An extremely opinionated list of things I love about life in Japan based on other places I’ve lived (Hong Kong and London) as a Chinese Canadian…in recent years, as a “digital nomad” too.
There’s a reason to look forward to every season: hanami, hanabi (or matsuri), koyo, and onsen from spring to winter respectively. Life in Japan, even in the big cities, still follows the flow of seasons. Stores change their displays. Restaurants and food shops have seasonal offerings based on ingredient availability. Special clothes are brought out once a year and special dishes are reminisced about. Even the most disinterested dweller in Japan cannot fail to notice the shifting seasons.
Spring snow. That’s what I call cherry blossoms. And unlike real snow, they’re guaranteed every year across Japan. Hanami is the word for “flower viewing” specifically for cherry blossoms in spring. The month-long affair that begins in Okinawa and Kyushu slides up North and comes complete with a viewing prediction and schedule.
Hanami is more than just a calendar date. The shelves of department stores turn pink, from the clothes sections all the way down to the basement. Everything is sakura flavoured (yes, look for a special Kit Kat). Even the salarymen will stop as Sakura-dori right in front of Tokyo Station finally bursts into a canopy of pink. People travel across prefectures to choice places. Packs of beers are hauled to picnic spots. The celebration, smiles, and awe are infectious.
After spring and the June rains give way into high summer, it’s time for hanabi, fireworks. Japan has just as much enthusiasm for the fire-flowers as they do for the spring ones. Like hanami, the parks and viewing sites for firework festivals are filled with plastic mats before the show. Reservations are made far in advance for popular areas. Big cities and small towns alike will gather around the riverside or beaches in their summer yukata, with friends, family, and food.
The saying goes, in summer, matsuri, festivals. Festivals are held at the neighbourhood and town level. Each one has its own legends of patron gods, spirits, heroes, and traditions. The most popular one involves the mikoshi, the portable shrines that are carried (mostly) by men through the neighbourhood. It is not uncommon to stumble upon a crowd around the corner in a small community or even in the heart of Ginza during the summer months.
Two other major festivals of note are Tanabata (for the star crossed lovers who can only meet once a year when the Milky Way joins them) and Obon (for the ghosts).
4. Festival Food Stalls
Matsuri are inseparable from the foodstalls that feed the hungry crowds. Usually favourite food snacks include takoyaki, okonomiyaki, gyoza, yakitori, yakisoba, karage, jaga bata, shioyaki salted fish on a stick, taiyaki fish shaped pancake with red bean filling, crepes, dango, strawberry-somethings, and shaved ice (kakigori), fresh fruit, and many other things. Bigger festivals may also have stalls for the kids to play at.
Koyo is the word for the changing of the leaves — fall foliage. The Japanese maples become salmon red and the ginko trees adopt a regal gold. Across the gentle rolling hillsides, one sees waves of green, yellow, and red from October through November. When, on a crisp autumn morning, Tokyo’s streets become halls of gold, one cannot be too sad that summer has finally departed.
Also look out for the delicious chestnut everything for food.
6. Winter Illuminations
And finally, when it’s so chilly one is forced out of the (unheated) apartment to wander the streets, it’s time to check out Tokyo’s Christmas illuminations. The same cherry blossom trees that lined the canals of Japan’s most populous city are wrapped in lights that last a mile long. Ginza will have sculture displays, and the street lamps will have themed decorations. Just as one can find a cherry blossom map, search for a Tokyo illuminations map and one can easily spend all December checking out new neighbourhoods.
7. Season-limited items
In addition to the goods and dishes that follow the 4 seasons, Japanese stores have a knack for creating special items for particular days (holidays or otherwise). Even though Halloween is not a celebrated event, be sure to find plenty of orange pumpkin and cat-shaped items near the end of October. Likewise, Valentines Day has become a high school courtship ritual with girls giving everyone chocolates and a special something to the person they like. This create an opportunity for yet another day: White Day, when guys return the gesture by giving something in return to the girls. Christmas, by the way, is celebrated specifically with KFC fried chicken and strawberry shortcake (both of which must be pre-ordered weeks in advance!).
8. Entirely Non-Christian Holidays
For a workaholic country, Japan has 16 national holidays. The main big string is called Golden Week in April. The second string is called Silver Week in September. Both, when strung together with annual leave, can become a week or two in length. What I like especially are the names of the days: such as Mountain Day, Respect for the Elderly Day, and Coming of Age Day.
Thanks for reading! Check out the other 100+ things I’ll miss about Japan!