11 Festivals That Will Help You Experience the Real Japan
Countless festivals (matsuri) take place in Japan each year, with processions, costumes, floats, portable shrines, ceremonies, traditional foods, fireworks, music, and dance. Many celebrate spiritual traditions and deities, offering respect, gratitude, and hope for the future.
In addition to religious festivals, there are holidays, military events, competitions, and celebrations to honor the beauty of nature, cherry blossoms, or winter snowfall. The festivals, many over 1,000 years old, showcase Japanese culture, history, and community.
Sapporo Snow Festival
The popular Sapporo Snow Festival, held annually in early February, attracts more than 2 million visitors each year who come to marvel at snow sculptures, some over 50 feet high, depicting superheroes and popular characters. In Odori Park, the main area of three festival sites, over 100 snow sculptures are illuminated each evening, creating a magical world. The other sites feature snow slides, sledding, family activities, and ice sculptures. Warm drinks and foods keep visitors cozy and happy as they enjoy the festivities.
Chichibu Night Festival
Colorful floats and lanterns mark this early December festival at Tokyo’s Chichibu Shrine honoring the Japanese god for his protection. This two-day festival dates back at least 300 years, with massive, ornate floats, some with kabuki stages and performances, being pulled along the main avenue accompanied by drums and flutes. Hot rice wine fortifies the spectators as they watch the floats’ journey culminating in a celebration and fireworks display that lasts over two hours.
This month-long July festival in Kyoto originated as a religious ritual in response to a plague throughout Japan around the year 869. Now the city’s largest annual festival, Gion Matsuri celebrates Kyoto’s culture and history. Processions of floats, street food, beer, and traditional yukata robes attract locals and visitors alike. Some of Kyoto’s oldest families display their treasures in front of their homes or shops for the public to admire. The event is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Held in Osaka every year on July 24 and 25, Tenjin Matsuri honors Sugawara No Michizane, Japan’s god of learning and art. Originated in the 10th century, the festival begins with a ritual at the Tenmangu Shrine and prayers for the safety and prosperity of Osaka. Thousands of locals participate in a procession dressed in traditional clothing with drummers, dancers, and performers. At night, they continue with a procession of more than 100 illuminated boats on the Okawa River and a lengthy fireworks display.
Nada no Kenka Matsuri
Called the “fighting festival at Himeji,” this event is celebrated every year on Oct. 14 and 15 in the Kansai region of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. Participants (men only) carry beautiful floats representing their districts with one district honored to carry portable shrines (mikoshi). After a purification ceremony for participants, over 100,000 spectators head to a huge arena where the fights take place. With few rules, the mikoshi and floats are smashed into each other in a boisterous event illuminated by lanterns.
This dance festival held each August in Tokushima on the island of Shikoku features groups of dancers called Ren performing on seven stages for audiences of more than 1 million spectators. Traditional instruments such as shamisen (a string instrument), flutes, drums, and bells accompany the dancers who must audition for their spot at Awa Odori. Men in tabi footgear and women in kimono and wooden sandals perform folk dances, some with acrobatic elements.
Cherry blossom festivals take place throughout Japan at various times during spring, with Mother Nature setting her own schedule each year. The sakura, or cherry blossom, is the national flower of Japan, and the custom of hanami is the ancient tradition of enjoying the beauty of the blossoms. Said to date back more than 1,000 years, appreciation of the short-lived blossoms also has spiritual significance in Buddhist themes of mortality and living in the present moment.
Omizutori is held during the first two weeks of March in the city of Nara on Honshu. One of Buddhism’s oldest events, the tradition involves lighting giant fire torches and hanging them from the balcony of the Todaiji Temple, showering embers onto the participants on the ground. People attend the ceremony for good luck and protection from evil as well as to be cleansed of their sins as they anticipate the fresh start of spring and the return of the cherry blossoms.
This mid-May festival in Tokyo takes place in odd-numbered years. Numerous events, including processions and parades with ornate portable shrines, take place over a week. On the first day of Kanda Matsuri, parade participants wear clothing from the Heian period: colorful, ornate, many-layered kimonos and luxurious designs. Shinto rituals invite the spirits into the shrines for the main procession of over 100 floats prepared by the various towns, celebrating wealth and good fortune.
Originating with the Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of the dead, Obon has become a time for many Japanese to return to their hometowns and to visit ancestral graves. Traditions and dates vary by region, but the festivals usually take place during July and August. Obon has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years based on the belief that the ancestors’ spirits return to this world to visit their families. Lanterns are hung outside houses to guide the spirits, and traditional dances and songs are performed.
Usually held late in July, this three-day celebration of martial skill and horsemanship dates back more than 1,000 years. Samurai in colorful traditional costumes with flags representing their cities parade on horseback to open Soma Nomaoi. The event continues with armored battles on horseback, each team seeking to capture the others’ flags. Horse races on a 1,000-meter track and a competition that involves capturing unsaddled horses barehanded are other festival events set in the Soma District, a horse-breeding region in northeast Honshu.