Ultimate Guide to Summer Festival in Japan
By [Name connected to LinkedIn/Profile Page] | Month Date, Year
Summer in the house! Were you awakened by a blast of heat this morning? Never mind though, if you’ve got air conditioning at home. Either way, the blossom of life is unstoppable by any means. That is the way of summer. In return, we want to thank mother nature for offering the “unlimited edition” of color and vitality. Above everything, it is all about the vibe of getting together and sweat that energy out. How? Parades. Music. Dance. Costumes. Fireworks. Endless celebrations. Summer matsuri (festival) it is! Let's start off with...
Haiku of the day:
夕立に次の祭りの通りけり --- 小林 一茶
Yudachi ni tsugi no matsuri no torikeri -- Kobayashi Issa
In the evening street
the next festival
-- Kobayashi Issa
What are summer festivals in Japan about?
Summer festivals in Japan are a huge part of Japanese culture and beliefs. It is a time of liberation or remembrance for many Japanese. People feel connected and recharged when they collide into a crowd of “positively charged particles.” Every town, city, village and neighborhood has its own summer festivals or its own version of national ones. Local characteristics are a factor contributing to the number of summer festivals in Japan. What else? The word matsuri or 祭り sheds light on that. It is commonly known that matsuri is a Japanese word for “festival.” What’s more, is that it originates from the meaning of “to serve” or “to entertain.” To serve and to entertain is the central theme of every summer festival. But why and to whom? Let’s find out!
Where are the summer festivals coming from?
- Religion Factors
In general, all festivals have folkloric music and dance, parade, kago (sedan chairs), dashi (processional floats) and mikoshi (portable shrines). Food and game stalls are essential components in each festival as well. The reason for these traditional galas can be traced back to the agricultural prehistoric times of Japan. Shinto and Buddhism were the dominating religions in the country where everyone worshiped Shinto gods, kami. Though kami is often translated as spirits or gods, the concept of kami differs subtly from the western notion of God. Briefly speaking, kami can either be a powerful God who created the universe or it resides in every living and non-living being. It is also a powerful force of nature such as earthquakes and storms. The idea of kami in Shinto nourished the summer festivals that the Japanese are celebrating today. Every festival is about a particular kami who is praised, treated with honor and gratitude. The grand procession along with the parade is meant to appreciate, appease and ultimately worship those Shinto gods. Depending on the kami that the festival is hosted for, the design and style of the entire show are exclusively crafted.
Popular religious festivals: Gion Festival (祇園祭), Obon Festival (盆), Awa Odori Festival (阿波踊り), Motomiya Festival (本宮祭), Mitarashi Festival (みたらし祭)
- Regional Factors
Most summer festivals are related to the Shinto and Buddist religions. Typically, festivals as such have one of the following elements as their feature: mikoshi, floating lantern (灯籠流し), Obon dances, bucket light (提灯) and characters from the religions or kami. Some other ones have a deep root connecting to local or overseas mythical stories. The well-known Tanabata Festival (七夕) is based on Chinese legend where two stars Altair and Vega are separated from each other by the milky way. They’re only allowed to meet during 七夕. It then became a mixture of traditional Chinese 七夕 and Obon. Nowadays, people are celebrating this day by writing wishes on a small piece of paper (短冊) and hanging it on bamboos.
Popular mythical stories festivals: Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り), Nebula Festivals in other cities i.e. Hirosaki, Goshogawara, Kuroishi and Mutsu, Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕まつり)
- Other Factors
There are also festivals that commemorate a devastating event such as World War II or natural hazards while many regional festivals carry their customs over. Not to mention, music festivals are a big deal in summer too, not just 太鼓 (Japanese traditional drum) and folkloric music, music of all genres and artists from around the world! For more details, you can skip ahead to the section - Which summer festival would you put onto your wishlist?
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Summer festivals = Vacations?
