Cherry-Blossom Viewing, April
Gion Matsuri, July
Yuki Matsuri, February
Nebuta Matsuri, August
Sanja Matsuri, May
Busy Travel Times
Most Japanese are on holiday from 29 April to 5 May, when a series of national holidays coincide (called 'Golden Week'). This is one of the busiest times for domestic travel, so be prepared for crowded transport and accommodation. Many businesses close for a week in mid-August, as Japanese return to their home towns for O-Bon festivities (or go on holiday instead). Restaurants and shops start shutting down from 29 December for the New Year holiday, which ends on 3 January (though many places close until 6 January). During this time, transport runs and accommodation remains open (although it's pricey).
Japan comes to life again after the lull of the New Year holiday. Winter grips the country in the mountains and in the north, ushering in ski season (take care when driving in snow country).
Shōgatsu (New Year)
Families come together to eat and drink to health and happiness. The holiday is officially 1 to 3 January, but many businesses and attractions close the whole first week, and transport is busy. Hatsu-mōde is the ritual first shrine visit of the new year.
The second Monday of January is Seijin-no-hi (Coming-of-Age Day), the collective birthday for all who have turned 20 (the age of majority) in the past year. Young women don gorgeous kimonos for ceremonies at Shintō shrines.
February is the coldest month and the peak of Japan's ski season.
The first day of spring is 3 February in the traditional lunar calendar, a shift once believed to bode evil. As a precaution, people visit Buddhist temples, toss roasted beans and shout ‘Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!’ (‘Devil out! Fortune in!’).
Two million visitors head to Sapporo's annual snow festival in early February. Highlights include the international snow sculpture contest, ice slides and mazes for kids and plenty of drunken revelry. Book accommodation very early.
Plum (ume) blossoms, which appear towards the end of the month, are the first sign that winter is ending. Kairaku-en in Mito is the most famous viewing spot but parks and gardens all over Japan have plum trees.
Spring begins in fits and starts. The Japanese have a saying: sankan-shion – three days cold, four days warm.
On and around 3 March (also known as Girls’ Day), public spaces and homes are decorated with o-hina-sama (princess) dolls in traditional royal dress.
Formerly known as the Tokyo International Anime Fair, AnimeJapan (www.anime-japan.jp) is the world's largest anime (Japanese animation) fair, held in Tokyo in late March. There are events and exhibitions for industry insiders and fans alike.
Warmer weather and blooming cherry trees make this a fantastic month to be in Japan, though places like Kyoto can get very crowded.
When the cherry blossoms burst into bloom, the Japanese hold rollicking hanami (blossom viewing) parties. The blossoms are fickle and hard to time: on average, they hit their peak in Tokyo or Kyoto between 25 March and 7 April.
Takayama Spring Matsuri
On 14 and 15 April the mountain town of Takayama hosts the spring instalment of its famous festival. This is the more elaborate of the two (the other is in October), with parades of spectacular floats lit with lanterns and a lion dance. Book accommodation well in advance.
May is one of the best months to visit: it's warm and sunny in most places and the fresh green in the mountains is stunning. Be wary of the travel crush during the Golden Week holiday.
The grandest Tokyo festival of all, this three-day event, held over the third weekend of May, attracts around 1.5 million spectators to Asakusa. The highlight is the rowdy parade of mikoshi (portable shrines) carried by men and women in traditional dress.
Early June is lovely, though by the end of the month tsuyu (the rainy season) sets in. As mountain snow melts, hiking season begins in the Japan Alps (though double-check for higher elevations).
When the rainy season passes, suddenly it’s summer – the season for festivals and hanabi taikai (fireworks shows). It does get very hot and humid; head to Hokkaidō or the Japan Alps to escape the heat.
Mt Fuji Climbing Season
Mt Fuji officially opens to climbing on 1 July, and the months of July and August are ideal for climbing the peak.
The most vaunted festival in Japan is held on 17 and 24 July in Kyoto, when huge, elaborate floats are pulled through the streets. Three evenings prior, locals stroll through street markets dressed in beautiful yukata (light cotton kimonos). Accommodation is expensive and difficult to find.
Held in Osaka on 24 and 25 July, this is one of the country's biggest festivals. On the second day, processions of mikoshi (portable shrines) and people in traditional attire parade through the streets, ending up in hundreds of boats on the river.
Fuji Rock Festival
Japan's biggest music festival takes place over one long (and often wildly muddy and fun) weekend at a mountain resort in late July. Big-name acts on the large stages; indie bands on the smaller ones.
