If there is one word that describes Japan, it would be ‘chaotic’.
First-time visitors would probably get lost in Tokyo’s energetic streets surrounded by neon lights, or find profound peace while hiking through the dense row of Torii gates leading to the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, or simply be amazed at the sight of a typical rush hour on their railways.
But amid the disorderliness, there is beauty — a semblance of order (and politeness) hiding in plain sight, which interestingly makes Japan all the more captivating. Japan’s diverse pool of festivals is a classic example.
Reveling in the unity of the locals, the authentic street eats, the weird characters that pop out of travelling carts, the colours, and most notably, the controlled chaos… here are 15 Japanese festivals to soak in the celebrations all-year-round while in the land of the rising sun:
Gion Matsuri is Kyoto’s largest and one of Japan’s most popular annual festivals. Initially held to dispel plagues and epidemics, the festival celebrates Kyoto’s fast-changing and diverse culture today.
While the festival goes on for the entire month of July, the main festivities occur on 17 and 24 July, when a majestic procession of floats, known as Yamaboko Junko, takes place.
The three nights prior to the parades, also known as Yoi-yama evenings, visitors can dress up in yukata (a light cotton kimono) and soak in the festivities along Kyoto’s mesmerising streets.
Dates: 17 & 24 July
Also one of Kyoto’s three most popular annual festivals, along with the aforementioned Gion Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri, the Aoi Matsuri takes place every 15 May. It is also the festival of the two Kamo shrines, namely the Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine.
The main highlight is a massive parade in Kyoto, where participants dress in traditional Heian apparel that is decorated with Aoi (Japanese for ‘Hollyhock’) leaves and march from the Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines. Some can even be seen on horseback, carrying bouquets of flowers and palanquins.
Date: 15 May
Among the multitudinous dance festivals, Awa Odori is possibly Japan’s most famous. Usually celebrated in mid-August where men, women and children will don traditional costumes and dance to music on the streets.
Be on the lookout for the main spectacle which takes place in the evening, where a group of amateurs and veterans perform along the streets of downtown Tokushima.
Keep your eyes peeled for the “Fool’s Dance” which has origins dating back to 400 years ago.
Dates: 12 – 15 August
One of the three great Shinto festivals in Tokyo, the Kanda Matsuri once celebrated Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory at the battle of Sekigahara in the early 17th century. Today, it celebrates the people’s prosperity and wealth.
Alternating with the Sannon Matsuri, the festival only takes place in odd-numbered years. During the celebration, the streets will bask in a cheery ambience with a day-long parade of portable shrines (also known as mikoshi), priests on horseback, musicians, and dancers.
Dates: Saturday or Sunday nearest 15 May, odd-numbered years
An ebullient and loud festival, the Sanja Matsuri is held on the third full weekend every May at the Asakusa Shrine in Tokyo. It is held in honour and celebration of the three founders of the Sensoji temple, who are enshrined in the Asakusa Shrine next to the temple.
Throughout the festival, you can expect to see up to 100 mikoshi, containing ceremonially invited Shinto deities, parading the crowded streets to bring good prosperity to the locals. Joining them are flute players, taiko drummers, and more.
The main highlight falls on Sunday with three large mikoshi, each containing the spirit of the founders from the Asakusa Shrine, being zealously carried around the boisterous streets. It is even said that the louder the chanting and music, and the more vigorous the shaking of the mikoshi, the greater the blessing will be granted to the citizens.
Dates: Third full weekend every May
Started in 1950 when six students built six snow statues in Odori Park, the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Sapporo Snow Festival) has grown into quite a spectacle today.
Attracting more than 2 million visitors every year from Japan and other countries, the festival is one of the world’s largest snow and ice festivals.
Marvel at each of the gorgeous and breathtaking ice and snow sculptures that are dotted around the various venues, some of which even light up at night. You’ll also find yourself in winter wonderland as you partake in snowball fights or chill at ice bars.
Dates: 1 week in February
One of the three massive and popular festivals within the Tohoku region, Nebuta Matsuri is both visually spectacular and stunning. Taking place from 2 – 7 August, the streets of Aomori will come to life with the numerous intricately-designed luminous lantern floats.
Lit from the inside, these floats are made from washi (Japanese paper) over wire frames, and often illustrate gods, warriors, animals, kabuki actors, or celebrities.
