The coming of summer means that it’s time to get ready for matsuri (festival) season, some of the most vibrant and colorful months of the year here. Age-old live music, dancing, drinking, entertainment, fascinating cultural quirks, fireworks, spirituality, and a whole lot of incredible food — it’s fair to argue that Japan’s festivals are some of the greatest in the world. They’re also one of the best ways to get up close and personal with a community, its traditions and most especially — its people.
Beginning now as the days get warmer and longer, and into winter, here are some Japan’s most unusual, unique and unmissable Japanese matsuri.
1. Hakata Gion Yamakasa, Kyushu (July 1 to 15)
Running throughout the first two weeks of July, the Hakata Gion Yamakasa’s biggest highlight is actually its close: a float-dragging time trial that takes part in the very, very early hours of the morning. During the event, before the sun rises, teams start to race in five-minute intervals. Although it’s early, the streets rapidly fill up with spectators, buzzing with the energy and excitement of the race. Throughout the week leading up to the event, teams put on practice time trial style races, giving spectators plenty of opportunity to check out the show.
2. Gion Matsuri, Kyoto, Kansai (Throughout July)
If there is one truly iconic Japanese festival you shouldn’t miss, it has to be Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri, generally considered the most famous festival in all of Japan. Held around Yasaka Shrine, it’s basically a culmination of a number of smaller events, but the grand procession of floats on July 17 — known as Yamaboko Junko — is the centerpiece. It features teams of people pulling floats up to 12,000 kilograms (about 13 tons) and 25-meters tall through the streets and intersections of the city. The main celebrations take place along the Kamo River. The Yamaboko Junko takes place on the mornings of July 17 and 24 following a three-kilometer route along Shijo, Kawaramachi and Oike streets. Keep an eye out for the chigo, or “sacred child” — a young boy the city selects each year to be the divine messenger to the gods. As is tradition, the boy’s feet cannot touch the ground from July 13 until after he’s been paraded through the city on July 17. There’s so much going on — both before and after these celebrations — including a number of other slightly smaller processions that there is no shortage of things to see and do.
3. Hiratsuka Tanabata, Kanagawa, Kanto (July 7)
As the mercury rises, there’s no place that Tokyo- and Yokohama-ites like to flock to for a quick visit more than the beaches of Enoshima and Kamakura. But if you head a little further down the Shonan coast, you’ll find the coastal town of Hiratsuka, home to one of the nation’s most revered tanabata celebrations. Filled with all the classic hallmarks of many other star festivals — streamers, dancers, locally made decorations and plenty of food stalls — this usually sleepy town is literally overflowing with visitors, giving the place a whole new atmosphere. Located about 1 ½ hours from Tokyo by train, it’s really worth the day trip.
4. Natsu Matsuri, Sapporo, Hokkaido (Mid-July to mid-August)
Hosted during the sweltering summer months, the Sapporo Natsu (summer) Matsuri is the city’s main summertime party, which is actually comprised of a number of different smaller events. Some of the highlights include the vibrant Hokkai Bon Odori (dance parade), the eclectic Sapporo bazaar antique fair and the Tanuki Festival that runs through the Tanukikoji shopping street. The most popular event, however, is (unsurprisingly) the beer garden that showcases the local Sapporo brew as well as plenty of international offerings. The garden attracts around a million booze lovers to the city’s sprawling Odori Park over a month long period, which makes for a very vibrant party scene.
5. Yamaguchi Gion Matsuri, Chugoku (July 20 to 27)
Known as the “Kyoto of Chugoku,” Yamaguchi’s Yasaka Shrine was brought to the area by Ouchi Hiroyo, the man first in charge of helping establish the city’s culture. As a result, today the festival is seen almost as a small Gion festival, the highlight of which is the “Dance of the Heron,” signifying the beginning of the celebrations. After this opening dance, thousands of locals flood the streets, dancing themselves, carrying mikoshi (portable shrines), partying, and singing the unofficial theme song to the festival: “Imperial Lord of Ouchi.”