Unfortunately, summer festivals in Japan are not vacations. They are not national holidays where we get days off and celebrate from day till night. However, the good news is that Hakata Dontaku Festival (博多どんたく) in Fukuoka and Hiroshima Flower Festival (ひろしまフラワーフェスティバル) in Hiroshima both fall between the Golden Week (黄金週間) long holiday. Hakata Dontaku Festival, famous for its splendid parades, is on May 3 & 4 every year. It is one of the most popular and biggest festivals in Japan. Hiroshima Flower Festival starts from May 3 to 5 every year. As the name suggests, the festival celebrates flowers, nature and peace. The flower villages are the highlights that uniquely define the festival. There are also a number of exhibits featuring local products and flea markets. So if you haven’t planned anything for Golden Week, they are definitely worth checking out.
What about other summer festivals? Should you go on vacation to visit them all? Sure if you love celebrations and a particular style of parades. Actually, many of the festivals begin in the afternoon. You can hop in anytime to get revived after a long day of work. Also, there are tons of mouthwatering street food and games are there waiting for you. You will always find a festival that fits your time. All in all, if all you need is a breath of hyper festival air, then you are good to chip into any cheer that is near you. But if you are fed up with the local festivals and eager to taste something exotic and different, it might be worth planning a vacation to the right places. The important thing is that you have to plan ahead. For more details, please refer to Tips for getting through the “crowded’ summer.
Which summer festival in Japan will you put onto your wishlist?
Going to popular festivals or creating your own list? It can be hard to know which ones are the right ones for you. What is important is knowing what you are looking for. Let’s have a look at what kinds of summer festivals are out there. There are certainly numerous summer festivals in Japan, and it is just impossible to visit all of them in one summer. Nevertheless, is there a particular one that is better than the others? The simple answer is - no - as it really depends on your preferences and interests. Though each festival has its unique features and history behind it, we can roughly categorize the festivals into the following themes.
Sanno Festival (山王祭)
mid-June, in even-numbered years only
Religious ceremonies & events
Sanja Festival (三社祭)
Saturday or Sunday nearest 15 May, in odd-numbered years only
Religious ceremonies & events
Fukagawa Festival (深川祭)
Religious ceremonies & events
Purification & Pacification of Disease
Gion Festival (祇園祭)
The entire month of July:
- July 17: grand procession of floats (Yamaboko Junko)
- July 24: second procession of fewer and smaller floats
- festival of Yasaka Shrine
- ceremonies & events
Bon Festival (盆)
In most parts of Japan
August 13 - 16
* Bon lasts for 3 days but the starting date varies within different regions of Japan
* It is customary for people to be given leave on the 3 days of Bon
- Buddhist custom honoring the dead or the spirits of one's ancestors
- Bon Odori (盆踊り, folk dance)
- paper (chochin) lanterns
Tenjin Festival (天神祭)
July 24 -25
Honoring the deity of scholarship (菅原道眞)
- honoring the deity of scholarship (菅原道眞)
- land procession
- river procession, illuminated boats with bonfires, fireworks
|Hakata Gion Yamakasa (博多祇園山笠)||Hakata||First half of July|
- 10m tall and over 2 tons kazariyama floats
- 5m tall and 1 ton kakiyama floats.
-July 15 at 4:59 a.m., right before sunrise, 7 teams start carrying floats and racing
|Mitama Festival (みたままつり)||Tokyo||July 13 - 16|
- Mitama is a festival based on Obon
- votive and paper lanterns
- exhibition of flower offerings
- ritual events and performances
|Nebuta Festival (ねぶた祭り)||Aomori||August 3 - 6|
- a type of Tanabata related summer festival
- enormous lantern floats that are based on historical and mythical characters
|Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕まつり)||Sendai||August 6 -8|
- kimono (to ward off bad health & accidents)
- net (good harvests)
- cranes (long life, health & safety)
- purse (good business)
- trashbag (cleanliness)
- paper strip (write wishes on then hang onto a bamboo branch)
|Kanto Festival (竿燈まつり)||Akita||August 3 - 6|
- performances of kanto (long bamboo poles) balancing with paper lanterns attached to the end
- kanto competitions
|Kaga Yuzen Toro Nagashi (加賀友禅燈ろう流し)||Ishikawa||First Saturday in June|
- guiding the spirits of departed ancestors back to the afterlife.
