Old Japan – Traditions, Festivals & Rituals – December

Mochitsuki Festival

Mochitsuki Festival. This postcard illustrates the traditional method of preparing mochi (glutinous rice cakes) which is re-enacted all over Japan during December.

Mochi is a popular delicacy all year round but is especially important for New Year celebrations. The origin of this practice is from a Shinto ritual of not cooking for the first three days of the New Year to provide an opportunity for the Shinto Kami (deity) to bless the kitchen. Mochi could be prepared in advance and eaten during those three days.

The traditional method of preparing mochi is to soak polished glutinous rice overnight before steaming it. Then it is pounded using a huge wooden mallet (kine) and a mortar (usu) made from a wooden stump or stone. People work in pairs, one doing the pounding while the other rotates the mortar and keeps the rice wet. Singing while working is customary. Good timing and teamwork is required to avoid getting hands injured by the mallet. It takes over an hour of exhausting pounding for the rice to reach the right consistency. That is why most mochi is made by machine these days.

Once the rice is the correct gooey elasticity it is moulded into the desired shapes, mostly cubes or balls.  A range of traditional Japanese sweets are made from mochi often with fillings made from red or white beans.

This completes my series of Old Japan postcards, traditions, festivals and rituals. I hope you have enjoyed them. I leave you with a classic Japanese wintry scene.

Hiroshige Woodblock Print - Night Snow at Kambara

Old Japan – Traditions, Festivals & Rituals – October

Nichiren Anniversary

This postcard relates to the Oeshiki Festival and not much appears to have changed in the decades since this photo was taken.

Nichiren Buddhism began in medieval Japan. It has its roots in the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282), a 13th century Japanese monk who tried to reform Buddhism and Japanese society.

Oeshiki is an important Buddhist festival commemorating Nichiren’s death, who died at Ikegami Honmonji on October 13, 1282. Over 300,000 spectators join in the festivities, which take place annually from October 11 to 13. The procession of Mando on the evening of October 12 is the highlight of the celebration. Drums, flutes, and chants are heard in the background while around 3,000 people carry sacred lanterns known as mando through the crowds. Artificial cherry blossoms and lights adorn these lofty structures and they are carried along a two-kilometre route and up 96 stairs to the temple.

Old Japan – Traditions, Festivals & Rituals – September

Chrysanthemum Party

Chrysanthemums are not native flowers to Japan but they have been cultivated here since the 8th Century. The flower came to be adopted by the ruling classes and is of course the crest and official seal of the Emperor – hence the term Chrysanthemum Throne.

Chrysanthemum Festivals or Kiku Matsuri are held in many shrines, temples, parks and gardens during the 9th lunar month from around mid October to mid November. One of the more famous is held at Kasama Inari Shrine in Ibaraki prefecture.

These flower shows are still very popular so I am not sure what the caption of this postcard is trying to say.

Old Japan – Traditions, Festivals & Rituals – August

Moon Viewing

The Tsukimi Moon Viewing Festival is another 1000 year old custom introduced from China where it is known as the mid-autumn festival.

It falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month meaning that it occurs sometime during September or October on our calendar (i.e. not August at all). The full moon on this night is said to the brightest and most sublime of the year.

Tsukimi is also called jujoya and is a time when farmers pray for a rich rice harvest.

Traditionally families would arrange rice-like pampas grass (susuki) and bush clover (hagi) in a vase next to an open window from where they would quietly contemplate the moon’s beauty.

Offerings of moon-shaped dumplings (dango) , taro potatoes (satoima), together with autumn fruits such as persimmon, grapes and pears are also enjoyed at this time.

Whereas in the West we imagine a man in the moon, the Japanese look out for a rabbit making mochi rice-cakes.

Tsukimi soba or udon is a hot noodle broth topped with eggs symbolising the moon.

Like most festivals in Japan, Tsukimi has been commercialised and McDonalds even serves a tsukimi burger (containing egg) at this time of year.


tsukimi woodblock

Old Japan – Traditions, Festivals & Rituals – July

Feast of the Weaver

The Feast of the Weaver (Tanabata Matsuri) falls on 7th July and is one of the oldest festivals in Japan, based on a legend which originated in China.

