In Japan, 2023 is officially the year of the rabbit, so we’ve got some bunny-based recommendations for activities and must-see destinations in the coming months, from Pokemon to Shinto shrines!
The Japanese Year of the Rabbit
Like many countries across Asia, Japan likes to keep track of what we often call the “Chinese Zodiac” in English, which features a 12-year cycle and animals for each year. This traditional system handed down from the Chinese does come with predictions – 2023 is supposed to be “a year when hopes and wishes will sprout up from a stagnant world.” But, while that optimistic message is nice to hear, it’s not likely to be taken all that seriously in everyday Japanese life. The most visible influence of the Chinese Zodiac in Japan probably comes from the designated yearly animals, a tradition that meshes perfectly with Japan’s love for all things kawaii. Every year, New Year’s greeting cards are sent around the country featuring cutesy motifs with that year’s zodiac animal, Japanese shops sell New Year’s zodiac animal decorations, and the general public just gets especially enthusiastic about anything related to whatever animal comes next. This year is the year of the rabbit, and it’s a perfect chance to enjoy some of Japan’s most bunny-filled activities in 2023.
① Visit a Rabbit Shrine
Kyoto’s “bunny shrine” has stayed somewhat off the radar in recent years, despite being located fairly close to major sightseeing destinations, but no longer! The year of the rabbit has thrust the Higashitenno Okazaki Shrine (東天王 岡崎神社) into the spotlight, and crowds are flocking to see the many rabbits decorating the shrine grounds, from the elegant rabbit designs painted on walls to the rabbit statues that take the place of guardian lions. Okazaki Shrine has long been a popular place to pray for fertility and safe childbirth, and since rabbits are known to literally “breed like rabbits,” they became a symbol of the shrine. Nowadays the rabbit theme extends everywhere you look, although the most photogenic rabbits of all are probably the rows of little figurines left by visitors after receiving a fortune (available for purchase at the shrine office). Travelers are still welcome to pray for fertility, but most just come to take cute pictures!
② Spend a Day on Bunny Island
On a small uninhabited island off the coast of Hiroshima, somewhere around 1,000 fluffy bunnies run wild, hopping over sandy beaches, forest floors, and even abandoned factory ruins. Called Okunoshima, this tranquil rabbit island has a surprisingly dark history, exemplified by the bunnies themselves. The first wave of local rabbits were actually used for testing at the Okunoshima’s WWII poison gas factory! Some theories claim that the current rabbits descend from these lab animals, but it’s much more likely that they actually come from a number of abandoned pets. Either way, the rabbits have now thoroughly settled in and taken over, and this rabbit paradise is now a tourist attraction with a small hotel and daily ferries carrying sightseers over from the mainland. Visitors can wander down the island’s quiet paths, along the beach and into the forested center, meeting bunnies as they hop down the road, nap in the sand, or gaze at incoming tourists in hopes of finding snacks. Bring some sliced veggies to share with your new island friends and you’ll find yourself very popular.
③ See “Usagi” and Her Sailor Scouts on the Big Screen
What does Sailor Moon have to do with the year of the rabbit? Fans of the show might already have some idea! Sailor Moon herself goes by the name Usagi Tsukino in her everyday life, and “usagi” (うさぎ) literally means rabbit in Japanese! Some English-language Sailor Moon media has even changed her name to “Bunny Tsukino” to reflect the original meaning.
This magical girl has had an exciting few years, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Sailor Moon manga and anime in 2021 and 2022 respectively, and now anticipating the release of a brand new Sailor Moon movie in 2023. The new feature film “Sailor Moon Cosmos” is a part of the Sailor Moon Crystal anime reboot and a direct follow-up to the 2021 movie “Sailor Moon Eternal,” and the plot will follow the final arc of the Sailor Moon manga, bringing the series to a dramatic end. Sailor Moon Cosmos is set to be released in two parts, which means it will actually be hitting theaters twice in one month, on June 9th and 30th. (Sailor Moon fans visiting Japan in 2023 might want to aim for the end of June!) Celebrating this year of the rabbit doesn’t have to be all about little animals – you can follow this Bunny on her adventures punishing wrongdoers on behalf of the moon all through the summer, too! For fans of Sailor Moon bling, we recommend engaging in your own transformation sequence with this elegant Sailor Moon jewelry before you go.
④ Catch ’em All at the Pokemon Center
In a world without animals, Bunnelby, Scorbunny, Plusle, Minun, and Buneary (in addition to evolutions like the surprisingly curvy Lopunny) might not technically be rabbits, but they’re each as close as any Pokemon is going to get!* And that makes 2023 their year to shine. Japan has more than 20 different Pokemon Center shopping locations around Japan, including five official shops within Tokyo city limits, giving Pokemon lovers plenty of opportunity for a bunny-themed Pokemon merch treasure hunt! There are already some great Scorbunny finds online, like Nanoblock sets, candy jars, and of course plenty of figures.
*Did you know? Nidoran and its evolutions are on the edge of rabbitdom – they’re based on pikas, which are so closely related to bunnies that they’re often called rabbits too.
⑤ Bring Japan’s Cutest Bunnies Home with You
Don’t worry, we’re not suggesting you smuggle a rabbit home in your suitcase. In fact, you don’t even have to go all the way to Japan to bring some Japanese rabbit cuteness into your home. Japanese online retailers have done all the hard work for you, providing some of the most irresistible rabbit-themed items around, all shipped right to your door. Prepare yourself for the year of the rabbit with rabbit socks from Tutu Anna, a wallet embroidered with a fierce rabbit from Beams, a necklace from Fanfun Market featuring My Melody (Hello Kitty’s best friend, a white rabbit), and any number of Suzuri shirts with Japanese rabbit illustrations from independent artists. Then transform your home as well, using this fuzzy rabbit pillowcase from the popular room wear brand Gelato Pique, little handmade rabbit chopsticks rests from a seller on Iichi, or some adorable rabbit-themed hina dolls from the sellers on Minne, made for Japan’s Hina Matsuri.
With such varied and plentiful customs surrounding the New Year in Japan, each year’s zodiac animal is an adorable opportunity, leaving the door open for everyone to appreciate this cultural tradition in their own way. A bunny-free 2023 would be a waste, so whether you want to buy up every cute Japanese rabbit-themed item on the internet, or just spend a peaceful day out in nature being chased by bunnies searching for chopped veggies, we hope you make the most of the year of the rabbit!
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