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Festivals in Japan

by Hannah Lockett | July 24, 2019

There are many festivals in Japan, known locally as Matsuri, which entice visitors from all over the world. From religious festivals to harvest festivals, there are a plethora of reasons for communities to gather together and celebrate. Many of the festivals have specially designed costumes and floats and involve local temples and shrines.

We have listed below, some of the many events you may wish to combine with a holiday in Japan.

Festivals in Tokyo

May – Meiji Shrine Spring Grand Festival – This week long festival incorporates a series of traditional performances and demonstrations of typical Japanese arts such as, poetry, martial arts, dance and archery

May – Kanda Matsuri – Taking place in mid May during odd numbered years, alternating with the Sanno Matsuri, the Kanda Matsuri is one of Tokyo’s most famous festivals. Events are held over a week, with the most important happening on the weekend closest to May 15, including a day-long procession through central Tokyo on the Saturday, and parades of mikoshi in different areas on the Sunday.

May – Shibuya Ohara Matsuri – This annual event, held in the centre of Shibuya, has its roots in Ohara-bushi, a famous folk song from the early Edo period. The Ohara Festival is held in mid-May and sees about 2,500 people join in the parade.

May – Sanja Matsuri – An annual festival in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, that usually takes place over the third full weekend in May. It is held to celebrate of the three founders of the Sensoji Temple, who are enshrined in the Asakusa Shrine next door to the temple. Nearly two million people attend at some point during the three days, making it one of Tokyo’s most popular festivals.

June – Sanno Festival – This grand, historic festival, began during the Edo period (1603-1867), when portable shrines known as mikoshi and festival floats were allowed into the grounds of the Castle. The festivities last for 11 days, and include an historically important, ceremony where prayers are offered for the safety of the Imperial Palace and for peace in Tokyo. There is also traditional Japanese Shinto music-and-dance performances, a Sanno drum performance, and various other parades.

July – Shinjuku Eisa Festival – Late July sees the annual Shinjuku Eisa Festival. Eisa is a traditional dance originating in the Okinawan islands. The traditional costumes, dancing and drumming are quite different to what you’re likely to see in other festivals in Japan.

August – Itabashi Hanabi – The annual Itabashi Fireworks Festival, where about 12,000 fireworks are used in a colourful display of characters and flowers. It lasts for around an hour and a half, and there are reserved seats and general sitting areas at the venue.

August – Hibiya Bon Odori – Taking place at Hibiya Park, this Bon-odori (bon dance) festivals has a diverse range of participants, from local business workers and residents, through to tourists. Everyone joins together and dances in circles around the central fountain to the “Marunouchi Ondo”, a song composed in 1932 and is the basis of the famous bon-odori song, “Tokyo Ondo.”

August – Tamagawa Hanabi – One of the last hanabi events of the summer, visitors are dazzled by the 6,000 colourful fireworks in this display along the banks of the Tama River.

August – Azabu-Juban Noryo Festival – One of Tokyo’s traditional festivals, the Azabu-Juban Noryo Matsuri, has been going on for over 50 years. For two days of dancing, performances, live music, food, and craft stalls in late August each year.

August – Fukagawa Hachiman – This matsuri at Fukagawa’s Tomioka Hachimangu shrine, takes place annually, but is only celebrated in all its glory, once every three years. In the ‘smaller years’, visitors can look forward to mikoshi processions, dance performances, and people throwing water on the participants (on the Sunday only).

August – Genki Matsuri Super Yosakoi – This dance festival brings the traditional yosakoi dance from its birthplace of Kochi Prefecture, to Harajuku and Omotesando, the centre of cutting-edge fashion in Tokyo. More than 110 teams from all the over the world compete, bringing together approximately 6,000 dancers who perform stunning, energetic routines.

August – Koenji Awa Odori – Colourfully attired dancers have paraded in front of onlookers for more than 60 years. With estimated crowds of over 1 million during the two days of the last weekend in August. There is a three-hour parade of rhythmic music and dance involving over 10,000 dancers, each evening from 5 pm..

September – Fukuro Matsuri – The Fukuro Matsuri is a two day parade of mikoshi and traditional dance and music, featuring folk dances from all over the country including Okinawan Eisa Dance.

November – Meiji Shrine Autumn Festival – Celebrating the birthday of Emperor Meiji, with three days of cultural demonstrations of Japanese performance and martial arts. The festival includes Bugaku dance, Noh theatre, Kyogen comedy, traditional music such as Hogaku and martial arts such as Aikido. The most popular demonstrations are Yabusame horseback archery and a Sumo ring entering ceremony.