- illuminated flowing paper lanterns
|Arashiyama Toro Nagashi Festival (嵐山灯籠流し)||Kyoto||August 16|
- it was first started to commemorate those who died in World War II.
- lantern-floating festival
- Daimon-ji Bonfire
- "大" is lit ablaze on the side of Nyoi-ga-take on Kyoto's eastern side
|Asakusa Toro Nagashi (浅草灯籠流し)||Tokyo||August 12|
- it was first started to commemorate the victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the firebombing of Tokyo.
- lantern-floating festival
|Sumida River Fireworks Festival (隅田川花火大会)||Tokyo||Last Saturday in July|
- one of the oldest and most famous fireworks shows in Japan
- about 20,000 fireworks
|Omagari Fireworks Festival (大曲花火大会)||Omagari||4th Saturday in August|
- only the best pyrotechnic teams are invited to the show
- around 1000 fireworks
* Limited number of parking spaces that are available only with pre-purchased tickets.
|Nagaoka Fireworks (長岡花火)||Nagaoka||August 1 - 3|
Featuring some of the largest shells in Japan i.e. 90 cm diameter Sanjakudama shells. The signature of the festival is Phoenix Shell, a symbol of recovery after the 2004 Niigata Earthquake. The show's finale covers almost 2 km of the riverbank and is the widest span of fireworks in the world.
* Paid seating is available
* Tickets are required (need to get it in advance)
|Tenji Fireworks (天神祭花火)||Osaka||July 25|
* paid seating is available
|Naniwa Yodogawa Fireworks Festival (なにわ淀川花火大会)||Osaka||August 10|
Held along the riverbed of Yodo River in central Osaka
|Nebuta Festival (ねぶた祭り)||Aomori||August 7||Details: http://www.nebuta.jp/|
|Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕まつり)||Sendai||August 5||Details: https://www.sendaitanabata.com/en|
|Miyazu Toro Nagashi Firework (宮津灯籠流し花火)||Kyoto||August 16||Details: https://www.amanohashidate.jp/|
|Miyajima Fireworks (宮島花火)||Miyajima Island||Jud to late August|
Around 5000 fireworks are launched from boats
Traditional Folk Dance & Music
|Awa Dance Festival/Awa Odori (阿波踊り)||Tokushima||August 12 -15|
- groups of dancers called ren dance thorough the designated area (enbujo) in a procession, playing traditional musical instruments
- the dance is called “Fool’s Dance” which is originated 400 years ago
- the major spectacle is between 18:00 - 22:30
|Yosakoi Festival (よさこい)||Kochi||August 9 -12|
- Yosakoi, group dance originated in Kochi
- around 200 groups (about 20,000 dancers)
|Shinjuku Eisa Festival (新宿エイサーまつり)||Tokyo||Late July|
- Buddhist event to honor one’s ancestors
- Eisa, a traditional dance from the Okinawan islands
- Unique costumes and drums
|Tsukiji Honganji Temple Bon Odori Festival (築地本願寺納涼盆踊り大会)||Tokyo||Late July - Early August|
- Bon dance
- costume competition
- “Japan’s Most Delicious Bon Odori”
|Koenji Awaodori Festival (東京高円寺阿波おどり)||Tokyo||Late August|
- Awaodori, a traditional dance of Tokushima
- the dance procession runs to the south of JR Koenji Station
- 2 distinct performance zones – one next to the JR station and another located closer to Shin-Koenji Station on the Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line
* During the festival, do not enter the dance areas.
