Festivals in Japan

When you mention Japan many of us instantly associate it with the ultra-modern, we think of Tokyo with its bright lights and skyscrapers, we think of it as being one of the frontrunners in producing the latest in technology and gadgets. And while these things are certainly true, it is important not to forget that Japan is also a nation steeped in tradition, which becomes abundantly clear when we look at its many different festivals. Japan has countless local festivals that occur throughout the year, indeed nearly every shrine in the country has its own, so we’ve compiled a guide to some of the more popular festivals to give you more insight into the country’s rich culture.

Gion Matsuri, Kyoto
Perhaps the most famous festival in Japan, Gion Matsuri takes place every year over the entire month of July in Kyoto. It is the festival of the Yasaka Shrine, and is made up of many events throughout the month; however, the highlight has to be the procession of ginormous floats known as Yamaboko Junko on the 17th and 24th. Originally the festival started as part of a purification ritual to appease the gods thought to cause fire, floods and earthquake, and would be performed every time there was an outbreak of the plague or pestilence.  This eventually became an annual event and proceedings became more and more lavish as a display of wealth until the festival became to resemble what it is today.

Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori
Taking place between the August 2nd and 7th each year is Nebuta Matsuri, which is held in Aomori City. At this festival giant lantern floats are paraded down the streets every evening flanked by taiko drummers, flute and hand cymbals players, as well as hundreds of dancers, except for on the last day when the parade occurs in the afternoon. The origins of this festival remain somewhat unexplained – some claim it derives from the methods shogun Sakanoue no Tamuramaro used to attract enemy attention during battles, while others say it is more likely to have evolved out of traditional Shinto ceremonies. Regardless of its origin, this is a fun and visually beautiful festival that encourages participation by all, so is definitely worth experiencing if travelling to Japan at the time.

Yuki Matsuri, Sapporo
More commonly known as the Sapporo Snow Festival, this festival is held over a week in February in Sapporo every year.  Taking place in three different sites: Odori Park, Susukino, and Tsudome; the festival originated in 1950 when a group of high school students built snow sculptures in Odori Park. In 1955 the Japan Self-Defence Forces from nearby Makomanai joined in and built the first giant snow sculpture and since then the festival has grown, attracting millions of people who come to see the giant sculptures as well as the smaller ones scattered around the different sites.

Awa Odori, Tokushima
Also known as the Awa Dance Festival, this festival takes place in Tokushima city from August 12th to the 15th every year. During this festival groups of choreographed dancers take to the streets, typically accompanied by the shamisen lute, taiko drums, shinobue flute and the kane bell. Performers wear traditional Obon dance costumes, and chant and sing as they parade through the streets. The festival is said to have evolved from the Japanese Buddhist ‘Festival of the Dead’ where it is said that deceased ancestors would visit their living relatives for a few days of the year. Thousands assemble to watch both the professional and amateur dancers alike, so book your hotel well in advance if you wish to catch a glimpse of this vibrant event.

Jidai Matsuri, Kyoto
Held annually on October 22nd in Kyoto, this festival celebrates Kyoto’s history on the anniversary of the foundation of the city. People of all ages take to the streets dressed in costumes from all the different periods in Japanese history in a parade that stretches from the Imperial Palace to Heian Shrine.  It takes an average of 2 hours to watch the entirety of the parade pass, with it spanning the 1100 years Kyoto served as capital. The festival was started in 1868 when Tokyo became the capital city, in case people believed Kyoto now lacked glory and interest.

If you're interested in visiting Japan and seeing one of these incredible festivals for yourself, get in touch with one of our travel experts via email or on 020 7843 3531.