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Ultimate Guide to Japanese Festivals

By Emily Talbot | December 14, 2021

If you’ve recently moved to Japan or are considering doing so, you’re unlikely to miss a festival.

While Covid-19 cancelled or postponed those scheduled for 2020 and 2021, many Japanese festivals are showing signs of resuming in smaller numbers as soon as it is safe to do so. Normally, there are several underway at one given time in Japan, with over 200,000 matsuri occurring annually. 

What springs to mind when you picture Japanese festivals? Packed processions, spectacular shows, colourful costumes and the thick aroma of hot food? Indeed- these are all part of the fizzing festival atmosphere, but no festival experience is quite the same. Some are intimate and exclusive, while others attract millions and cost millions more. Some are deeply structured and rooted in tradition, while others are characteristically wild and free. In short, every Japanese festival is wonderfully unique!

There’s lots of variance between regions too, with each prefecture putting its unique spin on national celebrations. In this article, I’ll explore the many curious and colourful facets of Japanese festivals (祭り, matsuri), offering advice to enhance your experience and help you fully immerse yourself in the festivities while respecting Japanese customs. 

Festivals are an integral part of Japanese culture and identity at both national and local levels. Local festivals have specific historical, cultural and religious significance to the prefecture’s communities. Prefectures even observe national celebrations, such as Japanese New Year (正月, Shōgatsu), slightly different from one another.

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    Types of Japanese festivals

    Shrine festivals

    Shrine festivals (祭り, matsuri) are a modern-day demonstration of historic Shintō rituals and harvest celebrations that give thanks to the shrine’s deity (kami – 神 (かみ) for bringing prosperity to its people.

    The main formal event of any shrine festival is the mikoshi (神輿) parade. Typically, a crowd of traditionally-dressed locals slowly proceed down the street carrying an ornately decorated portable shrine (神輿, mikoshi), singing energy-filled chants in unison. At the end of the parade, they place the mikoshi at a temporary location until the festival is nearing its end and they return it to its home shrine.

    Carrying the kami (divine spirit or god) across town is thought to bring renewed prosperity to local businesses and their people. Carriers of the mikoshi are typically local volunteers of the Shintō faith, so unless you are a local, you are best to spectate from the side. Only try your hand at carrying the mikoshi upon invitation- which you need not feel obliged to accept.

    It’s hard to be bored at a matsuri, because there’s so much to do! Matsuri can last from several days up to a week, giving you plenty of time to indulge in the food at the yatai (stalls) surrounding the shrine grounds or to try your luck at winning a prize from a festival game. Maybe you’d prefer to watch some traditional Japanese dancing and then head to a pop-up souvenir shop to purchase a mask? 

    When you’re not busy, take a second to relish the sounds and smells around you. That’s the best way to capture the festival magic.

    shrine japanese festival mikoshi

    Secular festivals

    Instead of celebrating deities, non-religious Japanese festivals commemorate important historical, cultural or seasonal events. Japanese Public Holidays always merit grand festivals of their own, such as Japanese New Year (お正月, Shogatsu). However, many of Japan’s most famous festivals are unique to specific regions, so you have to travel if you want to see them.

    Dance festivals (踊り祭り, odori-matsuri) are held during summer and springtime, featuring spectacular street parades with traditional Japanese music, costume and immaculately choreographed dances. The largest of these- the Awa Dance Festival- attracted crowds of over 1.5 million before Covid.

    Seasonal festivals celebrate changes in nature. Summer and spring festivals are known simply as matsuri, while Aki-matsuri (秋祭り) are fall festivals and Fuyu-matsuri (冬祭り) are winter festivals. Unlike shrine festivals, many seasonal festivals are quite laid back. For example, Japan’s cherry blossom festival (桜祭り, sakura matsuri) doesn’t really have a schedule, so you can do what you want within the festival’s time window. 

    One of Japan’s largest and brightest springtime festivals, sakura matsuri invites people to participate in hanami(花見), “flower viewing”. For the week that sakura is in full bloom, people head to the park with family, friends, or a special someone for a picnic under the sakura trees! If you go, take food and drink, or share a barbecued lunch! Don’t forget to take some pictures of the beautiful surroundings. You can also take a boat trip in the middle of Tokyo to get that perfect “insta-bai” shot.

    Japanese art festivals

    Japanese people are hugely appreciative of art. Beyond Tokyo’s and Osaka’s galleries and museums, art is celebrated extensively at festivals, pop-up art installations, art triennials... You name it, Japan has got it. 

    Check out Kagawa’s year-long Setouchi Triennale, now one of Japan’s most influential celebrations of contemporary art. Large sculptures and outdoor artworks are dotted around numerous islands in the Seto Inland Sea. The triennial festival will next show in 2022. Most people go to see the stunning art and stay for the enchanting landscape- what’s not to love? 