November – Tori No Ichi – Celebrated since the end of the Edo era, the Tori no Ichi festival is a sign that winter is just around the corner. It’s a time to pray for wealth and good fortune for the year ahead, and is held every November on the days of the rooster. Said to originate at Asakusa’s Otori Shrine and nearby Juzaisan Chokokuji temple, the festival is now held at rooster-related shrines and temples all over Tokyo. There are plenty of Tori no Ichi markets dotted around the city, all selling traditional kumade (a colourfully decorated, traditional bamboo rake), an essential part of any Tori no Ichi celebration.

December – Chichibu Yomatsuri, Saitama – Just 90 minutes from Tokyo, Saitama Prefecture’s Chichibu Yomatsuri, a night festival dating back at least 300 years, is held on December 2 and 3 each year. On the first day, the festival invites people to watch massive, ornately designed floats weighing between 10 and 20 tons being pulled through Chichibu’s main avenue to drum and flute music. The next day, the locals pull the floats up a hill, while the crowd watches on, drinks hot, sweet rice wine and eats local specialities.

Festivals in Kyoto and Nara

January – Wakakusa Yamayaki, Nara – An annual festival celebrated on the 4th Saturday of January, weather permitting, where the grass on the side of Nara’s Mount Wakakusayama is set on fire. Around 17:00, a procession leaves from Kasuga Taisha on its way to the mountain, arriving around 17:30 to light a bonfire. There is a colourful firework display before the bonfire is used to set the grass on the mountainside alight.

February – Setsubun Mantoro, Nara – On 3rd February each year, the Kasuga Taisha Shrine is illuminated by over 3,000 flickering candle lanterns. This mesmerising festival is a rare opportunity to see one of Nara’s most sacred shrines as it must have looked almost 1,000 years ago.

March – Omizutori, Nara – Also known as Shunie, a series of events and Buddhist repentance rituals held annually from March 1 to 14 at the Todaiji Temple, for over 1,250 years.

April – Miyakodo Odori, Kyoto – Every Spring, the geisha and maiko of Kyoto, perform dances celebrating the beautiful cherry blossom.

May – Kamogawa Odori, Kyoto – This is Kyoto’s annual dance performance featuring geiko and maiko from the historic Pontocho District. A symbol of the city’s rich cultural heritage, the Kamogawa Odori is one of the most anticipated events of the year.

May – Aoi Matsuri, Kyoto – The Aoi Matsuri takes place on 15 May every year. The main event is a large parade through Kyoto, where over 500 people dressed in the aristocratic dress from the Heian Period (794-1185), walk from the Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines.

May – Mifune Matsuri, Kyoto – Hosted by Kurumazaki Jinja, a small shrine near Arashiyama famous for worshipping gods of artistic talent, the Mifune Matsuri (Three Boats Festival) takes place on the third Sunday in May, each year. Held on the scenic Oi River nearTogetsukyō Bridge, priests from the Kurumazaki Shrine lead a procession from Nakanoshima Park across the bridge.

July – Gion Matsuri, Kyoto – Gion Matsuri, the Yasaka Shrine’s annual festival, is said to be the most well known in the country. It takes place over the entire month of July. There are many different events, but the grand procession of floats, Yamaboko Junko, on 17th July is particularly spectacular.

August – Daimonji, Kyoto – This festival marks the end of the Obon season, which is the time of the year when the souls of ancestors return from the other world on their annual visit. Daimonji is the annual lighting of massive bonfires in the shapes of the characters cut into the mountains that surround Kyoto to the north, east and west, to guide the souls back to heaven.

October – Jidai Matsuri, Kyoto – The Jidai Matsuri takes place on 22nd October every year, to commemorate the foundation of Kyoto. A large parade winds its way from the Imperial Palace to the Heian Shrine with the participants dressed in costumes from almost every period of Japanese history, as well as famous historical figures.

October – Kurama Fire Festival, Kyoto – The Kurama Fire Festival in the mountainous village of Kurama honours the Yuki Shrine and its spirits, and lights up the night on October 22 each year. It features a parade with hundreds of people bearing flaming torches, creating a truly majestic sight.

December – Kasuga Wakamiya Matsuri, Nara – This much-loved winter festival, held since the 12th century, runs from December 15-18. It was originally created to pray away an epidemic, but later became associated with guaranteeing a good harvest. The festival lasts for four days, but if you can only make one day, the 17th December is the main day of the event.

Festivals in Osaka, Takayama and Hiroshima

January – Toka Ebisu Festival, Osaka – More than one million pilgrims and visitors make their way to the Imamiya Ebisu shrine, founded in the seventh century, to celebrate “Ebessan” the deity of business, trade and fishing. Taking place over three days from January 9th to 11th, people go in search of success in business and personal growth for the coming year. For luck, bamboo branches decorated with amulets are distributed or sold during the festival.

