flags), and decorate the house with kabuto (warrior’s helmet), and boy dolls to celebrate boys' health and happiness. People used to put sweet flag and mugwort leaves on the roof to deter evil spirits. We eat special sweets called kashiwa mochi, azuki bean paste stuffed in mochi and wrapped with oak leaves, which symbolizes the prosperity of one’s descendants and the growth of children. Now May 5 is a national Holiday called Kodomo no Hi, Children’s Day, but the decoration of koi nobori stil continues.
You can make a wearable kabuto (warrior’s helmet) from a sheet of newspaper. You can make your own koi nobori too. There is also a koi nobori song.
Japan in the Schools
The Japan in the Schools (JIS) program, started in 1997, is a unique program that brings Japanese education into classrooms in Western PA. A wide variety of topics are covered in visits to local schools. Some topics include Japan today, Japanese history, language, culture, and origami. Download the curriculum flyer[PDF] for more information.
Volunteers of the JIS program respond to outreach requests from elementary, middle, and secondary schools, libraries,and other community partners. Authentic Japanese materials are used as teaching aids. This unique experience broadens a student's view of the world and the cultures in it.
Request a visit!
Requesting a school visit is easy! Fill out this simple request form and Katsuko Shellhammer will coordinate the details of the visit.
Volunteer for the JIS!
Volunteers are the most essential part of the JIS. Without the help of dedicated and passionate volunteers, this program would not exist. All ages and nationalities are welcomed. The only requirement is a passion for Japan. Sign up today!