    Are you an anime fan? If you didn’t know already, a massive Studio Ghibli Park is set to open in 2023 in one of Nagoya’s parks. They are even planning to build a life-sized Howl’s Castle!

    Music festivals, massive all-day outdoor ones that welcome both Japanese and international acts are becoming increasingly popular in Japan. It’s not just Tokyo that attracts big names! The annual two-day rock festival Summer Sonic Festival is a highly anticipated concert for rock-lovers. 

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    Can I wear a kimono/yukata at Japanese festivals?

    The short answer is yes- so long as you wear it respectfully. The Japanese don’t usually expect spectators to follow a dress code, so if you would feel more comfortable watching a mikoshi parade in casual clothes, that’s okay! But there’s nothing stopping you from taking that extra step and putting on a kimono or yukata. Be mindful that older Japanese people might not be so pleased to see a yukata worn with sneakers, or to see it incorrectly tied. If you are respectful, it’s highly unlikely you will be accused of cultural appropriation. 

    You may be wondering which to wear - a kimono or yukata. Traditional kimono (着物) are equipped with more layers to shelter wearers from harsh winters, while yukata (浴衣 ) are made from a single layer of fabric. Yukata are lightweight, versatile, “summer kimonos”, making them perfect for wearing during a hot summer festival. They are also often worn during downtime, unlike kimono. Both garments are traditionally secured at the waist by a wide under-sash and obi (帯) belt or tasuki (襷). If you’re wearing a kimono, you should have a go at stomping around in the classic wooden shoes - (木屐/下駄, geta). Their platform heel is designed to keep your feet free from snowy weather.  If you find that after trying them you struggle to find your balance, try the flatter zori (草履) sandals instead.

    Yukata and kimono are worn by men, women and children. You can purchase yukata between June and September in kimono stores and department stores such as Don Quixote and UNIQLO that sell yukata, obi and geta sets for around ¥4000. Upscale boutiques can charge upwards of ¥80,000 for new, but cheaper versions can be purchased year-round in secondhand stores and touristy areas for as little as ¥1000. 

    If you’re in Tokyo and want to make an easy purchase, head to Oriental Bazaar. Their multilingual signs and huge clothing range makes buying the right outfit easy. If you’re buying a costume for a particular season, remember to match the colours to the season. 

    What makes Japanese festivals unique?

    Entertaining music

    At Shintō festivals, divine processions are accompanied by a small ensemble of instruments called matsuri-bayashi (祭囃子). Traditional matsuri-bayashi include bamboo flutes, two taiko (stick drums), an o-daiko (barrel drum) and an atarigane (small hand gong). Watch this snippet from the 2015 Sanja Matsuri procession at Tokyo’s Asakusa Temple to hear the steady pulse of the drumbeat.

    Group dances

    All festivals feature some form of traditional Japanese dancing- whether it be for a procession or an onstage performance. Some group dances are open to anyone who wants to give them a try, so you might want to consult a local or, if it comes to it, ask Google.

    Bon Odori (盆踊り) is a communal dance practised during the Buddhist Obon holiday in August to honour spirits and ancestors. The exact choreography and style of celebration vary from region to region. Watch a group perform some moves at an Obon festival here!

    Awa Odori (阿波踊り) is the most famous dance festival celebrated during Japan’s mid-August Obon season. Pre-Covid, the feat attracted over 1.3 million tourists annually. The dance is practised when large troupes of dancers and musicians parade through “choreographed zones” on city streets. Watch several groups perform versions of awa odori at the Awa Odori Festival here!

    Yosakoi (よさこい) is a dance that has grown to become incredibly popular and performed at festivals across the country. Large teams often perform the highly energetic dance in matching costumes, keeping in time to watch the beat of naruko (small wooden clappers). Yosakoi mixes traditional Japanese choreography with popular music. In Japanese towns and cities, it is considered a competitive sport. Around 100 teams try to outdance each other at Tokyo’s annual Super Yosakoi, and similarly, Sapporo’s May Yosakoi-Soran features performances to celebrate the coming of spring. 

    Japanese festival woman dancing

    Vivid decorations

    Japanese festivals are always beautifully lit, be it with lanterns, fairy lights or fireworks. Lanterns and lights are the central symbols of some of Japan’s largest festivals, such as the Nagasaki Lantern Festival (長崎ランタンフェスティバル) where over 15,000 colourful lanterns and lights decorate the city for two weeks to celebrate Chinese New Year. 

    Elaborate floats and their stunning designs are also synonymous with Japanese festivals. Never the same, each float’s design is intentionally detailed to reflect the season and the reason for celebrating. Many festivals end with awe-inspiring fireworks displays. Firework festivals (祭囃子, hanabi)  such as the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival (隅田川花火大会, Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai) that go off along Tokyo’s Sumida River in July. These magnificent million-dollar displays can last for several hours.