Hot, humid weather and festivals continuing apace. School holidays mean beaches and cooler mountain areas get crowded. Many Japanese return to their home towns (or take a holiday) around O-Bon, so transit is hectic and shops may close.
Summer Fireworks Festivals
World Cosplay Summit
Some 30 countries compete in early August (or late July) in Nagoya to see who has the best cosplayers (manga and anime fans who dress up as their fave characters).
Sendai Tanabata Matsuri
Sendai’s biggest event celebrates a Chinese legend about the stars Vega and Altair, stand-ins for two star-crossed lovers who meet once a year on 7 July (on the old lunar calendar, early August on the modern one). Downtown is decorated with coloured streamers.
Over several days in early August, enormous, illuminated floats are paraded through the streets of Aomori in Northern Honshū accompanied by thousands of rowdy, chanting dancers. A famous festival; book accommodation early.
Peace Memorial Ceremony
On 6 August, a memorial service is held in Hiroshima for victims of the WWII atomic bombing of the city. Thousands of paper lanterns are floated down the river.
Matsumoto's biggest event takes place on the first Saturday in August, when hordes of people perform the city's signature 'bonbon' dance through the streets.
O-Bon (Festival of the Dead)
Three days in mid-August are set aside to honour the dead, when their spirits are said to return to the earth. Graves are swept, offerings are made and lanterns are floated down rivers, lakes or the sea to help guide spirits on their journey.
The city of Tokushima, on the southern island of Shikoku, comes alive from 12 to 15 August for the nation's largest and most famous bon dance. These dances, part of O-Bon celebrations, are performed to welcome the souls of the departed back to this world.
Kōya-san's already deeply atmospheric Oku-no-in is lit with some 100,000 candles on 13 August for Rōsoku Matsuri during O-Bon.
Daimon-ji Gozan Okuribi
Huge fires in the shape of Chinese characters and other symbols are set alight in the hills around Kyoto during this festival, which forms part of the O-Bon rites. It's one of Japan's most impressive spectacles.
The island of Sado-ga-shima, off the coast of Northern Honshū, is the scene of this internationally famous festival of dance, art and music, held in late August. Highlights include taiko (drum) performances and workshops.
Days are still warm, hot even, though less humid. Though the odd typhoon rolls through this time of year, this is generally a great time to travel in Japan.
Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri
Osaka's wildest festival, held over the third weekend in September, is a kind of running of the bulls except with danjiri (festival floats), many weighing more than 3000kg – take care and stand back. Most of the action takes place on the second day.
Full moons in September and October call for tsukimi, moon-viewing gatherings. People eat tsukimi dango – mochi (pounded rice) dumplings, round like the moon.
Pleasantly warm days and cool evenings make this an excellent time to be in Tokyo. The autumn foliage peaks in the Japan Alps at this time.
Asama Onsen Taimatsu Matsuri
In early October, Asama Onsen in Matsumoto holds this spectacular fire festival, which sees groups of men, women and children parade burning bales of hay through narrow streets en route to an enormous bonfire.
On 22 October, huge flaming torches are carried through the streets of the tiny hamlet of Kurama in the mountains north of Kyoto. This is one of Japan's more primeval festivals.
Held on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays throughout October in the Western Honshū city of Matsue, this festival of light and water takes place around the city's scenic castle. Lanterns are floated in the moat and rival drumming groups compete on the banks.
Roppongi Art Night
Held in mid- to late October, this weekend-long (literally, as venues stay open all night) arts event (www.roppongiartnight.com) sees large-scale installations and performances taking over the streets of Roppongi in Tokyo.
Kyoto's international performing arts festival (http://kyoto-ex.jp) is held in late October or early November.
Japan has taken to Halloween in a big way. Tokyo's Shibuya draws thousands of costumed revellers on 31 October. Osaka's Amerika-mura becomes one big street party.
Crisp and cool days with snow starting to fall in the mountains. Autumn foliage peaks in and around Tokyo and Kyoto, which can draw crowds.
Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3 Festival)
This adorable festival in mid-November sees parents dress girls aged seven (shichi) and three (san) and boys aged five (go) in wee kimonos and head to Shintō shrines for blessings.
December is cold across most of Japan. Year-end parties fill city bars and restaurants; commercial strips are decorated with seasonal illuminations. Many businesses shut down from 29 or 30 December to between 3 and 6 January.
Kōbe streets are lined with elaborate, illuminated arches every year for this event in early December, in memory of the victims of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
Eating buckwheat noodles on New Year’s Eve, a tradition called toshikoshi soba, is said to bring luck and longevity – the latter symbolised by the length of the noodles.
Temple bells around Japan ring 108 times at midnight on 31 December, a purifying ritual.