April – Takayama Spring Festival – This festival, also known as Sanno Matsuri, is held annually at the Hie Jinja Shrine to usher in the coming of spring. There is a parade with 12 matsuri-yatai floats, and three of the floats feature marionette shows.

June – Otaue Rice Planting Festival, Osaka – Held on 14th June each year at the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine, it is an ancient Shinto festival to pray for a rich rice harvest. Rice planting festivals can be found all over Japan, but this one is the most unique due to its reenactment of the ancient methods and rituals used during planting. The festival highlights are the ancient Shinto rituals, with the dancing and singing that go along with them.

July – Tenjin Matsuri, Osaka – Started in the 10th century, this festival takes place on 24th & 25th July each year. The main celebrations are on the second day, July 25, with a colourful land procession and a unique river procession with fireworks.

August – Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony – Held each year on the 6th August, the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, around 50,000 people gather to console the spirits of those killed by the bomb and to pray for lasting world peace. At 8:15 in the morning, marking the exact moment when the atomic bomb was dropped, temple bells ring out and sirens wail, and the people of Hiroshima observe a solemn moment of silence in remembrance. In the evening, there is a ‘Peace Message Lantern Floating Ceremony’ where you are invited to write messages of peace on lanterns, which are then set afloat down the Motoyasu River, passing directly in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome.

September – Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri – The Kishiwada Danjiri Festival is considered as most extravagant danjiri float festivals in Japan and attracts 500,000 visitors each year. It is a procession of 100-plus men pushing and pulling handcrafted danjiri floats. There are men are on top of the floats enthusiastically shouting instructions as they bounce back and forth. It is held on the weekend before ‘Respect for the Elderly’ day in mid-September.

October – Takayama Autum Festival – The Autumn Takayama Festival or Hachiman Matsuri is an annual festival for the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine, to celebrate a good harvest. As with the Spring Festival, there is a parade with floats, some of which feature marionettes.

Festivals in Hokkaido

January / February – Chitose and Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival – Held at Lake Shikotsu hot springs, Shikotsu-Toya National Park, about 40 minutes drive from Sapporo. Lines of ice sculptures made from Lake Shikotsu’s water, are lit at night to form a colourful scene. There is an ice rink for sliding, not skating, and from 18:30 each Saturday and Sunday during there is an impressive fireworks display, and Wadaiko drum performances.

February – Sapporo Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri) – The Sapporo Snow Festival is held every February and features spectacular snow and ice sculptures. It is one of Japan’s most popular winter events, attracting more than two million visitors.

February – Asahikawa Winter Festival – This week-long festival takes place in February each year, around the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival. So you can visit both festivals on the same trip, as they are just an 80 minute train ride apart. Every year a massive stage is built from ice, and music and dance shows are performed.

February – Sapporo Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri) – The Sapporo Snow Festival is held every February and features spectacular snow and ice sculptures. It is one of Japan’s most popular winter events, attracting more than two million visitors.

February – Asahikawa Winter Festival – This week-long festival takes place in February each year, around the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival. So you can visit both festivals on the same trip, as they are just an 80 minute train ride apart. Every year a massive stage is built from ice, and music and dance shows are performed.

February – The Otaru Snow Light Path Festival (Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi) – A winter festival held every February, when the city is decorated with lights and small snow statues for ten days. The two main official areas which are lit daily from 17:00 to 21:00, are Unga Kaijo and Temiyasen Kaijo, but many locals also put lanterns in front of their shops and homes, to add to the festival spirit.

June – Yosakoi Soran Festival, Sapporo – An energetic dancing event based on the Yosakoi Festival in Kochi Prefecture. The dances feature naruko clappers, colourful costumes and Hokkaido’s own ‘Soran Bushi’ folk songs. It has become a major international event attracting 30,000 dancers from Japan and abroad, and up to 20 million visitors. It runs for 4 days with the final held in Odori Park for the final.

June – Hokkaido Shrine Festival, Sapporo – A traditional Shinto festival with a dazzling parade and bustling stalls. On the final day, a procession of more than a thousand people in colourful Heian period costumes, parade around the city, with ‘mikoshi’ portable shrines and numerous floats.

November – Sapporo White Illumination – Around 520,000 light bulbs are used to illuminate Christmas themed displays in Odori Park, and strings of lights adorn the trees along Sapporo Ekimae dori and Minami 1-jo dori, creating a magical festive atmosphere.