    Traditional costumes 

    As I mentioned above, kimono and yukata are the traditional attire for Japanese festivals. Festival costumes are different at each festival and usually have unique colour schemes and motifs. Nearly always, members of the procession and the mikoshi carriers have matching outfits. Pick out the most appropriate outfit using this guide on what to wear at a matsuri.

    yukata kimono obi Japanese festivals women

    Games and souvenirs

    Goldfish scooping (金魚すくい, kingyo sokui) is a traditional game found at many Japanese festivals. Players use a fragile paper net (ポイ, poi) given to them by the referee to scoop the goldfish into a bowl. If your net breaks, it’s the next player’s turn. But if you manage to get the goldfish into the bowl, it’s yours to keep! Check out a game in action here.

    Yo-yo fishing (ヨーヨーつり, yo-yo tsuri) is another popular scooping game requiring a nuanced technique. The aim of the game is to lift the small water balloon out of the water using a metal hooked “fishing pole” before the paper on the balloon disintegrates. 

    Gun-shooting (射的, shateki). Shateki is not dissimilar to the gun-shooting games you'll find at a Western carnival. To play, you shoot cork bullets from a toy gun to hit targets behind the stall. If you hit a target, whatever’s behind it you will win!

    Toys and masks. Most Japanese festivals have souvenir shops dotted between food and game stalls. Keep the festival memories by buying something from the array of stuffed toys, trinkets and souvenirs. You’ll likely see children and adults carrying anime toys and wearing kamen (plastic masks) depicting popular television characters, anime or animal faces.

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    What kind of food is available at Japanese festivals?  

    Food stalls (屋台, yatai) at Japanese festivals are easily one of the best places to try authentic savoury and sweet Japanese cuisine. There’s so much food to choose from, and you’ll likely get to watch it being made right in front of you. Yatai food rarely costs over  ¥1000, with the standard price being approximately ¥500. What mouth-watering delights might be on offer?

    Yakitori

    Yakitori (焼き鳥) is in essence, chicken skewers. Literally meaning “grilled bird”, yakitori is made by grilling bite-sized, skewered chicken pieces and coating them in salty or sweet and salty sauce. Some are made from chicken liver and cartilage, wings, thigh and breast. No need to worry if you aren’t too keen on cartilage. You can choose which kind of yakitori you want.

    Yakisoba

    Yakisoba (焼きそば) is so synonymous with the Japanese festival that you would be pressed to find one without it. Yakisoba (fried noodles) typically come in a steamed heap that has been stirred with pork strips and cabbage. They usually come sprinkled with benishoga (pickled ginger), katsuobushi (bonito flakes), and aonori (powdered seaweed). It’s perfectly fine if you want to top it all off with a generous dollop of mayonnaise!

    Ikayaki

    Ikayaki (烏賊焼) is grilled squid- another very popular snack found at matsuri yatai (festival stalls).  Ikayaki normally comes on sticks and is doused in soy sauce. It can be served in different forms- as sliced squid body rings, a whole squid body or just the tentacles! Usually, a stall will have at least two options to choose from.

    yakisoba noodles Japan

    Okonomiyaki

    Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) is an omelette-like dish containing cabbage, pork and sweet sauce that exudes an irresistible aroma. There are no limits to what ingredients you can use to make the dish, which is why okonomiyaki literally means “grilled as you like it”. Vendors tend to cook the okonomiyaki in batches because the cooking process takes some time. But don’t worry- you’ll get it served to you piping hot and cooked to perfection. 

    Gyutan

    A favourite during summer, gyutan (牛タン) is gyu (cow) and tan (tongue) - cow tongue! Like in yakitori restaurants, festival food stalls barbecue the thinly-sliced gyutan before flavouring it with salt, yuzu kosho (citrus pepper) and yuzu juice. It may be served to you by itself, with a donburi (rice bowl), bento, as a curry or a stew. As you might expect, the dish has not always been well-loved. It was not until it was first served at a yakitori restaurant in Sendai, 1950, that the Japanese warmed to it and gradually introduced it to standard yakitori menus.

    Karaage

    You’ve probably had this one before. Karaage (唐揚げ) is a kind of Japanese fried chicken that is the perfect mix of crunchy and juicy. Before being deep-fried, the chicken pieces are left to soak up a soy sauce and sake marinade. Often likened to the American nugget, these superior bite-sized treats are great with mayonnaise or almost any sauce you can think of. If you’ve got a low spice tolerance and you’re served spicy karaage, you’d be best to opt for a creamier or sweeter sauce to cool the tongue down. Expect it to come to you in a pot or in cone-shaped paper, with a chopstick for cutlery.

    Takoyaki

    Takoyaki (たこ焼き) is a bite-sized pancake ball filled with tako (cooked octopus) from Osaka. Its round shape is formed by cooking it on a special iron grill. Takoyaki is often served with takoyaki sauce, which tastes similar to Worcestershire sauce. A sprinkling of katsuobushi and dried seaweed usually goes on top, with additional toppings welcome, including Japanese mayonnaise and beni shoga (red pickled ginger), and even cheese welcome!