Summer Music Festival
August 20 - 22, 2021
- biggest and the most famous outdoor music festival in Japan
- worldwide artists performing in forests
Sun Rock Festival
August 13 - 14, 2021
Unstop all-night rock festival
May 22 - 23, 2021
- featuring music, art & films
- “Save The Beach, Save The Ocean” cultural concepts
- Japan-based artist
|Soma Nomaoi Festival (相馬野馬追まつり)||Fukushima||Last weekend in July|
- celebrating the region’s horse-breeding heritage
- samurai spirit
- procession of horse riders
- horse racing event: Kachu Keiba
- horse-capturing ritual: Nomakade
* Entrance fee required
* Reserved seats available
|Asakusa Samba Carnival (浅草サンバカーニバル)||Tokyo||September 25|
Though it's not strictly in summer, it's the
biggest samba carnival in Japan!
|Fukagawa Festival (深川祭り)||Koto, Tokyo||Mid August|
- water splashing
- music performances
- Noh (classical Japanese dance-drama) Theater
|Nakizumo Festival (泣き相撲)||Tokyo||May 5|
Sumo wrestlers trying to make babies cry
(coming from the Japanese’s old belief that
“crying babies grow fastest”)
|Giant Snake Festival||Sekikawa, a village located in the north part of Niigata||Late August||80-meter-long serpent parade|
|Noda Mikoshi Parade (野田みこしパレード)||Noda||End of July|
|Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial||Niigata|
- every 3 years
*the next triennial is scheduled for summer 2021.
- over 100 modern art installations exhibited throughout 760 square km landscape
- artworks are designed to incorporate local environment and culture
- Japanese & international artists
Foods & Games
What else can you expect? Lots and lots of food and games! There are snacks you can buy to eat on the go. The game stalls are always packed with people, especially children.
Japanese Foods you can expect in summer festival
takoyaki (たこ焼き, octopus balls), yakitori (焼き鳥, grilled chicken), yakisoba (焼きそば, stir-fried soba noodles with meat and vegetables), Japanese corn dog (コーンドッグ), karaage (唐揚げ, fried chicken), tornado potato (トルネードポテト), tamasen (たません, shrimp flavored cracker with toppings), kakigori (かき氷, Japanese shave ice), baby castella (ベビーカステラ, mini Japanese sponge cake), taiyaki (鯛焼き, fish-shaped cake with fillings), mitarashi dango (みたらし団子, rice ball), choco banana (チョコバナナ), candy apple (リンゴあめ), amezaiku (飴細工, decorative candy), seafood, local cuisines, etc.
Japanese traditional games and toys in summer festivals
goldfish catching, yoyo fishing, shooting, ring throwing, hagoita (traditional Japanese battledore), daruma (wishing dolls), kumanote (bamboo rakes), etc.
Tips for getting through the “crowded’ summer
- Book ahead
Not only locals but also people from around the world come to enjoy the atmosphere of every summer festival in Japan. If you are traveling to another city, the first and foremost thing is to book Shinkansen and hotels in advance, one year ahead in some cases.
- Closed roads, busy traffic & reserved parking
With the parade and grand procession of floats going all around, roads for the parade are closed and traffic is jammed. Many parking lots will need to be booked in advance. Please check the official sites of the festivals for more details on closed roads, traffic, parking and reserved seats.
- Bring cash & coin
For purchasing, it will make your life a lot easier if you bring cash, especially coins. Most of the stalls will only receive cash or coins since most stuff only costs a few hundred yen. It would be a bit of a pain having to find an ATM or get change in the big crowds you’ll find at most every summer festival in Japan.