6. Tenjin Matsuri, Osaka, Kansai (July 24 & 25)
A party that’s been going on for over 1,000 years now, the Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka is one of Japan’s most popular festivals alongside the Gion and Kanda matsuri. Running on the same dates every year, the event features celebrations centered around Tenmangu Shrine and Sugawara Michizane, its deity of scholarship. The biggest show of the festival runs on the afternoon of the second day when a procession of drummers take to the streets followed by Sarutahiko, a long-nosed goblin riding a horse. The procession continues on the Okawa River, where everything gets loaded up in floats and paraded across the river.
7. Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori, Tohoku (First week of August)
An offshoot of the typical tanabata festival, Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri is the prefecture’s most colorful celebration. Like the pages of a vibrant nihonga (Japanese painting) come to life, the festival’s massive paper floats are dragged through the main streets of Aomori City, followed by processions of taiko drummers and traditionally dressed dancers. It’s hard to fathom, but these giant floats are actually constructed from washi (Japanese paper), all meticulously handcrafted by very patient locals. The event features a number of other little celebrations, but the parade is the main draw. It’s such a big deal that it runs every night during the festivities.
8. Sansa Odori, Morioka, Iwate, Tohoku (First week of August)
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Hoy hemos podido disfrutar de uno de los muchos matsuris que hay durante todo agosto por Japón. El Sansa Odori de Morioka es un desfile donde bailan cientos de personas el Sansa siguiendo el ritmo de los taikos. Un matsuri realmente impresionante y precioso que nos ha dejado totalmente alucinados. #sansaodori #sansa #matsuri #sansaodorimorioka #morioka #moriokajapan #japantrip #japon #japan #asia #loveasia #ig_japan #unlimitedjapan #unlimitedasia #viajar #viajero #viajesenlamochila #catalanspelmon #blogviajes #travelblog #iamtb #viatgersDC #soyviajera #lavozviajera #wanderlust #blog #travelblog #mochileros #instaviajeros #iatiporelmundo #exploringjapan
The legend of the festival says that the god Mitsuishi — the figure behind Iwate Prefecture’s name — captured a demon who was harassing the townspeople and forced it to promise he’d stop his evil ways. Once the demon complied, the town erupted into a scene of wild dancing — to the soundtrack of the traditional song “Sansa sansa.” Today, more than 3,000 revelers participate in the event, scoring the festival a Guinness World Record for largest Japanese drum ensemble. During your visit expect to see plenty of taiko, traditional costumes and an unending procession of dancers.
9. Kanto Matsuri Akita, Tohoku (First week of August)
A little confusing because it’s not the only Kanto festival in Japan (and it’s not in the Kanto area), this one is particularly special. Also known as the “pole lantern festival,” this tanabata spin-off sees the city of Akita come alive as the skyline is filled with glowing paper lanterns. The highlight, however, is the festival’s performers who balance paper lantern-covered kanto (long bamboo poles) — some weighing as much as 50 kilograms — on different parts of their body. Hosted along Chuo Dori is where you’ll find the festival’s main parade and these enthralling, gravity-defying performers.
10. Numata Festival, Gunma, Kanto (First week of August)
In summer, the streets of Numata City host one of the most striking regional festivals on the Kanto map. There is no massive fireworks display, no lit-up tanabata streamers, but there is a massive demon’s face — that’s actually Japan’s largest mikoshi. Known as the “daitengu (great long-nosed goblin) mikoshi,” this massive portable shrine is carried through the street by a procession of women who are followed by chanting local dancers. For a festival that feels more regional but still welcoming, it’s worth making the short trip over to Gunma to check this out.
11. Tanabata Matsuri, Sendai, Tohoku (Aug. 6 to 8)
One of the country’s many colorful tanabata festivals that celebrate the meeting of the two divine lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi — represented by the stars Altair and Vega — in the night sky. The Sendai leg is definitely worth attending if you’re in the area during summer as it’s one of the nation’s biggest events. Most of the action happens in downtown Sendai where the streets are dripping in colorful, handcrafted streamers and lined with local vendors dishing out delicious festival food all day long. The night before the official celebrations, the Hirosegawa River comes alive as an explosive fireworks display is set off, signaling the beginning of the three-day party.