    Sweets such as cotton candy, taiyaki and kakigori are also common sights at Japanese festivals. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Sweets to get an idea of what you can expect of their appearance and taste!

    Top 10 traditional Japanese festivals by region

    Osaka - Tenjin Matsuri

    When: July 24 and 25, annually
    Where: Beginning at Tenmangu Shrine
    Main attractions: July 25 - land procession and river procession with fireworks

    This festival honours the Tenmangu Shrine’s main deity- the deity of scholarship.  The traditional procession out of the shrine, around the city, and back to the shrine involves lively dancing and singing. Preparations for the festival include river prayers and rituals at the shrine. Drums sound to signal the day is over, and resound the following day to start the large land procession. 

    Notable features of the parade include Sarutahiko, a goblin on a horse, and the large float coloured with lion dancers, umbrella dancers and festival music. In the early evening, the mikoshi (portable shrines) move onto boats and parade down the river, followed by boats with Noh and Bunraku performers. You can enjoy this entertainment from the riverside between stops at the food stalls. To end the evening, tremendous fireworks light up the sky from 7:30pm to 9pm.

    Yokohama- Sparkling Twilight

    When: Two days in mid-July
    Where: Yamashita Park
    Main attractions: Over 3,000 fireworks, themed parades, live music and drink.

    At this spectacular event, bar and restaurant stalls are set up from the late morning, for those keen to get started early. However, the real magic happens later on in the day and into the night. Off the shore of Yamashita Park, the mikoshi parade goes through every district of Yokohama, followed by a river parade. At night, you can enjoy the glow of the illuminated ships, the music, food and drink before the fireworks kick off at 7:30 pm.

    Nagoya- Nagoya Matsuri 

    When: Mid-October weekend, annually
    Where: Multiple locations
    Main attractions: Parades of large floats down Nagoya’s main streets.

    On the second day, participants in samurai costumes, including the “Procession of the Three Feudal Lords” parade through the streets of Nagoya. Throughout the weekend there are also marching bands, flower parades, open-car parades, floats with kagura music and dance, and numerous children’s activities. Check out their website for photos of what to expect.

    pretty fireworks sparkle japan

    Hokkaido - Yuki Matsuri

    When: First Saturday of February- second Saturday
    Where: Odori Park, Susukino site, Tsudome site
    Main attractions: Ice and snow sculpting 

    What began in the 1950s as a high-school ice-sculpting game has grown to become a significant cultural event. Yuki Matsuri attracts over two million foreigners and Japanese visitors in a typical year. “Sapporo Snow Festival” (さっぽろ雪まつ) is held at three main sites- each offering unique activities. At Odori Park, you can zoom around the skating rink, marvel at the 1.5 kilometre world of snow and ice, and indulge in local food stalls. At the Susukino Site, you can get involved in a massive snow and ice sculpture-making competition and enjoy the lit-up statues. The Tsudome Site is great for kids and their parents who just want to play in the snow! When it gets chilly, you can head inside for a hearty meal and rest.

    Kyoto - Gion Matsuri

    When: All of July
    Where: Opposite side of Kamo River to the city
    Main attractions: Yamaboko Junko (the grand floats procession) on July 17th. Second procession on July 24th. 

    Gion Matsuri is by far the most famous festival in Japan, taking up a whole month and featuring an extraordinary range of entertainment for you to enjoy. It is particularly impressive for several reasons. Hoko, one of the types of floats used in the procession, are enormous, with some up to 25 meters tall and weighing up to 12 tons! To really appreciate their beauty, you can go inside some of them over the three days preceding the procession while they are on display. 

    Yamaboko Junko takes place between 9am and 1pm on the 17th and 9:30 to 11:50 on the 24th. During this time, road closures during these days are extensive but less so in the lead up (15th and 16th). If you want to secure paid seating in front of the city hall, you can do so at Voyagin for approximately ¥4000. But chances are, with the length and duration of the route, you’ll be able to find a good viewpoint without too much trouble.

    One thing you might notice is a float seating a single young boy. Since the 800s, a young boy has been chosen to be the ‘divine messenger’ for the festival. He has to stay off the ground until he has paraded through for four days! For more information on the history of Gion Matsuri, read the English guide put together by the festival’s volunteers.

    Kyoto - Aoi Matsuri

    When: One day mid-May

    Where: Starts at Kyoto Imperial Palace
    Main attractions: “Roadside Ceremony” procession with participants wearing Heian costumes parading for 8 kilometers.

    This festival began in the 7th century! Aoi (あお) refer to the green leaves on Roadside Ceremony’s “Gosho-Car” (ox cart), and is a key element of the crest of the region’s two century-old shrines: Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine. During the procession, Aoi is taken from the shrines and eventually given to the Imperial Palace. 

