Japan is a country that offers a charm for each area and every season. Japanese people believe that there are an infinite number of gods, known as kami, that occupy everything in the world. Matsuri are festivals, said to be a way of thanking kami and nature, celebrating a way of life, and coming together as a community.
There are various theories about their origins, but traditionally matsuri are used to give thanks to kami and buddhist deities. The word “matsuri” comes from words meaning “to deify” and “to worship.” Thus, it is generally accepted that matsuri began as ways to pray to Shinto or Buddhist deities.
Some matsuri, especially newer ones, don’t have an explicit religious connection. They might be community-focused, or revolve around seasonal events like snow or cherry blossoms. In addition, some celebrate historical figures or events.
Matsuri can be Shinto events, Buddhist events, or both, so there are many conventions and rules to be aware of. Access can differ in terms of traffic and public transport, so it’s best to confirm your route online first.
At the festival, you probably won’t be able to use credit cards or electronic payment, so it’s a good idea to bring cash. These events are usually crowded, so we also recommend carrying babies rather than using pushchairs. Furthermore, please be aware of toilet facilities, and be aware of where your children are.
In particular, the ‘Bon Odori’ dance and festival of the same name, held in summer, is open to everyone to participate and enjoy.
Founded in the 1950s by local high school students, the Sapporo Snow Festival is now the biggest and best-known snow festival in Japan. It attracts 2 million visitors each year and features enormous snow and ice sculptures around the city.
The festival takes place in three main locations: Odori Park features the biggest snow and most impressive snow sculptures, Susukino focuses more on ice sculptures, and Community Dome (“Tsudome”) is a playground with slides, bars and restaurants.
Fire and water combine in one of the oldest Buddhist events in Japan. Omizutori (officially called Shunie) is a chance for priests to confess people’s sins, and for festivalgoers to be showered in sparks from gigantic torches.
“Omizutori” means “water-drawing.” The name comes from the ceremony held on the 12th, where priests draw water from a well in the temple grounds that is said to only flow once every year.
Hagi is a city that retains ancient scenery in the present. At Kimono Week in Hagi, you can soak up the historic feel of the place while wearing suitably traditional clothes. Rent a kimono and get involved with a program of Japanese cultural events.
As part of the experience, you can choose your kimono’s color and belt. Furthermore, those who rent will receive a discount on food and other purchases, among other benefits.
During the festival, photographers will also be present to take photos and help you remember your day for years to come.
Note: Various Japanese cultural experiences are planned for the festival, but the exact schedule and contents may vary. Please confirm before the event.
In the modern city ward of Hakata lies Hakata Old Town with many historic buildings. Every Autumn, as part of ‘Hakata Old Town Light Up Walk,’ the area’s temples, shrines and gardens are illuminated in red, blue and purple. The various themes of each illumination create a charm that’s quite different from the daytime view. Furthermore, the surrounding restaurants have festival-only offerings for you to enjoy.
Appreciate the Autumn moon at its most beautiful during this festival that combines the Japanese customs of moon viewing and tea ceremony.
Kitsuki is a castle town where samurai used to live. In the Edo Period, after the lord endorsed the practice of tea ceremony, tea parties became popular and ingrained into the local culture. The festival’s lanterns are said to be based on those that lit the footsteps of tea party guests.
During the festival, traditional Japanese instruments like koto and shakuhachi are played quietly, and you can enjoy the light of the moon, bamboo lanterns and themed illuminations.
Note: The area has lots of stone steps, so please bring comfortable walking shoes.
A fire festival that takes place every October 14. Its origins are unknown. At the 1100-year-old Ikwakura Shrine, the black-masked Kebesu battles a group of Touba, clothed in white. The Touba try to protect a bonfire of fern branches, while the Kebesu tries to jump into it. After being successfully prevented several times, the Kebesu succeeds, thrusts his staff into the fire and uses it to throw sparks around. At the end, the Touba grab flaming branches too, and chase the audience and worshippers. It is said that those whom the sparks hit will be awarded good health.
Note: As this festival involves lots of flying sparks and embers, please do not wear nylon or other flammable articles of clothing.
When the Japanese capital was moved to Tokyo in the late 19th Century, Kyoto began Jidai Matsuri as a way of celebrating the city’s history, and to make the 1100th anniversary of its foundation. A hundred years later, it is one of the three biggest festivals in Kyoto.
The matsuri’s most noteworthy feature is a procession representing people from every era since 794, when Kyoto was founded. Costumes from ancient to modern pass by, as well as mikoshi from the Kyoto Imperial Palace that enshrine past emperors.
“Kunchi” is a local word meaning “Autumn matsuri.” Karatsu Kunchi has a long history, having started sometime between 1661 and 1673. Extravagant floats in the shape of fish, lions and other things, painted bright colors and weighing 2-3 tonnes tower up to 7 meters high. On the day of the festival, 14 of them parade through the streets. The festival participants move the floats by hand through the streets of Karatsu, playing traditional Japanese instruments like bells, flutes and taiko drums, and shouting “Enya, enya” and “Yoisa, yoisa.” The festival has been registered as an UNESCO Intangible Heritage.
