The Ultimate List of East Asian Festivals for your Bucket List
Welcome to my list of the major festivals and holidays celebrated across Northeast Asia- Japan, North and South Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Mongolia. This will be a continuously updated list as I keep exploring new and interesting festivals that have evolved in the East Asian cultural sphere, also known as Sinosphere (including Vietnam) because they are all historically influenced by Chinese culture.*
Consider adding some of these to your bucket list and I’m sure you’ll never regret the effort to cover them all!
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NOTE: Celebrating some of these festivals usually requires physically being in the country. If travelling that far is impossible, see if you can get to your local Chinatown or East Asian neighborhood on the date of the festival.
Chinese New Year (Spring Festival 春节, Seollal in Korea, ) is celebrated across the world by Chinese diaspora. In 2014 it will be celebrated on January 31 and the final day occurring on February 15- see the Lantern Festival below. This is the most exciting festival I’ve ever experienced. It feels like American 4th of July but more dangerous! Get a more detailed overview on this amazing festival here.
Lantern Festival (Yuan Xiao Festival 元宵节) happens on the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year. It’s the last day to enjoy the chaos of constant fireworks in little villages around the Chinese mainland. To participate on this day you’ll first need to buy a large paper lantern with a candle, and write your wishes and dreams on it. Then you’ll open up the lantern and light the candle… Finally, let the wind carry it to heaven!
Tomb-Sweeping Day (Qing Ming Festival 清明节) will fall on April 5 in 2014 and is celebrated in order to remember and honor loved ones who have passed. It’s a solemn event that mostly takes place in cemeteries. Now, certainly this festival has a morbid tone, so why would I suggest participating in it? This is mainly because of the importance that filial piety (being a good son/daughter) plays in many Asian cultures. Without an appreciation of the people who came before us, how could we expect to be remembered when we are gone?
Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhong Qiu Festival 中秋节, Chuseok in Korea, ) is the Autumn harvest in the Chinese lunar calendar and will occur on September 8 in 2014. It’s a celebration of the moon at its fullest and in China it is celebrated by giving others moon cakes in decorative boxes.Observing the moon on that night is a wonderful experience if you are in East Asia mainly because ALL people will go out to parks or public areas for a picnic. It’s interesting to see people lay out blankets and eat snacks while playing games under the light of a full moon. It’s also a time to cast lanterns with wishes into the sky.
Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu Jie 端午节) is celebrated around summer solstice (June 12, 2014) and is well-known across Asia because of the exciting dragon boat races held in many cities. Historically this day memorializes Qu Yuan, a minister who lived over two thousand years ago and drowned in a river. Preparing and eating zong zi is part of the tradition and, according to legend, represents the rice packets that were thrown into the river to distract the hungry fish surrounding his body… Enjoy!
Seollal (설날) is the Lunar New Year holiday in Korea and is celebrated on the same day as other countries that traditionally use the Chinese Lunar calendar. It’s held on January 31 in 2014 and February 18 in 2015. It’s typically a 3-day family holiday in which many people return to their parents’s house for a meal and wish their elders a blessed new year by performing a deep traditional bow. Normally, the kids get an envelop of money for this, similar to Chinese culture.
Some women will dress up in traditional Korean clothing called hanbok. The important dish to try during the Korean new year celebration is Tteokguk (soup with sliced rice cakes) and you can wash it all down with a rice wine called Soju (or even Baekseju) By the way, check out It Girl’s blog of Korean festivals too.
The Lotus Lantern Festival (Yeon Deung Hoe) is held in mid-May and is one of Korea’s oldest traditional festivals. It’s held to celebrate Buddha’s coming into this world, so basically its Buddha’s birthday celebration! Throughout the festival more than 100,000 lanterns are lit up and line the streets of Seoul. The lanterns are carefully constructed with Hanji, traditional Korean paper made from mulberry bark. Parades are an important part of this celebration which lasts 3 days. (May 6 in 2014)
Japanese New Year (お正月, oshōgatsu) is celebrated on the same night as western New Years Eve, December 31st. Unlike many Americans who get together with family on Christmas, Japanese normally to ring in the new year at home. And a Japanese new year celebration wouldn’t be complete without special dishes called “osechi-ryōri”(see the photo gallery). These colorful and attractive dishes, each one symbolizing a different wish for the new year. Rocket News 24 has a great article depicting various osechi options. One very peaceful activity that foreign guests can enjoy is a temple visit after midnight or on January 1st. If the weather cooperates you can see people dressed in traditional clothing like a kimono (for women).
Bean-Throwing Festival (節分, Setsubun) is celebrated on the day before the beginning of Spring in Japan. It’s usually celebrated on February 3 as part of their Spring Festival. (春祭, haru matsuri) The activity is performed by the male head of the household or the man in the family who was born on the corresponding year of the Chinese zodiac. And what they do is throw beans out of the house or at family member wearing an Oni mask as a way to cast away demons and keep luck in. Native Foods’ blog has a great overview of the festival and more about the customs related to this Spring event.
Doll’s Day or Girls’ Day (雛祭り, Hina-matsuri) is held every March 3rd and coincides with the blossoming of peach and cherry trees across Japan. Hina-matsuri is a special day when families pray that their daughters grow up happy and healthy. This is celebrated by offering rice crackers and other foods to two dolls which look like the Emperor and Empress of the imperial court during the Heian period (794-1192). A display is setup much like how Christians display a manger scene for Christmas. But one superstition suggests that if the dolls and scenary are not put away immediately when the special day is over, the family will also slow to marry off their daughter later on.
Try combining this celebration with a visit to a Cherry blossom park (Hanami = flowering viewing) later in March or April. Cherry blossoms, or Sakura, are a Springtime experience not to be missed. It’s a must-see for anyone creating a bucket list! Cherry blossoms can be found in many countries around the world, but the feeling you get from visiting them in Northeast Asia is unparalleled.