    Starting in the morning, around 500 people dressed in aristocratic costumes from the Heian dynasty parade through the streets for 8 kilometers, pulling behind them 36 horses and 4 cows. The ox cart is a spectacular sight- decorated with an ornate wisteria “umbrella”. There are many other events to enjoy leading up to the festival, including horse racing, and the Yabusame Shintō ritual.

    lanterns street japan

    Nagasaki - Shunsetsu Festival 

    When: Two weeks in January or February- first 15 days of the Chinese New Year
    Where: City-wide
    Main attractions: Festival main stage at Minato Park and Dejima Wharf

    During this stunning Lantern Festival, Nagasaki transforms into a wonderland of magical displays, featuring lanterns, parades and performances. While the festival’s glow can be admired from any part of the city, there are several places that light up more than others, including the Dejima Wharf and Minato Park. Amateur and professional performers entertain passers-by on pop-up stages around the city. Look out for Ja-Odori (dragon dance or snake dance), a kind of multifaceted show that involves acrobatics, and masked people dragon dancing. Take a look at Ja-Odori in action here!  When the city lights up from 5pm onwards, it’s time to wander the city streets and embrace their warm glow.

    Aomori- Nebuta Matsuri

    When: August 2 - August 7 annually
    Main attractions: Nebuta parades

    Nebuta is the float of a brave warrior figure that locals carry through the city during the festival. Dancers wearing haneto (ハネト) costumes parade around it, chanting to welcome visitors to watch. The final day closes with a fireworks show as the float is carried out to sea. Everyone, including tourists, is welcomed to participate in the dusk-til-dark processions as haneto (dancers) providing they wear the right costume. Supermarkets and department stores across the prefecture sell the entire set for around ¥5000. Some places along the processional route also rent them out for the duration of the festival. 

    japanese festivals lanterns

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    Takayama- Takayama Matsuri

    When: October 9-10 annually
    Where: Takayama, Gifu
    Main attractions: Dancing dolls, floats parade

    The Autumn Takayama Matsuri is also known as “Hachiman Festival”. On both days, the yatai (festival floats) are displayed on the streets for passers-by to admire. Some are decorated with karakuri ningyo, huge dolls that can robotically dance. On rainy days, their performances are moved indoors to the floats’ storehouses. Most people stick around to see the evening processions.

    While not the busiest of festivals normally, it can be heaving with visitors if it falls on a national holiday or weekend. Therefore, it is wise to book accommodation up to months in advance. You can use neighboring towns like Furukawa and Gero Onsen as a base for accommodation, but staying further afield might limit how much of the evening celebrations you can enjoy.

    Nationwide - Bon Festival

    When: Mid-August
    Where: Japan
    Main attractions: Bon Odori dance, grave sweeping, lanterns and candles

    Bon Festival, or Bon (お盆) is a Buddhist festival that honours and commemorates ancestors through a series of offerings and traditional practices. Because it is a holiday, many people schedule it as part of their work vacation. The mass movement makes for busy streets in all parts of the country, especially where big Bon Festivals are held. 

    According to Japanese Buddhist tradition, the spirits of the dead return for the festival’s duration. To honour them, families place sweet ozen (offerings), such as wagashi and fruit on graves, temples or altars. Another common practice is people cleaning their deceased families’ grave stones with ladles provided by the cemetery. To guide the ancestors’ spirits and souls back home, families carry lit lanterns from the graves back to their homes, then hang them up around their houses as a way of honoring the spirits and temporarily unifying them with the living. 

    Japan’s Odori ( 踊り) dances are a must-see during the festival-  a colourful spectacle including lively traditional Japanese dancing and singing. At the end of the festival, fires and lanterns are extinguished and the spirits are sent back once again. Lanterns can also be released on the water, lit with a candle representing the ancestor’s soul.

    Find more fun annual events in Tokyo here!

    Top 5 must-see Tokyo festivals 

    Sanja Matsuri (三社祭)

    Type: Shintō festival
    When: Third full weekend of May starting Friday 1 pm
    Where: Asakusa Shrine and surrounding Eastern Tokyo districts
    Main attractions: Daigyōretsu (大行列, literally "large parade") on Friday. Mikoshi street parades on Saturday. The main procession of the three spectacular Asakusa mikoshi on Sunday.

    Honouring the three founders of Senso-ji (浅草寺), Sanja Matsuri is a thousand-year-old festival of the Ukijo people centred around the nationally treasured Asakusa Shrine. Witnessing the event is an unparalleled experience in itself, due to its powerful historic significance and vibrant cultural displays. Prior to Covid-19, at least 2 million people gathered for this wild three-day celebration. 

