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Culture

5 Must-See Charming Spring Festivals in Japan

Spring is astonishingly beautiful in Japan, and what better way to celebrate than at one of these unique and fun shrine festivals?

By 4 min read

Spring is undoubtedly one of the best times of the year to travel in Japan. With warm temperatures at last, the flowers are in bloom, and it feels like the whole country has come out to celebrate. Of course, hanami (flower viewing) is a big part. After you’ve got your sakura (cherry blossoms) on, there are plenty of festivals to visit, with seemingly every neighborhood bursting into the streets, dancing and partying.

Shinto shrines are no exception; many have their biggest festivals in April and May. Of course, tokyo-ites will already know about Asakusa’s Sanja Matsuri (festival) and Kanda Matsuri at Kanda Myojin. Still, here are five shrine festivals in other parts of the country for those who are after something a little more charming. From period costume parades to a sacred procession under the cherry trees, there’s something here for everyone.

1. Inuyama Festival (Aichi)

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The floats are spectacular at night!

Inuyama is a cute little town in northern Aichi Prefecture. It’s known for its castle, Inuayama-jo (the country’s oldest extant castle), cormorant river fishing, and Inuyama Festival. Taking place the first weekend of every April, it sees the town area just below the castle transformed into a parade route for 13 massive floats.

Held every year since 1635, the parade begins at Haritsuna Shrine, at the base of the castle hill. Called yama, the triple-layered floats—each more than 25 feet (eight meters) tall and weighing a whopping five tons—are pulled through the town accompanied by the beat of taiko drums and the trilling of Japanese flutes. At the top of each float stands a karakuri, a Japanese mechanical automaton. The festivities continue into the night, with each float illuminated by 365 lanterns.

2. Tejikara Fire Festival (Gifu)

Photo:
Some like it hot.

Across the Kiso River from Inuyama is Gifu Prefecture. Taking place on the second Saturday of April is Gifu City’s Tejikara Fire Festival. The name is not a metaphor – fire is falling from the sky here.

At nightfall, a 20-meter-high sparks waterfall transforms the Tejikarao Shrine grounds. These rain down onto a portable shrine held aloft and jostled by a team of men stripped to the waist. Then, as if a rain of fire weren’t enough, the falling sparks ignite gunpowder hidden in the portable shrine, sending more fire into the air. The whole time, men dance around the perimeter, clanging bells and lighting firecrackers. As Gifu City’s Japanese language website states, “visitors are sure to become intoxicated by the fire and noise.”

3. Kumano Hongu Taisha Festival (Wakayama)

If the Tejikara Fire Festival sounds too intense, try heading to southern Wakayama for the Kumano Hongu Taisha Festival. With its ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, the Kumano area is one of the most sacred in Japan, and Kumano Hongu Shrine is at the center. The festival attracts fewer tourists than others on this list, so it’s the perfect way to experience a local festival.

Starting on April 13, fathers and their young sons bathe in the sacred waters surrounding Oyunohana, the former site of the shrine before it was washed away by a flood and also home to Japan’s largest torii shrine gate. They then walk a short section of the Kumano Kodo, with the fathers carrying their children – forbidden from touching the ground – the whole way. The events continue at Oyunohara on the 15th, with a mikoshi, or portable shrine, and Yamabushi mountain ascetics performing a fire ritual.

4. Sihakusai Dekayama Festival (Ishikawa)

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The biggest matsuri floats you’ll see in Japan.

Loved Inuyama Festival and can’t get enough of those giant floats? Ishikawa’s Seihakusai Dekayama Festival is for you. Taking place in Nanao City and centered around Otokonushi Shrine, it features not just yama but dekayama. These giant floats, the biggest in Japan, stand almost 40 feet (12 meters) tall and weigh over 20 tons each!

The festival’s highlight is when the many floats are pulled through the town. Rounding corners is particularly challenging, with the front wheels lifted and a turning wheel locked into place – all by manpower alone. Want to pull one of these yourself? Visitors are encouraged to help out as well.

5. Aoi Matsuri (Kyoto)

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Performers dressed in Heian-period clothing.

Kyoto’s Aoi Matsuri is ancient. A procession from the Imperial Palace to two of the city’s most important shrines, Shimogamo and Kamigamo, it’s been held every year since the Heian period in the 8th century.

Every year on May 15, an entourage of participants dressed in Heian clothing set out from the site of the former Imperial Palace, stopping along the way at the two shrines to perform rites. There are actually two processions, with the male Imperial Messengers accompanying court nobles and soldiers first, followed later by the Imperial Princesses, noble women, ladies in waiting, and miko (priestesses). Keep an eye out for the ox carts, the famous mode of transportation for important people in the Heian period.

Is there a local shrine festival that more people should know about? Let us know in the comments.

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