If you find yourself in Japan during spring, or you’re planning a future trip around then, remember to keep the date April 8th in mind. That’s the day of the country’s Hanamatsuri celebration. It’s an awesome day to be a visitor in Japan with events throughout the country. Hanamatsuri is a mix of religious holiday, flower festival, and more.
Here are some essential things you need to know about Japan’s Hanamatsuri celebration:
Hanamatsuri Is a Celebration of Buddha’s Birthday…That Only Japan Celebrates on That Day
The holiday that Japan calls “Hanamatsuri”, as well as “Kanbutsu-e”, is a celebration of the Buddha’s birth. The birthday of Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince who would become the Buddha (also known as Buddha Shakyamun or Siddhārtha Gautama) is one of the most celebrated holidays in Asia. It’s also called “Vesak”, “Buddha Jayanti”, “Buddha Purnima”, or “Buddha Day”. But other countries and regions with large Buddhist populations — like India, Nepal, Taiwan, and others — celebrate the holiday in May. It’s believed that due to Japan’s switch to the Gregorian calendar in the 19th century, is why the country began celebrating the holiday earlier than everyone else.
It’s Also a Celebration of Spring
While the holiday is primarily focused on Buddhism, it also occurs during the time of the year when cherry blossoms are blooming throughout Japan. So many Hanamatsuri celebrations and festivals incorporate freshly blooming flowers into their events.
Hanamatsuri Celebrations Traditionally Center around a Ceremony at Buddhist Temples
Because it’s meant to mark the birthday of their religion’s founder, many Buddhist temples are the sites for Hanamatsuri celebrations and feature a unique ceremony. Standing in the entrance of a Buddhist temple, visitors will encounter a small shrine adorned in flowers and aptly named “hana-mido”, or a flowers pavilion. It is inside there that a small figure of the Buddha, as he appeared at birth, in a small bowl filled with a special tea. Participants enter and ladle the hydrangea-steeped tea inside the bowl atop the head of the Buddha to symbolize the first cleansing bath Buddha received at birth.
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Its Traditional Ceremony Features a Special Tea Called “Ama-ca”
The specially brewed tea used in the ceremony, called “ama-cha”, is literally translated as “sweet tea”. However, this brew has more than just a sugary taste. It contains a natural sweetener from the flowers’ leaves that is at least four hundred times stronger than table sugar. The leaves from the native Japanese plant are fermented and then used to stepp the special tea. It also contains tannins, which is attributed to the tea’s antiallergenic and healing properties and is often bottled at the temple where it’s used. Participants can choose to simply cleanse the statue of the young Buddha with the tea, but they can also take some of it home to drink.
Hanamatsuri Celebrations Usually Commemorate Traditional Japanese Culture
Along with ceremonies and celebrations at Buddhist temples, the Japanese also mark Hanamatsuri with parades and public gatherings, often featuring plenty of exhibitions of traditional Japanese culture. So, expect lots of costumes, performances, and other events that reflect the country’s rich history.
It’s Also Often an Overload of Kid Cuteness
A lot of Hanamatsuri celebrations, both at Buddhist temples and in other places, are kid-focused and feature children dressed in plenty of historical and traditional Japanese costumes, especially at the parades. And if you’ve never seen a bunch of little kids dressed in kimonos, prepare yourself – because it’s pretty adorable.
There Are Places in Japan Worth Visiting Just for Their Hanamatsuri Celebrations
Hanamatsuri is celebrated all over Japan, and there are many places you could choose to visit for their local festivals. In fact, it can be a little overwhelming with all the temples dotted around the country, but there are a couple that are pretty notable.
If you are staying in Tokyo after your cheap flights, your easy first choice could be the 17th century Gokoku-ji temple just northwest of the city’s center. It’s surrounded by the lively entertainment district, Ikebukuro, and offers a quiet retreat from the neon lights and millions of people that run through it daily. The temple’s entrance has a main walkway that is especially memorable, lined with bursting azalea blooms that linger in your nose long after leaving the temple grounds.
If you have the time to explore a bit, it is worth taking the bullet train out to Kyoto’s temples. The Nishi Hongan-ji temple is situated near the station and hosts more contemporary worshippers of Buddhism. This temple is adorned with intricate gold detailing and a four-hundred-year-old gingko tree that wears a crown of amber leaves in the fall. Coming here for Hanamatsuri will give you a taste of both historical Japan and the Japan of today.
Have you been to Japan during Hanamatsuri? Think we missed highlighting anything important about the holiday? Let us know in the comments section below!