Note: Because the floats will be paraded around the city, please confirm the parade schedule and viewing areas beforehand. Please do not obstruct or walk directly behind the floats.
Nagano is not only home to the famous snow monkeys, but also Japan’s biggest fireworks festival. You’ll visit both on this tour, as well as a meal in one of the prefecture’s finest restaurants and a special sake tasting.
The festival was founded in 1899 by a group of local merchants, who offered a day-long sale and fireworks to express gratitude to Ebisu: one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods and one commonly associated with shopkeepers. With 15,000 individual fireworks, Ebisu-ko is the best place to get a sense of this staple of Japanese matsuri.
Gion Matsuri is one of the most popular matsuri in Japan, and lasts an entire month of festivities and parades. Two days in particular stand out – Saki Matsuri on the 17th and Ako Matsuri on the 24th. Both feature enormous wooden floats called Yamahoko, with some weighing 12 tonnes and measuring 25 metres tall.
The festival has run almost interrupted for over 1000 years. Originially held to appease the gods during an epidemic, Gion Matsuri still features a local boy chosen as the ‘sacred child,’ who cannot touch the ground from July 13–17.
Take in four of Tohoku’s festivals in four days on this small-group tour. With your English-speaking driver guide, you’ll experience Hachinohe’s Sansha Taisai festival, Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori, Kanto Matsuri in Akita and Tanabata in Sendai, with meals and accommodation included.
Tohoku is off the beaten track for many tourists, but the rural north has a rich culture and history, perfectly expressed in the diversity of matsuri. From gigantic lantern-floats to 12-meter high bamboo poles, you’ll take in a broad sweep of what Tohoku has to offer, and even participate in some of the festivals yourself.
The summer Obon season is the time for dancing, and it doesn’t get much bigger than this. Tokushima Awa-Odori features thousands of dancers from all over the world, many of whom perform the 400-year old Awa-Odori dance.
Across 4 days, enjoy colorful costumes, wild dancing, and a city-wide festival atmosphere at Japan’s most famous dance festival.
A festival that has continued for over 400 years. While it is not the only tug-of-war festival, Sendai Otsunahiki Festival has some unique aspects, starting with the rope itself.
On the day of the festival, more than 1500 people wake up early to weave 365 strands into a single massive rope. When completed, the rope is 365 meters long and weighs about 7 tonnes.
Once the rope is finished, more than 3000 men, stripped to the waist, compete in a tug-of-war. It isn’t simply two teams pulling, however. Each side also has a ‘pushing team’ that fights for control of the center. Marvel at the bravery and vigor of the competitors at this festival!
Note: The competition can be quite violent. Please be careful not to get dragged into the fray. People in light-blue clothes with flags will mark out the danger zones. Please do not obstruct them.
Putting Hokkaido’s freezing weather to good use, this festival has run since 1976. It features an illuminated ice dome, fireworks and ice climbing experiences for you to enjoy.
Note: Temperatures can drop to -20 Celsius, so please dress appropriately.
This festival is centered around prayers for the dead, after a feudal lord was overthrown in a great battle about 450 years ago. Gigantic torches are paraded around the town before being stood at the top of Mount Goro and set alight.
Note: The climax of the festival takes place after dark, and it can get very cold. Please dress appropriately. Furthermore, there may be sparks and embers in the air from the flaming torches, so please do not wear nylon or other flammable clothing.
Around 100 mikoshi parade through the streets of Asakusa in May as part of the 700-year-old Sanja Matsuri. Mikoshi and participants come from all over Japan and the streets echo with traditional music.
Note: The area around the mikoshi can be extremely crowded with visitors and participants. Please be careful.
Encompassing 300 years of history, Chichibu Yomatsuri is held every December. It features a parade of six floats. As they go, you can hear traditional music and the chant of “Boryai, boryai.”
Note: Please dress appropriately for cold weather.
The shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu is known to have visited the cherry blossoms of Shizuoka, and it is was on this basis that Shizuoka Matsuri was established in 1957. It features a parade in historical dress including a person playing Tokugawa Ieyasu himself.
Note: It is advisable to check the parade route and schedule before the festival.
Designed for shopkeepers to pray for prosperity in the new year, this January festival has been running since the 16th Century. Every year, about one million visitors come to Imamiya Ebisu Shrine to pray for good fortune, then head through Osaka’s crowded Minami shopping district, packed with events and festivities.
Note: Please dress appropriately for cold weather, and be sure to confirm the parade route and performance schedule ahead of time.
As part of a rice planting tradition, people (and cows) are bedecked in extravagant clothes and sing traditional songs with music and taiko drums, in order to pray for a good harvest. This festival is registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Note: As the location is a little way from Hiroshima City, please be sure to check the bus timetable beforehand. Furthermore, camera tripods are prohibited at the festival.
Dating back to the 12th Century, Niihama Taiko Matsuri uses over 50 drums on parade floats to call for a fruitful year and give thanks. The biggest attraction is "Kakikurabe," pulled by about 150 people.
Note: The parade travels around the city, so please be sure to check the schedule and viewing areas in advance.