- Weather & what to prepare
The heat! 熱い [atsui] for real! It’s mid-summer in Tokyo, Kyoto or anywhere in Japan and you are dancing and singing, the heat and humidity will sap your energy. Many people get heatstroke during the events. Taking care of yourself is just as important as having fun. Have something in your stomach, drink lots of water and take a rest during events. If you consider wearing a yukata, it would be a good idea to check the weather of the day you are going. Though yukata are relatively lighter and more comfortable than kimono, they are a lot hotter than tank tops and shorts. Remember that you would probably be wearing clogs (traditional Japanese footwear) with them too. Your feet will feel hurt after a long day of walking and dancing.
- Things to get for cooling down
There are an incredibly wide variety of cooling products that you can get from convenience stores or 100-yen shops. Portable fans are popular but you have to hold them all the time. A better choice would be cooling sprays and lotions. They are pretty handy for use. You can also get fast-drying shirts and socks or cooling headbands in most stores. Are there traditional ways of cooling down in Japan? Yes! Uchimizu is the one. People will sprinkle water on the streets to have fun and to get rid of the heat.
- Traditional Japanese summertime dishes
Cheers! Let’s get an icey cold Japanese beer first! Ah! Here we go. Some great choices for tasty, refreshing foods are zaru soba/udon (ざるそば/ざるうど, cold soba/udon), hiyashi chuka (冷やし中華, cold ramen), morioka reimen (盛岡冷麺, cold noodle), tokoroten (心太, agarophytes noodle), hiyayakko (冷奴, cold tofu), and umeboshi (梅干, dried ume) drinks.
- Carrying a mikoshi
You can join Bon Odori summer festival in Japan anytime but it’s not enough to be strong enough to help carry it. Carrying a mikoshi is deemed a highly sacred act. You need to learn the proper manners and roots beforehand. Most communities are pretty welcoming as long as you are respectful. Don’t be shy if you want to try it out. People are happy to help.
- Going with friends
Though there’re exploding amount of people in summer festivals, that's just not enough for you:) If you’re someone who likes to sing, dance, scream and take selfies or photos. The nicest thing is that you do it all with your friends. It would be a treasurous memory that makes you smile every time you think about it. Don’t forget to “kidnap” your Japanese friends to your favorite summer festivals so that you can show off your knowledge of those summer festivals in Japan. Pardon me! So you can perhaps teach something that even your Japanese friends don't know about. Hey, making new Japanese friends at festivals is not a problem. Get out and explore, you never know what you'll find!
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How do I avoid crowds at a summer festival in Japan?
Not everyone is a fan of busy crowds and crazy celebrations. Perhaps all you want is to take a break and chill out at this time of the year. That’s cool too! There are plenty of activities that you can enjoy alone or peacefully in summertime Japan. It is also the perfect season for hiking, biking, camping and garden visiting. What is exciting is that Mt.Fuji only officially opens for hikers during summer! On the quieter side, why not try mediation or staying with a monk? You can try Zazen (座禅), waterfall meditation or temple lodgings (宿坊). There are many amazing workshops that you can find in most places in Japan. Alternatively, taking a course, learning something new or enhancing your knowledge, say advancing your Japanese, are also fabulous ways to light up this summer! Even learning Japanese slang is super fun and useful! Those kinds of solo activities especially suit this summer due to the pandemic.
Routes to check out: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2427.html
Flower fields to check out: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2423.html
Japanese courses: https://www.japanswitch.com/
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What do summer festivals in Japan look like in 2021?
As the spread of COVID is still an issue, most of the popular festivals are canceled or postponed. Please double check event updates often because they are constantly changing. Luckily, many music festivals are or will be happening. Visit their official website for dates and tickets, which can be found on the Music festivals table in Which summer festival would you put onto your wishlist?
Monthly updates of events in Japan: https://www.jnto.go.jp/
2021 Japan summer festivals calendar: https://www.kyuhoshi.com
No matter how you are going to spend your summer in Japan this year, it is a time to get inspired, reconnected and rejuvenated. Regardless of whether you spend it outdoors or indoors, we shall keep the spirit of the summer festival rolling!
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