Japan is a land steeped in tradition. These customs, often centuries old, come to life in vivid detail during Japan’s numerous matsuri, or popular festivals. Traditional costumes and clothing, special and authentic food, and stunning, colorful decorations are facets of each unforgettable festival experience.
The summer months are especially populated by festivals. Many are held outdoors, and favorable weather allows visitors to enjoy the celebrations both day and night. Consider the list below of some of Japan’s most popular summer festivals.
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Mitama Matsuri festival
What: Twenty thousand lanterns light Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine for the four days of the festival. Traditional food stalls offer their fare along the temple’s main alley. Attendees often wear yukata, traditional kimonos made of lightweight cotton. Floats, traditional dance, and theatrical performances contribute to a festive atmosphere.
When: July 13 to 17.
Where: The Yasukuni Jinja Shrine, Tokyo, near Kudanshita Station.
What: The Gion Festival dates back to the ninth century. It is famous for its floats, which may be 25 meters in height and weigh 12 tons. Thirty or more floats may be used, each representing a distinct neighborhood or corporation of Kyoto.
The wheels that mobilize the floats are often as tall as a person. During the height of the festival, traffic is barricaded from Kyoto’s city center to allow stands and yatai stalls containing food and games to be set up. Later, traditional neighborhoods are decorated with flowers, banners, and flags, and illuminated with lanterns. The famous parade begins at the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto’s Gion district. The festival received the designation of “World Intangible Cultural Heritage” event in 2009.
When: The entire month of July; the most popular events occur on July 14 to 17.
Where: The Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto.
What: The Tenjin Matsuri is a boat festival that dates back 1,000 years. The festival is a tribute to arts patron Tenman Tenjin. Festivities involve upwards of 3,000 performers dressed in traditional attire of the 700’s through the 1100’s, who carry portable shrines, or omikoshi, through the city. One hundred boats also set out in procession; as evening falls, fires are lit aboard the boats as fireworks light the night sky.
When: July 24 and 25.
Where: The Tenman Shrine in Osaka.
The Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival
What: The Sumidagawa is the oldest fireworks festival in the world, established in 1732. It celebrates hanabi, Japanese fireworks, and includes fireworks display competitions. The festival attracts one million attendees annually, many of whom dress in traditional yukata kimonos.
When: The last Saturday in July. In the event of rain, the festival will be cancelled.
Where: Tokyo, on the banks of the Sumida River, near the Asakusa district.
Aomori Nebuta Matsuri
What: Considered one of the top three Japanese festivals, the Nebuta festival has been designated as a “World Intangible Cultural Heritage” event. Each evening, parades of dancers carry illuminated floats. The parades last for hours, and on the final day of the festival, fireworks are lit as the floats are literally set afloat on the sea. It is thought that this festival has its origins in the Tanabata Festival, which was appropriated from China during the 700’s.
When: Nightly, from August 2 to 7.
Where: Aomori, Aomori Prefecture.
Awa Odori Matsuri
What: This festival is a part of the Buddhist Obon rites, which bid welcome to the spirits of the dead. It is a holiday of family reunion when the spirits of ancestors are thought to visit household altars. Having been celebrated for over 500 years, it is one of the most famous events in the country, and boasts of being the largest festival. Each evening, the streets are awakened to the sound of drums, shamisen – a traditional guitar-like instrument with three strings – and other instruments. Bon-Odori dancers wear straw hats and yukata kimonos.
When: Nightly, from August 12 to 15.
Where: Tokushima, in the region of Shikoku.
What: Also known as the Festival of the Steel Phallus, this festival is considered one of the more “unusual” and “infamous” of Japan’s summer festivals. Its purpose is to raise money for HIV and AIDS research; therefore, its decorations, candy, and souvenirs are often “modeled after symbols of fertility.”
When: April 2.
Where: Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo.
Summer Sonic Festival
What: Not all of Japan’s festivals are traditional; some celebrate its modern culture as well. The Summer Sonic Festival has been held since 2000 and includes performances by Japan’s most influential music artists, as well as international performers. The event is held in venues in two cities; typically, the same artists perform in each city on alternating days.
When: Mid August; in 2017, the dates are August 18 to 20.
Where: Concurrently in the cities of Osaka and Chiba.
Attending one of more of these festivals will give you a glimpse into authentic Japanese culture. Don’t neglect to use your Japan Rail Pass to travel quickly, easily, and affordably between each of the festival locations.