12. Fukagawa Festival, Tokyo, Kanto (Around Aug. 12 to 18)
If you’re planning to visit the the Fukagawa Festival, prepare to get super-soaked. Also known as the Mizukake Matsuri, or “water splashing festival,” this is one of Tokyo’s other three big summer fests. Over 50 competing teams carry mikoshi and join dancers and musicians to parade through the streets of Fukagawa as tens of thousands spray water on them. It’s thought that the gods riding in the mikoshi enjoy a little refreshing respite from the stifling summer heat. The event predominantly takes place around the Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine.
13. Zento Eisa Matsuri, Okinawa (Mid-September)
Held through the middle of the month, this festival is a celebration of the classic eisa dance, a traditional Okinawan O-Bon (Festival of the Dead) dance performed to pay respect to ancestors and as a send off for those who have passed. During this festival, locals head to the Koza Music Town between 6 and 9 p.m. to perform different incarnations of the dance, culminating in the largest eisa festival in the nation. The event began in the 1950s as a competition but from 1977 onwards it took its more laid back, festival form. The events are capped off with a fireworks show at the end of the evening, so hang around.
14. Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri, Osaka, Kansai (Sep. 15 & 16)
For something a little more adrenaline inducing, it may be worth considering a visit to Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri, a festival that’s been called Japan’s equivalent of the Running of the Bulls in Spain (without the bulls… ). The festival first began in 1703 when the feudal lord of Kishiwada Castle prayed for a good harvest at Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto. Today held in Osaka, the event features around 35 festive and delicately handcrafted danjiri (decorative portable shrines) dragged at break-neck speeds by a team of participants along the narrow streets of Kishiwada. During the event, one of the team members stands atop the float jumping, dancing, balancing and pumping up the crowd. As the participants “surf” atop the floats, their proud flirtation with danger makes it hard to watch, but impossible to look away. It’s one of the country’s most attention-commanding events.
15. Nagasaki Kunchi, Kyushu (Oct. 7 to 9)
Held around the city’s famous Suwa Shrine, the Nagasaki Kunchi is a unique celebration of Japanese, Chinese and Dutch cultures, all of which have influenced the shape of the city we see today. The main highlight is the dance show featuring groups performing as representatives of the different city districts that make up Nagasaki. Around five to seven groups perform, each offering a different style. From the vibrant and energetic to the more tranquil, they’re hosted on stages around Suwa Shrine, Otabisho, Yasaka Shrine and Kokaido. You can get paid seating but don’t snooze if you want some — the seats get snapped up by locals pretty fast.
16. Naha Matsuri, Okinawa (Mid-October)
More colloquially known as the Naha “tug of war,” this matsuri is Okinawa’s biggest festival. The celebrations are broken up into a number of different events that include concerts, karaoke contests, parades and, of course, the signature rope pulling contest. To experience its more traditional side, be sure to check out the Hatagashira Parade, which runs along Kokusai Street from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the Sunday and is followed by the tug of war that kicks off around 2:45 p.m. With around 15,000 participants taking part in all the heaving, the event holds the official Guinness Record as the “largest tug of war with the largest straw rope in the world.” If you’re in need of some liquid refreshment while there, be sure to head over to Beer Paradise, a garden party held in Onoyama Park. Run by the company that produces Okinawa’s Orion beer, it’s a laid back bash and a great way to meet the locals.
17. Taiko Festival, Niihama, Shikoku (Oct. 16 to 18)
Typically a rather sleepy Shikoku seaside town, in October Niihama’s streets are awoken by the vibrations of hundreds of pounding taiko drummers and a sea of bodies, all wriggling and swarming to the beat of the Niihama Taiko Festival. The festival features massive floats shaped like the traditional iconic drum. The festival’s highlight is the taiko “fights” that consist of teams throwing their humongous floats into the air in an unbelievable display of strength. Spurred on by the loud thumping and free-flowing sake, the party can get a little chaotic — so much so that it’s not surprising to see police hanging around in riot gear. But it’s all in the name of fun and a good harvest.