    Day 1 features an initial procession and special dance in the late afternoon. This is a good opportunity to get close to the mikoshi ahead of a jam-packed weekend. Day Two features a much larger procession of 100 mikoshi (portable shrines), by which point the streets are always completely packed with spectators, making it hard to see. On the third and final day they carry the three largest shrines. As per tradition, each mikoshi travels from Sensoji Temple to Asakusa Shrine before being carried through the streets of Asakusa’s 44 districts. 

    For any foodie, the festival’s yatai (stalls) are just as spectacular. Mouthwatering aromas of traditional dishes such as yakisoba and yakitori as well as Asakusa specialties like Kibi-dango Azuma, and Age Monjya, fill the millions of spectators with a warm sense of comfort. 

    Kanda Matsuri (天神祭)

    Type: Shintō
    When: Third full weekend of May bi-annually
    Where: Kanda Myojin Shrine and neighbouring central Tokyo districts
    Main attractions: Day 1- Procession from Tenmangu Shrine and river prayers. Day 2- Hundreds of mikoshi parades and boat performances. River procession and yatai (food stalls).

    Kanda Matsuri is one of the three biggest Shintō festivals in Tokyo held on odd-numbered years and alternating with Sannō Matsuri. The festival dates back to the Edo Period, when it was first celebrated to flaunt the wealth of the new regime. Today, it marks the good fortune and prosperity of the local people. Like many other Shintō festivals, it begins with rituals to bless the mikoshi on the first day, before being paraded through the streets from 8:30. The procession has around a thousand people- musicians, priests on horseback, and hundreds of locals dressed in colourful costumes. Later on in the day, a secondary procession features men in samurai uniforms and floats with popular folk story characters. On Sunday, you’re best to get a glimpse of the parade near the Kanda Myojin Shrine.

    mikoshi parade river procession
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    Sannō Matsuri (山王祭)

    Type: Shintō
    When: Third full weekend of May bi-annually
    Where: Hie Shrine
    Main attractions: Nine-hour parade through central Tokyo

    The colossal parade has been downsized to avoid affecting traffic flows too significantly in modern times. The procession of 500 people starts in the morning at Hie Shrine where visitors can step through the symbolic straw ring in the centre of its grounds to ‘purify’ themselves. The parade stops at the Tokyo Imperial Palace, where the chief priest offers prayers to the emperor and imperial family, before continuing on.

    Summer Sonic Festival 

    Type: Music festival
    When: Mid-August weekend
    Where: Tokyo and Osaka- one day each
    Main attractions: Japanese and international acts

    Summer Sonic features a range of highly talented musicians of various genres worldwide. Past acts included popular Western bands like The Chemical Brothers, Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sonicmania, an electronic dance music festival, is run by the same group that puts on Summer Sonic Festival

    Contingent on coronavirus levels, the 2022 festival is planned to go ahead. When on sale, tickets will be advertised on their website.

    Comiket 

    Type: Anime festival
    When: Bi-annually, in August and December
    Where: Tokyo Big Sight
    Main attractions: Cosplay, video game studios, manga publishers, celebrity meet and greet sessions

    Comiket, or komiketto (コミケット) is a semi-annual not-for-profit dojinshi (self-published manga) convention held by the Comic Market Preparatory Committee. The festival is now the largest fan convention in the world, with over half a million people attending and 30,000 independent sellers selling. Collectors flock to this event to get their hands on scarce goods only available at Comiket. 

    In this packed venue, you’ll find many tables selling novels, manga, artwork, and more produced by independent artists. Lots of content is kid-friendly, while some is only appropriate for mature readers.

    It costs ¥500 to enter and ¥2400 for a Comiket Catalog, complete with a map and list of vendors helpful for finding your bearings. You are welcome to wear cosplay- but note that you must register (¥1,000 per day) and change into your costume only once inside the venue. Make sure to take cash with you because many vendors don’t accept card. Read how to buy a ticket for the upcoming Comiket later this month (December)!

    Want to find out about more fun things to do in Tokyo? Check out this Guide to Cultural Events in Tokyo!

    confused man strange festivals

    Most unusual Japanese festivals and their curious traditions

    Naked Man Festival

    When: End of February- beginning of March depending on the lunar calendar.
    Where: Multiple locations. Largest celebrations- Konomiya and Saidaiji

    At a Naked Festival (裸祭り, Hadaka Matsuri), thousands of men gather annually across the country in next-to-nothing (thin, white loincloths) to “pass on” their bad luck to the local shrine’s chosen shin-otoko or “god-man”. Through a series of boisterous rituals, such as touching the “god-man” and purifying themselves with water, the men who are often aged 23 or 42 (ages deemed unlucky) aim to rid themselves of evil. Konomiya Naked Festival is the largest of such celebrations in Japan. 

