When it comes to festivals, nowhere does it quite like Japan. Across the country, countless celebrations take place throughout the year and there’s a high chance that you’ll stumble across at least one regional festival during your visit. However, there are some which are so spectacular that they’re worth planning around. Whether you want to wander among candle-lit igloos in Yokote or join in with a traditional dance troupe in Tokushima, Japan has plenty of weird and wonderful celebrations just waiting to be discovered.
Gion Matsuri - Kyoto
With its bright and bustling ambiance, you could be forgiven for thinking that every day in Kyoto is a festival. A city with a population of 1.5 million, it was Japan’s capital for over 1,000 years and is considered a must-see destination for any visitor. If you can time your visit in late July, you can join in with one of Japan’s most iconic and vibrant festivals: Gion Matsuri.
While the festivities go on throughout the month of July, the main events take place on the 17th and the 24th. On the morning of the 17th, locals of all ages gather on the city promenades, dressed in brightly coloured yukata robes, to watch carnival-style floats parade though the streets. With the largest measuring up to 25 metres, the floats are kept and maintained throughout the year by neighbourhood guilds and are stunning examples of traditional craftsmanship. There are viewing stands which offer ticketed seats but to get the real feel of the festival stay on the ground and mingle with the locals. The city roads are closed to traffic and once the procession ends around midday, there are plenty of food markets and street parties to keep you in high spirits. The 24th is simply the same event on a smaller scale and, between the two dates, Kyoto’s streets are host to evening street parties known as Yoi-Yama. As well as street food vendors, live music and traditional dress, some of the city’s oldest families open their traditional machiya houses to visitors. To get the best of the festival, aim to arrive in Kyoto by the 22nd so that you have a chance to enjoy Yoi-Yama before the big event.
Yokota Kamakura - Yokote
Celebrated for over 450 years, the unbelievably picturesque Yokota Kamakura festival is held every year on the 15th and 16th February. The celebration is best known for its kamakura, little igloo style houses which are built across the city to house temporary shrines. Dedicated to the local water deity, the igloos are equipped with charcoal braziers to provide warmth and grill rice cakes. Local children are the keepers of the kamakuras and in the evening they can invite festival visitors inside to eat rice cakes and drink amazake, a warm, sweet, non-alcoholic rice wine. Visitors are then encouraged to make an offering to the water deity at the igloo’s snow altar as a sign of their gratitude. Along the banks of the Yokote River, hundreds of tiny kamakuras are constructed and are illuminated by candles throughout the evenings of the 15th and 16th. From the main station, it’s easy to make a loop through the town to see the kamakura for yourself before doubling back to the riverside. For the best vantage point, walk up to Yokote Castle and enjoy a panoramic view over the city. During the celebrations, the castle is open 10am - 9pm allowing visitors to observe the festival day and night.
Wakakusa Yamayaki - Nara
Taking place every year on the fourth Saturday of January, Wakakusa Yamayaki is arguably one of Japan’s most intriguing festivals.
It involves the grasses on the hillside of Nara’s Mount Wakakusayama being set alight and the whole city stopping to watch as flames consume the mountain. The custom has been practiced for hundreds of years but its origins are unclear. Some claim that the fires were first set in response to border disputes between Nara’s temples while others suggest that it was a traditional way to ward off wild animals from approaching the city. Despite the fact that its origins remain unknown, it is one of the most fervently celebrated festivals in the region and is beloved by locals and visitors alike. The celebrations begin around 5pm when a procession of men dressed in traditional attire marches between Nara’s shrines with flaming torches held aloft. They stoke a large bonfire and set off a spectacular fireworks display before setting the mountainside aflame with their torches and retreating back to watch the spectacle unfurl. Mount Wakakusayama is so formidable that the ceremony can be seen from anywhere in the city but, if you want to follow local tradition, grab yourself a spot at the foot of the mountain.
Awa Odori - Tokushima
Widely considered Japan’s best dance festival, Awa Odori has attracted an international following in recent years and has found its way on to many traveller's wish-list. Certainly, its acclaim is not without justification. Every August spectators and dancers flock from across the country to join a party which has been a local staple for over 400 years.
Between August 12th and 15th, the streets come alive after dark with stunning performances of traditional Japanese dance. While the steps themselves are simple, many troops put their own spin on them; offering colourful and lively renditions. The groups parade through the streets with traditional instruments, processing to the city centre where six large stages are set up for the evening performances. Some of these stages offer ticketed seating, and this is where you are likely to find the professional dance groups, but there are other more informal performance taking place across the city. Whether you want to pull up a chair at one of the smaller stages, or even join in with one of the ad hoc group performances, you are sure to have an unforgettable experience.
Tenjin Matsuri - Osaka
One of Japan’s most elaborate and eagerly anticipated festivals, Tenjin Matsuri takes over the city of Osaka on the 24th and 25th July every year. With its roots in the 10th century, the festival is beloved by locals and international visitors alike and offers an incredible insight into Osaka’s unique culture and history.
The main purpose of the celebration is to honour the Tenmangu Shrine’s principal deity; Sugawara Michizane - the god of scholarship. On the 24th, a ceremony takes place at the shrine to signal the beginning of preparations and is followed by prayers at the riverside for prosperity and good health. The following day, a group of drummers lead a procession through the streets of Osaka which features costumed representations of the gods, dance troupes and traditional musicians. An hour into the procession the mikoshi, an ornate portable shrine, is carried through the streets. The shrine is believed to hold the deified spirit of Sugawara Michizane and is led through Osaka by two children, a boy and a girl, and a sacred ox. When they reach the Okawa river, usually around 6pm, the whole procession embarks onto boats adorned with paper lanterns so they can be paraded up and down the river. The illuminated boats and their glowing reflections are matched by a huge fireworks display which continues overhead until the mikoshi containing the spirit of Sugawara Michizane is safely returned to the shrine. Arrive early to get a good spot along the river as competition is fierce. There are some ticketed seating areas, offering high vantage viewpoints from 6,000 yen but these must be booked in advance.
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