The legend is about a princess who wove clouds, fog and mist for her father, the king of the sky.   One day the princess was wading in the stream called the Milky Way where she met and fell in love with a handsome ox herder. They were so happy together that the princess forgot about going home to her father. The king of the sky became very worried and angry and came to take her home.  To prevent the princess from seeing the cowherd ever again, the king poured star water into the milky way until the shallow stream became a mighty river which the cowherd and the princess could no longer cross to see each other. The princess missed the cowherd so much that she could not weave and over time the sky became emptier and emptier of clouds, fog and mist. On seeing this, the king told his daughter that if she worked hard he would let her go and see the cowherd once a year on the seventh night of the seventh month. On that night each year they were reunited by a bridge made of magpies, provided the weather was fair. If it was rainy they would have to wait until the next year.

This is why, on the 7th of July, Japanese children decorate bamboo branches with bright pieces of coloured poetry paper with their wishes on them, to remind the king of the sky that it is time for him to keep his promise again. Coloured threads are also hung on the bamboo branches. The custom of decorating a bamboo arose from the belief that if you wrote poems or proverbs on strips of paper and offered them to the stars, you would acquire good penmanship skills.

The popular custom of praying to the cowherd for a good harvest and to the weaver for skill in weaving has been observed in Japan for centuries in connection with this festival.

The Tanabata Festivals held in Sendai (Miyagi Prefecture) and Hiratsuka (Kanagawa Prefecture) are two of the most famous festivals in Japan.

Old Japan – Traditions, Festivals & Rituals – June

Gion Festival

This postcard’s caption is not easy to follow.

Gion Festival is probably Japan’s most famous festival but it takes place in July not June.

Jet Avana Vihala probably refers to the Buddhist term Jetavana Vihara but it is not clear what connection it has with the Gion Festival.

A Mikoshi is a ‘divine palanquin’ and these are used in the processions during the Gion Festival. They look like lavishly decorated miniature temples mounted on four poles which are carried on the shoulders of bearers like those dressed in white in the postcard.

Not sure who the scary guys with the hairy faces and high heel clogs are – the ‘funy palmers’ perhaps?

A couple of the men in white are carrying straw boaters which probably dates the postcard to 1920s or earlier.

Old Japan–Traditions, Festivals & Rituals – March


This postcard concerns the Japanese Doll Festival  (Hina Matsuri) or Girls’ Day which takes place on 3rd March.

This festival has its roots in an ancient practice imported from China in the 7th Century. Originally people would attach paper figures to sticks and rub them over their bodies to absorb all the bad spirits and then throw them in the river as a kind of purification ceremony. Over the years this custom evolved into making straw dolls which were set adrift in rivers or in the sea.

As centuries passed, the dolls became more and more elaborate until the the present day when they are far too expensive to throw away. Single dolls, with embroidered silk costumes can cost a small fortune and nowadays they are more of a way of showing off a family’s wealth than a means of ridding bad spirits

Typically the dolls are displayed on 5 or 7 shelves covered in a rich red fabric. On the top shelf are dolls representing the Emperor and Empress. When this postcard photo was taken the practice was just to have nobility on the top shelf but in the patriotic fervour leading up to WWII, likenesses of the Emperor and Empress were used instead and that practice remains.

The second shelf is for three court ladies, one of whom is serving sake. Lower shelves are for musicians, ministers and bowls of food, three drunkards (one maudlin, one cantankerous and one merry) furniture, carriages, palanquins and lacquer boxes. The dolls wear traditional court dress from a thousand years ago.

The dignified and genteel way the dolls sit silently on their shelves was once reckoned to be a good example for the behaviour of young girls. Presumably the drunkard dolls were seen as good role models for the Japanese sarariman!

Families put up their doll displays from February and they are supposed to be taken down no later than the 4th of March otherwise the daughter of the house may have a late marriage. (Not such a big deal these days perhaps.) On Girls’ Day families will drink sake and eat special crackers and rice cakes. It is time to pray for the health and well being of young girls. A nice tradition!

Old Japan–Traditions, Festivals & Rituals–February

The First Horse Day of February

The caption on the postcard is a little confusing but refers to an event in the Shinto religion which occurs on the 6th day of the 2nd month of the lunar calendar (First Horse Day of February).

Around 32,000 of Japan’s Shinto shrines are dedicated to Inari, a mythological god and patron deity of grain, particularly rice. On the First Horse Day in the year 711 the deity is believed to have come down to the site where the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto stands today.

The fox (kitsune) is said to be a messenger of the Inari deity and fox statues appear at some Shinto shrines.

The favourite food of a Japanese fox is fried tofu. (Maybe English farmers should try leaving out fried tofu at night and then foxes would not need to kill chickens.)

This is how kitsune udon, noodles in broth with fried tofu, got its name.