No matter where you are in the world, festivals are always a calendar event marked in diaries and prepared for months (or even years!) in advance. We love the strong community feel combined with special treats, celebratory activities and a buzzing atmosphere – with Japan being one such country that showcases 200,000 festivals every year! Although there are deep roots linked to China, Japan’s festivals (or matsuri in Japanese) have evolved over the centuries to include their own customs and traditions nowadays. Most festivals are based around a particular temple or shrine, honouring their ancestors, spirits and Gods. With so many special occasions, we’ve picked just 8 festivals for you to celebrate in Japan!
1. Yuki Matsuri
Sapporo’s Snow Festival has come a long way since it began in 1950 – from a one-day event with six local high school students each building a snow statue in Odori Park, to a seven-day event with around 400 statues built across several locations! Held annually in February, Yuki Matsuri often works to a theme. For example, in 2004 many statues of Hideki Matsui were built – a famous Japanese baseball player who (at the time) played for the New York Yankees.
2. Nachi Fire Festival
Every year, July 14 marks the date of the flaming Nachi Fire Festival. Famously known as one of three major fire festivals, the Nachi Fire Festival is held in the Kumano mountains located towards the bottom of Japan’s largest island, Honshu. The festival is centred around the Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine with people gathering to celebrate the return of the deity who lives in the shrine to the nearby Nachi waterfall (iconic for being Japan’s highest at 133 metres). It’s certainly a memorable scene to watch 12 huge pine torches – weighing almost 50 kilograms – being carried from the shrine to the waterfall to purify the path and burn away the sins of the past year.
3. Awa Odori
Make way for Japan’s most popular dance festival! Located in Tokushima City, Awa is the former name for the Tokushima Prefecture, while Odori translates to ‘dance’. Held between 12 – 15 August, streets are blocked off in the downtown area for groups to perform through in a procession with traditional musical instruments, culminating in the city centre transformed into a large dance stage. With both professional and casual dancers involved, you won’t be short of entertainment during this toe-tapping festival!
While Holland celebrates tulip season, Japan celebrates sakura (cherry blossom) season. As the national flower, it’s no surprise that a Hanami Festival exists to celebrate such a beautiful time of year. Dictated by Mother Nature, hanami is planned once the annual blossom forecast is announced. Dating back to the Nara Period, the tradition of hanami started due to a belief that deities were enshrined in the sakura trees so farmers would pray to the blossoms to increase their harvest. Nowadays, hanami is also a celebration for the beginning of a new season – what a beautiful way to welcome in spring!
Stemming from Buddhist customs, Obon is a festival and holiday for the Japanese to celebrate their ancestors returning to visit. During this time in mid-August, many traditions take place which are to honour their loved ones’ spirits – such as hanging lanterns outside your house to guide them home, and the cleaning of their grave sites. It’s a busy time for travel within Japan so take note if you’re visiting around this time of year.
6. Gion Matsuri
Dating back to 869, Kyoto dedicates each July to Gion Matsuri. The festival of Yasaka Shrine has held a formidable, almost uninterrupted, history through the ages. While composed of a series of different events, we would recommend timing your visit with this historic festival’s ultimate Yamaboko Junko event on July 17 – a huge procession of floats along a 3-kilometre route. The word ‘yamaboko’ refers to the two types of floats of which there are 23 yama and 10 boko. The hoko is what makes Gion Matsuri so famous as these floats can measure up to 25 metres tall, weigh up to almost 11,000 kilograms and are pulled on wheels as tall as a person!
7. Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri
Found deep in southern Osaka, the small city of Kishiwada is home to an epic bi-annual wooden float (danjiri) festival. 34 teams (one from each neighbourhood) compete in a thrilling race through the streets with risky corner turns along the route. Each team is comprised of the carpenters and locals who will either ride on the float, pull the ropes in front of the float, or operate the levers to control the float…and we can’t forget the prime position – one daring person is chosen to stand on the roof of the danjiri to perform a fan dance while jumping from side to side to help shift the weight while turning corners! If you’re lucky enough to attend, make sure you arrive in plenty of time to sample all the tasty food stalls for lunch.
Last but not least, who could forget Shogatsu (or, the New Year)? As with many other countries around the world, the new year period of 1 – 3 January is deemed to set the tone for the rest of the year so should be filled with joy, free of stress, anger and work. Most businesses will shut down over this time giving families the chance to visit their local shrine or temple and share in special dishes like toshikoshi soba (symbolising longevity).