Summer is the perfect time to fall in love with Japan. The locals prepare to don their kimonos and yukatas, and music fills the streets. The biggest traditional festivals held in Japan usually occur between June and August every year. The weather is blisteringly hot but that doesn’t stop everyone from celebrating to their fullest.
If you want to truly immerse yourself in Japanese culture and tradition, festivals (known as matsuri in Japanese) will be the perfect place to start. Just stay hydrated and you’ll be good to go.
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1. Akita Kanto Matsuri
The Akita Kanto Matsuri is a tradition carried out only in Akita prefecture in the Tohoku region. The festival involves the lifting of pole lanterns which weigh up to 70kg up to 12 metres into the air. These poles are balanced on one’s forehead, back or shoulders with proper technique.
Kanto teams from Akita will gather every year to test their strength through lifting these poles the highest that they can. The lifting is usually accompanied by melodies played on taiko drums and flutes turning the display into a wonderful performance.
Although the festival starts in the day, the performances become enchanting at night when the lanterns are lit up and paraded throughout the city.
Awards are then given to Kanto teams that are the most technically proficient in both lifting and music playing at the end of the festival.
Why you should go: The festival is a display of miraculous strength and synchronisation. There is a high risk of danger (poles may collapse as they stack them higher) and that itself gives the audience a rush as the lanterns attempt to pierce the sky.
- When: 3 – 6 August
- Where: Akita
2. Aomori Nebuta Matsuri
The Aomori Nebuta Matsuri is also held up north in the Tohoku region, just above the prefecture of Akita. Intricate and colourful floats made out of mostly bamboo and paper are paraded throughout the city.
Many of the iconic bamboo floats feature demons or deities which may look terrifying yet hauntingly beautiful at the same time. At night, lanterns or lights are placed within the floats to illuminate the parade.
The festival is also accompanied by a fireworks display during the procession.
Why you should go: If you’re a fan of the caricatures and statues at Haw Par Villa, this is definitely a bigger and much more colourful spectacle.
- When: 2 – 7 August
- Where: Aomori
3. Gion Matsuri
This is arguably the most famous festival in the whole of Japan. It takes place over the span of a month in Kyoto with different events being held on each day.
One highlight is the Yamaboko Junko which is the procession of floats in mid-July. The floats are very intricate and can be as high as 25 metres. They are usually elaborately decorated according to a theme and can weigh up to 12 tons!
Another reason for the fame is the longevity of the festival as it dates back as far the 9th century. It was originally held as a means to appease the gods when an epidemic broke out. Traditions from back then have also carried on till today with many floats being built without the use of modern tools such as nails.
Why you should go: Nothing is grander than a celebration that lasts for a month. There is a myriad of events that occur throughout the whole month which will appeal to different audiences.
- When: 1 – 31 July
- Where: Kyoto
4. Tenjin Matsuri
The Tenjin Matsuri is another festival with a long history of more than 10 centuries. Unlike many other festivals, the Tenjin festival has a river procession.
Celebrations honour the god of learning, Sugawara no Michizane who was a scholar, poet and politician in the Heian Period. At the start of the festival, the deity is invited out of the Tenmangu Shrine and is paraded throughout the city.
Celebrations, performances and activities are held throughout the parade to entertain the deity before he is paraded back into the shrine. You can expect to see colourful traditional costumes and a lively atmosphere.
Why you should go: River processions with fireworks are not a common sight. Plus, there’s a chance that knowledge from the god of learning may rub off on you.
- When: 24 – 25 July
- Where: Osaka
5. Tokushima Awa Odori
Get groovy at Tokushima Awa Odori, arguably the largest dancing festival in Japan. Named as the “Fool’s Dance”, dance groups from all over Japan and even other parts of the world come together to perform.
The dance groups will be decked out in all kinds of traditional clothes and will be accompanied by traditional music. Expect to see different dance styles, techniques and skill levels! There will be many different stages for the performances with some being accessible only to paying visitors.
Why you should go: The festival is greatly interactive as many groups will be performing simple dance routines which you will be able to follow even if you have two left feet. No one will judge you if you dance like a fool.
- When: 12 – 15 August
- Where: Tokushima
6. Hanagasa Matsuri
The Hanagasa Matsuri is a festival to pay respect to the festival god, Zao. A float of Zao will be paraded throughout Yamagata with the support of dancers in colourful garbs. Hanagasa translates into flower umbrella which is an iconic performance piece in the festival.
Much like the Tokushima Awa Odori, visitors can join the dancing and the parade freely!
Why you should go: The festival is a colourful spectacle which is generally lighthearted and cheerful. You can also get yourself a hanagasa as a souvenir to bring home.
- When: 5 – 7 August
- Where: Yamagata
7. Sendai Tanabata Matsuri
The Tanabata Matsuri in Sendai is another great summer festival held in the Tohoku region. Tanabata loosely translates to star and celebrates the meeting of the stars Altair (Hikoboshi) and Vega (Orihime) on the 7th day of the 7th month on the Chinese lunar calendar every year.
The festival is easily recognised by the long colourful streamers which are hung along shopping arcades. There will also be many food stalls serving local delicacies, especially for the event.
Another tradition of the Tanabata festival in Sendai is hanging strips of colourful paper filled with your written wishes on bamboo trees.
Why you should go: The colourful streamers are great for the ‘gram and create a youthful atmosphere perfect for the season of summer.
- When: 6 – 8 August
- Where: Sendai
8. Mitama Matsuri
The Mitama Matsuri is held during Obon, a practice to honour ancestors and family who have passed on already. Although Obon is now usually held during August, it was usually held in the middle of July back in the olden days.
Every year, the festival takes place at the Yasukuni Shrine which commemorates those who died defending the country in war.
Despite the sombre meaning of the event, the occasion is well known for the illuminating lanterns that line the path towards the Yasukuni Shrine. We’re talking about over 30,000 lanterns lighting up the path. You can even have your own lamp to be put together with the rest for a fee.
Why you should go: The lanterns create a magical scene at night and the event is more peaceful as compared to other festivals. You cannot bring in alcohol has been banned to the festival grounds and food stalls no longer line the path as a sign of respect.
- When: 13 – 16 July
- Where: Tokyo
9. Soma Nomaoi Matsuri
Out of all the festivals on this list, the Soma Nomaoi Matsuri is possibly the most thrilling and exciting one. It is filed with men on horses dressed in samurai armour. The festival has a history of over 1000 years and still attracts thousands to Fukushima.
Originally the festival was a tradition carried out by samurai warriors who used their cavalry to hunt wild horses. These horses once captured would then be given as offerings.
Kacchu Keiba is easily the most exciting event of the festival in which “samurai” with ancestral flags on their back race each other on a track. In this day and age, this is possibly the only time you get to see samurais test their horses against each other in the whole world.
Why you should go: Nowhere else will you be able to see fully clad samurais doing samurai things, especially at such a grand scale. Be transported back in time as you witness feudal Japan in the flesh.
- When: End of July
- Where: Fukushima
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