The daily parade will take place during the evening of the festival, except on the last day when it is held in the afternoon. Joining the parade are throngs of chanting dancers, taiko drummers, and other musicians.
Dates: 2 – 7 August
Held in July in Osaka, Tenjin Matsuri is a festival of the Tenmangu Shrine that reveres the deity of scholarship, Sugawara Michizane. Locals celebrate the festival by inviting the deity out of the shrine and parading him around the city in his mikoshi in a cheerful lively fashion.
Rich and vibrant, the festival parade is joined by an exuberant crowd comprising of locals, musicians, lion and umbrella dancers, goblins on horseback, and more.
The highlight of the festival occurs on the second day when a land procession and a river procession will take place. The latter will occur in the evening which culminates in a stunning firework display over the floating boats.
Dates: 24 & 25 July
Like most Fall festivals, Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri is a harvest festival whereby the locals pray for good harvest. The festival is also considered to be Osaka’s wildest and most thrilling festivals.
Taking place in mid-September, locals put their courage to the test as they pull the danjiri (large wooden floats that are each heavier than 3000kg) at breakneck speeds while the team leaders hop and dance atop the floats.
High-octane and exhilarating, this festival is a sight not to be missed.
Dates: Weekend in September
Another dance festival, the Yosakoi Matsuri has its origins in the 1954 Kochi Prefecture on the Shikoku Island. Yosakoi is a unique style of dancing fusing some of Japan’s traditional dance moves with modern music.
The official yosakoi dance, however, is based on an old folk song called “Yosakoi Naruko Dancing“. The festival will take place every year in mid-August where performers will groove to sanguine beats, carrying Naruko – a kind of clapper that creates a click-clack sound.
Sendai Tanabata Matsuri is Japan’s biggest and most popular Star festival with origins from the Chinese QiXi Festival; the Tanabata Matsuri celebrates the union of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi.
Held on the seventh day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar (or some time between late July and early August), the Japanese celebrate by decorating malls and streets with thousands of colourful hand-crafted streamers, resembling a vibrant coloured forest.
Dates: Some time between late July to early August
Despite only being held annually on 3 & 4 May, the Hakata Dontaku Matsuri has been estimated to attract more than 2 million turnouts each year. Locals dress up and parade the streets, while clapping wooden shamoji (spoon used to serve rice), along with dancers and hana jidosha (also known as flower cars).
Once banned during the Meji period due to its extravagance and again during World War II, the festival eventually returned and continued to bring life to the town. To date, the festival has more than 800 years of history.
Dates: 3 & 4 May
Also known as the sacred water-drawing festival, Omizutori is held from 1 to 14 March at the Todaiji Temple in Nara.
Each night, giant torches ranging in length of six to eight metres are lit dangerously close to the Nigatsudo hall, which is made completely of wood. (Yes, the Todaiji temple itself has been burnt down and reconstructed in the past.)
But as dangerous as it is, the burning embers that shower down from the torches are said to bless attendees with a safe year. Huat ah!
Dates: 1 – 14 March
Held in a gorgeous town in Japan’s mountainous region, Takayama Spring and Autumn Matsuri are easily said to be the most beautiful festivals in Japan. During the Spring festival, locals pray for good harvest. On the contrary, during the Fall festival, locals give thanks for the harvest.
Hand-crafted festival yatai (also known as parade ornate floats) which can be seen in the evening, are a sight to behold as well. Intricate carvings, lacquering and exquisite decorative metal works are found inside and out of the floats. Some of which even have several wooden wind-up marionettes performing atop the yatai.
As dusk approaches, the yatai illuminates the surrounding as the chochin lanterns are lit on the floats.
Dates: Mid-April and mid-October
A festival of the Chichibu Shrine, and one with more than 2000 years of history, Chichibu Yomatsuri is one of Japan’s greatest float festivals — others include Takayama Matsuri and Gion Matsuri.
Held on 2 & 3 December with the main event occurring on 3 December, the festival boasts numerous ornate floats that are adorned with lanterns, tapestries and gilded wood carvings, which are joined by drum and flute music.
There’s also a spectacular two and a half hours Japanese firework display that will illuminate the winter evening skies. Truly a celebration!
Dates: 2 & 3 December