Other Festivals Around Japan

April – Inuyama Festival – Held annually on the first weekend of April, the highlight of this festival is the parade by 13 three-layered floats standing 25 feet high, accompanied by the music of Japanese flutes and drums. At night, all the floats are lit with Japanese lanterns, which combined with the cherry blossom make the for a truly unforgettable picture.

May – Hakata Dontaku Festival, Fukuoka – Held in Fukuoka on the 3rd and 4th of May each year, the Dontaku Festival is one of the most popularly attended festivals in Japan and is said to be the most popular held during the golden week holiday. The festival features groups of dancers in colourful clothes and decorated floats called hana jidosha (flower cars).

July – Hakata Gion Yamakasa start, Fukuoka – This is one of the most interesting festivals in Japan. It is held every year during the first half of July and climaxes with a spectacular time trial race in the early hours of July 15. In the race, the seven areas that make up the city’s Hakata district compete in pushing beautifully decorated festival floats along a five kilometre course through the city.

August – Awa Odori, Tokushima City – Between August 12 and 15, people flood into Tokushima in their thousands to see this ‘Fool’s Dance’ whose origins date back over 400 years. This nickname comes from the lyrics of a common dance song, which translates as: “Fools dance and fools watch, if both are fools, you might as well dance”.

August – Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori City – Nebuta is a type of Tanabata related summer festival held in Aomori City, every year from August 2 to 7. The highlight of the festival is the daily parade of enormous lantern floats, flanked by large taiko drums, musicians and dancers.

August – Kanto Festival, Akita – The highlight of this festival is an impressive display of skill in which performers balance kanto (long bamboo poles) adorned with paper lanterns, on their heads, shoulders, arms, chest etc.

August – Sendai Tanabata Matsuri – The Sendai Tanabata Matsuri is held every year from 6th to 8th August.  The main feature is thousands of colourful streamers that decorate the city’s shopping arcades. Each set of streamers is handcrafted by local shops, schools and community groups out of washi paper and bamboo, and hung from 10 metre high bamboo poles.

August – Sanuki Takamatsu Festival – A yosakoi dance festival combined with a summer fireworks show which takes place during the Obon season on Shikoku Island. The population of the island swells at Obon and hotels fill up early. The festival includes over 4,000 dancers and a glittering fireworks display.

August – Mitama Matsuri, FukuokaAn annual festival for thanking one’s ancestors and fallen soldiers. Walls containing 6,000 individually painted lanterns are lit up at night. You can enjoy a Japanese flute performance, kaguramai (Shinto dance), and gospel singing, as well as games and tasty food and drink at the night market.

August – Sado Earth Celebration, Sado Island – The Earth Celebration is an annual music festival by the internationally acclaimed Kodo taiko group which is based on Sado Island. Each year the festival features different guest artists who perform in collaboration with Kodo. The three day event is held in mid to late August in and around Ogi Town.

August – Domannaka Matsuri, Nagoya – The Nippon Domannaka Festival  is a team dance festival, open to a wide variety of dance styles and includes teams from all over Japan and from overseas. The only rules are that the costumes reflect the teams local traditions and that they carry a naruko (small clapper).

August – Noboribetsu Jigoku Matsuri – The Noboribetsu area is known as ‘Hell Valley’ for the sulphur smell, steam and smoke that erupt from the ground. This festival brings that name to life, as the blue and red demons of Noboribetsu emerge together with Enma Daioh (The King of Hell) once every year on the final Saturday & Sunday in August to take part in parades and other events on the streets of the town.

October – Niihama Taiko Festival – A procession of Taiko drum-shaped floats, weighing about 3 tons each, are paraded through the town. The highlight is the ‘Kakikurabe’ where the giant floats are taken around the town to entertain the local crowds.

October – Nagasaki Kunchi Festival – The Nagasaki Kunchiis the festival for the Suwa Shrine, held in Nagasaki on October 7-9 each year. The festival has been celebrated for about 400 years and incorporates different aspects of Chinese and Dutch cultures, which have played a role in the city’s history. The festival’s main attractions are the dance and show performances by groups representing the city’s various districts.

October – Niihama Taiko Festival – This festival is a parade of floats shaped like gigantic taiko drums by 47 local teams. Each float weighs over 2 tons and is carried by a team of men. The locals sometimes refer to the festival as the Otoko Matsuri, literally the “Men’s Festival”. The highlight of the festival are displays of float “fighting” that involves throwing the floats in the air, with the goal of showing the energetic spirit of each team.

November – Karatsu Kunchi Festival – Karatsu has been holding an autumn festival to celebrate bountiful harvests for over 400 years. The Karatsu Kunchi Festival is a massive three-day parade at the beginning of November featuring huge floats known as hikiyama, being pulled through town and from the Karatsu Shrine to Nishino Beach.


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