Summer festivals are one of those few times when the imagined vision of what I believed Japan to be like before I lived here converge with reality.
For about eight weeks, from mid-July to early September, the whole country takes on a festive mood, as people in brightly colored yukata (light cotton summer kimono) fill the streets to dance, drink and soak up the atmosphere as outdoor food grills, beer and sake chills, fireworks burst in the sky and performers fill the streets.
I can’t help but be reminded of that beautiful O-bon (the Japanese Festival of the Dead) dance sequence at the end of The Karate Kid Part II, even if this is probably the only accurate depiction of Japan in that movie.
But, wait, aren’t all the big festivals over already?
Well, for the typical tourist, the likes of the Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka and Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri may be the headline acts. However, if you want to get off the beaten track and find those precious local festivals that aren’t in the guidebooks, then now is the perfect time to visit Kansai. Here is a list of seven of the best.
1) Inaba Umbrella Dance
Parasols in Japan are more than just pretty accessories to keep the baking hot summer sun off your back. For some local festivals, they are also an integral part of the routine. One such festival is the Inaba Umbrella Dance, where groups of dancers assemble with colorful, ornate umbrellas, each covered in more than 100 bells that make gentle yet assertive sounds as they twirl and sway through the motions of the dance. The festival is elegant, colorful and mesmerizing.
- Where: Yokomakura, Tottori City, Tottori Prefecture
- When: Aug. 14
2) Hashira Matsu Festival and Fireworks
Fireworks are a staple of summer festivals in Japan, but the popular ones are overcrowded. However, a smaller, community-based one is in the town of Taiji, on the Pacific coast of Wakayama Prefecture. It spares no expense, however, with a fireworks display to rival the best of them. It boasts pillars of fire that are different from the usual pyres and kanji formations that typically characterize these kinds of festivals. In addition to the classical O-bon dance, visitors to this festival can also enjoy the “whale dance” a ritual unique to this part of Japan, and reflective of the important role marine life plays in the local economy.
- Where: Taiji Town, Wakayama Prefecture
- When: Aug. 15
3) Niko Village Fire Festival
In Japanese, known colloquially as nijyusanya, which literally means “the night of the 23rd,” the primary aim of this festival — given that it falls right in the middle of the O-bon season — is to honor the dearly departed. Assembling on the grounds of Kongo-ji temple, young men from the surrounding area throw torches onto the mountain behind the temple, illuminating the whole area in a sea of flames. If you’ve ever seen a bonfire, then imagine that, but with a whole lot more grace, elegance and majesty.
- Where: Niko Village, Wakayama Prefecture
- When: Aug. 23
4) Kumo-no-hata Matsuge
This fire festival, which has a long and storied history in the city, also has a touch of mystery to it. The various dances, rituals and parades culminate in the members of the participating troupes throwing lit torches onto the main structure to form a kanji character. The kanji that forms in the flames changes each year and the character that will be used is a closely guarded secret — not revealed to the public until it is lit up on the night.
- Where: Kumonohata Cho, Kita Ward, Kyoto City, Kyoto
- When: Aug. 24
5) Kuta Hanagasa Dance
Hanagasa literally means “flower hats.” That alone should probably give you some idea of what to expect at this most unusual of Kyoto festivals. Located in Kuta, in Kyoto’s Sakyo Ward, Shikobuchi Shrine is the venue for this popular annual celebration. Drawing on classical Buddhist traditions, the centerpiece is the Hanagasa Dance. Ten or more young men dance in sequence accompanied by taiko drums and other traditional instruments. As far as festivals in Kyoto go, this may not be the biggest — but it’s certainly the most flamboyant.
- Where: Shikobuchi Jinja, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto Prefecture
- When: Aug. 24
One thing Osaka has no shortage of is O-bon festivals. These annual ceremonies to commemorate the dead have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries. At Kawasegaki however, participants do it just a little differently. This particular rite takes place on a boat, sailing along the Yodo River. From the banks, spectators can enjoy the atmosphere and the various accompaniments, as the dances, prayers and other rituals take place on the nearby boat. Again, this is a rather small scale event but it offers something different and interesting for those who want to celebrate this year’s O-bon in a slightly different way.
- Where: Konohana Ward, Osaka City, Osaka Prefecture
- When: Aug. 26
7) Higumo Jinja Taiko Odori
Taiko drums are perhaps one of Japan’s most famous musical and cultural exports, however, not everyone is aware of the instrument’s significance in local religious festivals.
The Higumo Jinja Taiko Odori is one of thousands of similar festivals held at local shrines all across Japan at this time of year in the hopes of bringing the rains necessary for a successful harvest in the weeks ahead. In addition to the iconic bombast of the drums themselves, the festival also has stalls selling local drinks and delicacies, as well as the usual charms and trinkets one can usually pick up whenever they visit a shrine or temple. The smaller size of this festival gives it a very warm, local feel seldom found at the more publicized events that can often resemble a football stadium crowd.
- Where: Higumo Shrine, Shigaraki, Cho, Koka City, Shiga Prefecture
- When: Sept. 4
Kansai is and always shall be the vibrant, beating heart of Japan. This is just a small sample of the many later summer festivals that the region has to offer.