    Once the shin-otoko is chosen at the Konomiya Shrine, the festival can get rough. The shin-otoko is put on stage and tasked with walking safely back to the shrine as the thousands of men try to wrestle their way towards him. So much force is involved that shrine guards are needed to safeguard the shin-otoko against the pressure from so many bodies making contact with him. At night, a ceremony sees the bad luck be transferred into a black mochi. It is made with rice, mixed with the ashes of burned Omamori and then buried in a secret forested spot.

    Konomiya isn’t the only place this bizarre celebration takes place. Naked Festivals are held in dozens of places throughout Japan each year. 

    Belly Button Festival

    When: July 28th and 29th, annually
    Where: Furano City, Hokkaido 

    One of the most entertaining Japanese festivals, the Belly Button festival earned its name for two reasons- because Furano City is known as the centre or “belly button” of Hokkaido, and because the Shrine it celebrates is known as Furano City’s “Heso (belly button) shrine”. Participants of the “Hokkai belly button dance competition” parade merrily down the streets between 7 and 8 pm with face-painted bellies and elaborate costumes. See for yourself here! Whether you’re alone or with a friend, you can join a “jump-in team”. 

    Participating plus gear costs ¥2,000 per person. While the dance competition steals the show, there are plenty of other wacky things going on- local restaurants set up food stalls offering traditional Japanese festival food as well as belly-button-inspired dishes. 

    japanese festivals woman kimono

    Crying Baby Festival

    When: April or May, annually
    Where: Asakusa, Tokyo

    Coinciding with Children’s Day, Crying Baby Festivals are celebrated across Japan and typically involve priests praying for babies’ health and a competition between infants in a sumo ring. In an outdoor ring, two babies are placed into the hands of sumo wrestlers and the first to cry is the winner. Why? According to Japanese legends, a baby’s strong cry is an indicator of their strength and health. 

    Additionally, there is a folk belief that an innocent, crying baby is able to deter demons and evil spirits. A Japanese proverb naku ko wa sodatsu means "crying babies grow fastest". When the babies don’t cry, the sumo wrestlers encourage them by gently bouncing them, making scary faces or chanting “Naki!” (Cry!). The festival is free to everyone, but some parents have to apply for their child’s participation or pay to participate.

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    Namahage Sedo Festival

    When: Second week of February
    Where: Shinzhan Shrine, Akita 

    By far the scariest folk festival for children, the Namagahe Sedo Festival involves men (in red masks) and women (in blue masks) dressing up as Namahage ( demon-like beings) and running around the neighbourhood to signify a fruitful harvest and new year. Carrying wooden knives and buckets, the namahage visit homes to offer blessings in exchange for a sticky mochi rice cake and children’s promises that they will behave themselves for the year ahead. Afterwards, the namagahe (生剥) do a lively fire dance and hand out the mochi to the people watching.

    Strawbird Festival

    When: Mid-February, annually
    Where: Kaminoyama Castle, Yamagata 

    At the Strawbird Festival or Kasedori Festival, performers dress in straw coats to honour the legendary bird “Kasedori” who in the 1600s, saved the town by bringing water to relieve the Yamaga region that was up in flames. The festivities, meant to pray for the year ahead, are held in the snowy wintertime. They start with bonfire prayers at the entrance of the castle, followed by a performance where men in full-body straw coats screech “Kakkaw!” imitating the cries of the Kasedori bird

    It is believed that the straw blesses young girls with healthy, luscious hair when it touches them. Get involved either as a spectator (attendees get to spray the performers with cold water, an act which is thought to bring good fortune to those made wet!) or join in the dance yourself!

    BONUS: Angry Tea Tipping Table Festival

    When: June, annually
    Where: Iwata Prefecture

    Looking for a new way to let off some steam? Join the audience of Japan’s annual Angry Tea Tipping Table Festival. The decades-old contest originates from the phrase chabudai gageshi, meaning “upending the tea table” in frustration or anger. While it’s not clear when the next one will be held, anyone can sign up to compete in this emotion-filled sport. As a contestant, you have to kneel on stage and scream your innermost thoughts before flipping a small table with all your might.

    The way to win is to get the plastic fish on the table flying the furthest. The 2018 winner cheered in support of his favourite basketball team, saying  “Go Big Bulls!” and sending the plastic fish flying 8.29 meters!

    Useful Japanese festivals vocabulary you should know

    Want to practice your new festival vocabulary with some Japanese friends? Learn 15 Effective Tips to Make Japanese Friends using our simple guide!

    Japanese

    Romaji

    English

    祭り/ お祭り

    matsuri / omatsuri

    festival

    神社

    jinja

    Shintō shrine

    神輿

    mikoshi

    portable shrine

    Watching a mikoshi parade?

    When carrying the mikoshi, locals shout different chants to help keep the carriers of the heavy shrine focussed and in time. Depending on the region, they might cry  “seiya, seiya”, “wasshoi, wasshoi” or “soiya, soiya”.

    祭囃子

    matusuri-bayashi

    festival ensemble

    太鼓

    taiko

    drum

    屋台

    yatai

    pop-up stalls

    Ordering food from a yatai?