18. Namahage Sedo Festival, Akita, Tohoku (Dec. 31 & Jan. 1)
This one is not for the faint of heart. A part of Oga Peninsula’s rather offbeat New Year’s celebrations, the Namahage Sedo Festival runs over the holiday period scaring children and giving adults a good dose of comedy. Each year, a few of the locals dressed as the area’s deity, Namahage, run through the streets of the town visiting houses and checking that the children are behaving. If not, it’s said the demons will take them up deep into their mountain homes. During their visit, the demons are gifted sake and mochi from the head of the household, and in exchange for the hospitality, they bless the house with good fortune for the new year. If you’re after truly unforgettable (and maybe a little traumatic) new year celebrations, visit Oga to catch these Japanese boogeymen in action.
19. Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival, Nagano, Chubu (Jan. 15)
This, one of Japan’s most famous fire festivals, sees the streets of Nozawa Onsen Village alight every January in the name of health and prosperity for the area’s firstborn sons. During the festivities, a massive tower is constructed and later rushed by locals wielding burning torches. It’s said it takes around a hundred people to build the tower, which is later demolished in a matter of minutes when — like an ancient Japanese version of Burning Man — the event culminates in a massive bonfire and celebration. Given that it happens during winter, it can be pretty chilly, but don’t worry: there’s plenty of free-flowing sake to keep you warm.
20. Yuki Matsuri, Sapporo, Hokkaido (Jan. 31 to Feb. 11)
Arguably the most famous snow festival in the area, if not all of Japan, it’s said the Sapporo Snow Festival first began in the 1950s and in the time that’s followed it has become a major tourist destination for both local and international travelers. Each year, the iconic snow and ice sculptures carved from Hokkaido’s plentiful frozen resources stand tall united under an overarching theme, which in the past has included historical buildings, cartoon characters and animals.
Taking over the streets of Sapporo, the festival is split up into three different sites: Odori Park, Susukino and Tsudome. Odori Park is the main spot, home to structures as big as real-life buildings. Over at Susukino you’ll find the more delicate ice sculptures. Tsudome is the snow and ice sports hub. As suggested in a previous GaijinPot guide, the place gets pretty packed so to avoid the crowds plan to visit late or early.
21. Snow Light Path Festival, Otaru Hokkaido (Mid-February)
If you want to join in on the snow festivities but the Yuki Matsuri seems a little too much or you’re just chasing something a bit different, consider the Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi (Snow Light Path Festival) as your mainstream alternative. Held in the humble, snowy harbor city of Otaru, the event runs during the same time as its larger contemporary. During this event, the town is illuminated with the warm, reflective, whimsical glow of the snow lanterns weaving between rustic warehouses, the occasional food stand and along the town’s canal in the Unga Kaijo and Temiyasen Kaijo areas.
22. Kanda Matsuri, Tokyo, Kanto (Saturday and Sunday closest to May 15)
Alongside the Sanja and Fukagawa matsuri, the Kanda Matsuri is one of Tokyo’s three largest and most raucous festivals. It’s hosted on odd-numbered years, as its sister festival — the Sanno Matsuri — runs on the next annum. This Shinto celebration is held around Kanda Myojin Shrine in central Tokyo. Richly historic, the festival has roots reaching back to the Edo period and is today a celebration of promised wealth and good fortune for the people of the area. The feature attractions of the matsuri are three elaborately decorated mikoshi that represent the three deities housed in the actual shrine. The mikoshi make a procession through the streets of central Tokyo accompanied by thousands of traditionally dressed festival goers, musicians, and priests on horses — with the ultra-modern Tokyo city skyscrapers as a backdrop. Truly a sight to see.
What’s your favorite festival in Japan, summertime or otherwise? Let us know in the comments!