Japan has one of the richest cultures in Asia including their vibrant festivals. Japanese Festivals, called ‘matsuri ’, takes place all year long.
We recommend planning your trip ahead to experience at least one festival as you travel here.
It is especially easy if you have a JR Pass with you! Never heard of the JR Pass? Don’t worry, we got you covered here – Japan Rail Pass Guide.
Okay, let’s move on to the list of unique festivals in Japan!
There are many ways to experience sumo in Japan. However, the best way to experience is to attend Japan’s Annual Sumo Basho. It takes place six times each year across different locations in Japan.
It begins in January and occurs every other month. Each basho typically lasts for 15 days that begins and ends on Sundays. Grab some beer, snacks, sake, (and maybe even a bento!), and enjoy an intense sumo wrestling match!
Below is a list of details of each sumo basho:
- January Tournament (Hatsu Basho): Tokyo
- March Tournament (Haru Basho): Osaka
- May Tournament (Natsu Basho): Tokyo
- July Tournament (Nagoya Basho): Nagoya
- September Tournament (Aki Basho): Tokyo
- November Tournament (Kyushu Basho): Fukuoka
To learn more about when, where and how to see sumo, Boutique Japan wrote a decent guide here.
The Kaiko Kinenbi which is the Yokohama Port Opening Ceremony (Boat Races) is both a citizen’s festival and an annual memorial celebration. It marks Yokohama, the largest city outside Tokyo, as the first port to open up to the international trade market.
The festival displays exciting firework displays, concerts with popular music bands, boat races, and irresistible food.
Shounan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri
Despite its long name, it is also known as the Star Festival. Such a cool name, right?
Although Tanabata celebrations occur throughout the country; however, the event in Hiratsuka is the biggest in the country. This festival happens on the 4th to 8th of July, attracting a total of over three million people annually.
Its main attraction is the long bamboo poles which are decorated with beautiful ornaments. Thanks to the local shop owners who sponsor these ornaments. During this period, lanterns, dolls and fans will fill the shopping district of Hiratsuka.
At night, the ornaments lit up and create a romantic atmosphere.
The Tenjin Matsuri known as Festival of the Gods is held on the 24th and 25th of July every year in Osaka. Holding a 1,000 year old history, the festival is dedicated to Sugawara Michizane, known as the deity of scholarship and learning.
It features exciting boat and land processional, gorgeous hanabi (fireworks) displays, and stunning boat bonfires along the Osaka Okawa River. Therefore, it is a festival that distinguishes Osaka from the rest of Japan
As Osaka citizens are known to be less reserved compared to Tokyo or Kyoto, so the Tenjin Matsuri offers the best chance to interact with outgoing locals in Osaka.
Sapporo Yuki Matsuri
The Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, Japan’s Snow Festival is one of Japan’s popular winter festivals. The festival happens during one week every February in Sapporo, Hokkaido.
It all started in 1950 when high school students built snow statues in Odori Park. Today, this festival features spectacular ice sculptures and has garnered a global attraction of more than two million visitors.
Some of these sculptures are measured more than 25 meters wide and 15 meters high! Other than that, concerts, snow slides, snow rafting, and food stands are open for the public to enjoy.
The Warai Festival (Laughing Festival) held in Wakayama is one of the seven major traditional Japanese festivals which includes laughter as part of their ritual performances.
It is celebrated annually in October on the Sunday following the National Athletic Holiday.
Its legendary origins entail that the goddess Niutsu Hime no Mikoto overslept and arrived late at the assembly of gods in October. Ashamed by how the gods laughed at her, she hid at the Nyu Shrine. To raise her spirits, the people laughed out the shrine until she came out.
The festival features a parade led by Suzu Furi (Bell Jingler), dressed up in a clown-like costume. He is followed by men carrying offerings to the Nyu Shrine, and ends with laughter done in unison which replicates the legend.
In addition, the festival also exhibits stunning folk dances and lion dances.
Nozawa Fire Festival
The Nozawa Fire Festival is held on every 15th of January, at Baba-no-hara, Nozawa Onsen Village. It is one of Japan’s top three fire festivals. It is to celebrate as a prayer for good health and fortune for the firstborn sons.
A massive tower made of rice stalk, wood, and other natural material is built as a shrine. With the 25 and 42 year old men taking on their special roles as the shrine protector, the villagers will rush at the tower with torches during the night.
The 25-year-old men will fight the villagers below while the latter protects above. The highlight of the event reaches as the shrine becomes a massive bonfire as it’s warmth and light envelopes the entire village.
Yokote Kamakura Festival
On the 15th and 16th of every February, the Yokote Kamakura Festival is held in the city of Yokote in southeastern Akita Prefecture.
This long-standing festival with 450 years of history features the igloo-like snow houses (kamakura). You can find them at different locations across the city.
Snow alters are built within each kamakura which is dedicated to the water deity. Just so you know, the water deity is who the people pray for water sources.
During the evenings, children will invite festival visitors into their kamakura for some delicious rice cakes and amazake (warm rice wine with low or zero alcohol content). The visitors will then make an offering at the altar.
Kamakura also comes in mini sizes (how cute!). Their candles illuminate from dusk until night. These can usually be found along the Yokote River.
You definitely don’t want to miss this sight!
If you ever want to make a kamakura yourself, you can now join a hands-on session at Komyoji Park!
The Jidai Matsuri, meaning ‘Festival of Ages’ in Japanese. The festival celebrates on the anniversary of the foundation of Kyoto and is held on the 22nd of October every year.
This festival commemorates the long history of Kyoto with a large parade that travels from the Imperial Palace to Heian Shrine.
This whole event is about 2 hours long. Plus, the cool thing is that there are about 2000 participants in the parade. All of them dress up in costumes according to the different eras of Japanese history.
You will find yourself meeting famous historical figures, aristocrats, warriors, and nobles from 1,100 years of history when Kyoto was once the national capital!
It’s a real-life history class, so you probably won’t fall asleep in this one.
One of Tokyo’s top three famous festivals, the Kanda Matsuri takes place in the mid of May every odd-numbered years.
It started in the Edo Period as a celebration to demonstrate prosperity under the new regime of Tokugawa Shogun. It has another name, known as the Festival of the Kanda Myojin Shrine which enshrines three deities. Traditionally, this festival celebrates the increasing wealth and good fortune of the citizens.
The packed festival has various events and spreads throughout the week. However, the main events are usually on the weekend closest to the 15th of May.
On Saturdays, it highlights the shinto rituals and a day-long procession through the streets of central Tokyo. Following on Sunday, the festival continues with mikoshi parades (parades of portable shrines) through the neighborhoods in Kanda and Nihonbashi districts.
Above all, the festival is accompanied by musicians, vibrant traditional costumes, festival floats and even men on horses clad dressed in samurai uniforms (sugeh!), the Kanda Matsuri is a joyous festival while experiencing the local Japanese traditions.
Planning to Travel to Japan?
If the answer is yes, we highly recommend you to check out our post on the Ultimate Japan Travel Guide! It will probably save you a lot of time, effort and most importantly, your wallet.
Any Japan festival that you’ve been to? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you!