    Politely ask “______ wo hitotsu onegai shimasu?” (を一つお願いします) This means “Can I have one of … please?”
    If you want two or more, ask  “_____ wo futatsu onegai shimasu?” (_____を二つお願いします). Can I have two ___ please? 

    B級グルメ

    b-kyu gurume

    b-grade gourmet

    (金魚すくい

    kingyo sukui

    goldfish scooping

    夏祭り

    natsu-matsuri

    summer festival

    花火

    hanabi

    fireworks

    Admiring hanabi?

    You might hear some people shout “Tamaya” or “Kagiya” ! These were the names of the fireworks houses in the Edo era.

    着物

    kimono

    traditional japanese garment

    浴衣

    yukata

    summer version of kimono

    盆踊り

    bon odori 

    bon dance

    阿波おどり

    awa odori

    Awa (prefecture) dance

    Show off your speaking skills by memorising a few more useful phrases in Japanese and using them at your next festival! 

    Japanese festivals woman taking photo

    Crucial Japanese festival do’s and don’ts

    Do’s

    • Get informed. The better informed you are about the festival, the more fun you’ll have. Ask locals or consult a Japanese friend beforehand so you know what to expect, and how you can get involved in the most appropriate manner. Most festivals have their own chants which you are welcome to join in. Doing so will help elevate your sense of unity and elation.
    • Be respectful around holy sites. The road approaching a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple (参道, sandō) is sacred. Avoid littering and dress modestly when near it. In the Edo period, tattoos were historically used to mark criminals or ‘sinners’, so cover them if you can to show respect. Also, smoking inside temples or shrines is forbidden.
    • Stay alert. The areas nearest the action are always crowded. Bear in mind that mikoshi parades move quickly in one direction- you don’t want to get crushed! Keep your belongings close to you, and large, expensive items out of sight. Japan is hardly known for its pickpockets, but it is generally unwise to have anything valuable exposed in a tight crowd.
    • Dress suitably. Some festivals will require participants to be in costume, so check beforehand by Googling or asking locals. Regardless, consider your clothing choices carefully. Japan’s climate can be quite unforgiving, with its harsh winters and scorching summers and long days without protection from the heat or chill can be debilitating.
    • Stay hydrated. Don’t wait until you’re caught in a tight crowd on a sweltering day to think a drink bottle might’ve been a good idea. Temperatures can reach upwards of 35 degrees celsius at the peak of the summer, so keep water with you. If you forget, look for a water foundation, or head straight to a coffee shop or restaurant- you will be served some without needing to ask.
    • Plan for rain or shine. There’s always a chance it could rain. Bring a rain jacket and fold-out umbrella in case it starts pelting down while you are caught in a crowd. It goes without saying, but pack sunscreen.
    • Prepare your day and nighttime activities. Festivals can be quite exhausting. With the inviting aroma of yatai and the plethora of festival entertainment, it’s very easy to forget the importance of rest! Make sure you leave enough time to recover and rejuvenate for the following festival day.

    Don’ts

    • Disrespect the mikoshi! Because most ancient festivals are dedicated to worshipping deities, mikoshi are highly sacred. Unless given explicit permission, do not touch or sit on them. Avoid flash photography, or watching the mikoshi pass from above ground level.
    • Interrupt proceedings. You will not be well-liked if you get in the centre of a traditional dance or stick your camera in the face of paraders. Maintain a comfortable spectator distance.
    • Skip queues! If you’re waiting in line at a yatai and getting a little impatient, stay where you are. The Japanese love to line up in an orderly single file.
    • Tip food vendors. Japan’s tipping culture is nonexistent and leaving a tip at a yatai or a restaurant could even be considered insulting.
    • Point at anything. When marvelling at something in the distance, don’t point. Use a hand to wave at what you would like to indicate gently.
    sakura matsuri cherry festival

    Final Thoughts 

    Attending a large Japanese festival might be one of the most sensational experiences you’ll ever have. Whether it’s by trying a local delicacy at a yatai, helping carry a mikoshi, or joining a bon odori dance group, you will be totally immersed in Japanese culture at its most exquisite, and left hungry for more. Now that you know the basics- what Japanese festivals are on offer and what to expect from each- you’re set to go!

    There's so much to enjoy- the lively parades, music, games and food of shrine festivals, such as Tokyo’s wildly popular Sanja Matsuri and the nation’s ‘Star Festival’(星祭り, Hoshi Matsuri)Then there are secular festivals, which can be seasonal, historic, or dedicated to the arts, attract huge numbers and are often accompanied by unforgettable, quintessentially Japanese entertainment.

    So long as you remember to plan well in advance by consulting the festival or shrine’s website (most popular festivals have an English one), and remain mindful of local conditions throughout the festivities, you should have an unforgettable and subarashii (素晴らしい) time!

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