Beyond Cherry Blossoms: 3 Stunning Japanese Spring Festivals
Every spring millions of people travel to Japan to witness the famous cherry blossoms and celebrate with a hanami party. While this iconic celebration of the flowers is certainly worth seeing, here are three other spring festivals centered around unique facets of Japanese culture that are equally worth planning a visit around.
Inuyama Festival: Awe-Inspiring Artistry
Coinciding with the blooming of the cherry blossoms in spring, the Inuyama Matsuri is a sight to see — both day and night. Taking place on the first Saturday and Sunday in April and set against the backdrop of Japan’s oldest castle, the festival draws in an average of 430,000 visitors to Inuyama, located about 1.5 hours by train from Chubu Centrair International Airport.
Held annually since 1635, the Inuyama Matsuri presents an offering of karakuri to the deity of the nearby Haritsuna Shrine. The word “karakuri” has come to mean “mechanisms” or “trick” in Japanese culture and is used to describe any device that evokes a sense of awe through the concealment of its inner workings. Here, Karakuri refers to a set of specially designed puppets that dance and act on 13 three-story dashi, a traditional wheeled float, or that parade along the Sakura-lined streets of Inuyama.
Skilled puppeteers climb inside the floats and elaborately maneuver the traditional puppets to dance to festive flute and drum music. You can get a closer look at these mechanized puppets at the Karakuri Exhibition Museum. The museum periodically hosts workshop sessions with the last karakuri crafts master alive, Tamaya Shobei the 9th, the 14th Karakuri Master and head of the traditional Tamaya Family, which has been making dolls since the 17th century.
While Karakuri decorate the top of the float, the bottom story provides a platform for local children dressed in stunning traditional clothing as they chant and drum to accompanying flute music. While children often play an important festival role in Japanese culture, those in Inuyama are celebrated as a representation of spring’s purity, rebirth and future prosperity. In 2016, Inuyama Matsuri was added to UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The elaborate and towering floats typically parade in the afternoon and again in the evening. A highlight of each parade is the donden — when the entire crew of men driving the five-ton float lift it up off the ground to change directions amid waving lanterns and loud cheers.
As night falls, each float’s 365 lanterns are lit simultaneously before they parade around town once more. Distinct from the afternoon parade, this one offers countless intertwining lights that bathe the cherry blossoms and spectators in a warm glow. The Inuyama Matsuri is an excellent destination for those seeking nature travel with a little something extra.
Takayama Festival: Step Back in Time
The Takayama Festival, or Sanno Matsuri, which was added to UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2016, celebrates the coming of spring for the Hie Jinja Shrine and is held annually on April 14 and 15. While it may seem similar in structure to the Inuyama Festival, there are many details unique to Takayama that will transport you back in time to the Edo period for an unforgettable festival experience unique to Japanese culture.
Thought to be around 400 years old, the Takayama Festival is regarded as one of Japan’s most beautiful and draws an estimated 200,000 attendees each year, accessible by bus and train in about 2 hours from Toyama Airport. The primary attractions are the 12 festival floats, or matsuri-yatai, crafted by Hida masters.
These large, ornate floats are decorated with intricate carvings of gilded wood, along with detailed metal and lacquer work that showcases the craftsmanship and skill passed down through generations. Embroidered drapery and delicate lanterns add to the floats’ beauty. Each float represents a district in Takayama, and each float’s team is costumed in their district’s traditional dress for the festival — giving attendees a glimpse of Japanese culture from long ago.
Along with elaborate decorations, several of the floats also feature masterfully designed karakuri puppets that perform twice a day during the festival. Controlled by nine highly skilled puppeteers using a total of 36 silk cords, the puppets (a boy and girl dressed as Chinese children) perform circles on five trapeze bars. Moving from one to the next, spectators cheer each time one of the puppets successfully moves to the next trapeze. The excitement reaches a peak as the children end up on the shoulders of a puppet of Hotei, the God of good fortune.
The yatai hikizoroe (gathering of yatai) on the grounds of the shrine is a unique opportunity to see all 12 yatai together, as they are normally stored at different locations around the city. It also allows visitors to examine the decorations closely and admire the carpentry, lacquering, gilding, woodcarving and metalwork skills that have gone into their creation.
During the parade, attendees can see the mikoshi (portable shrine) and shishimai (lion dance), in addition to the ornate floats. You can also see the okeiraku, a group of people wearing kimonos traditional to the Hida Region, as well as a group wearing traditional samurai garments. Set against the backdrop of the city’s historic streets, lined with buildings hundreds of years old, the festival has a way of transporting everyone back in time.
The biggest thrill, however, is seeing the yomatsuri, or night parade. As darkness settles in, dozens of lanterns are lit on each float. The scene creates an experience completely different from the daytime parades — and one that will stay with you long after the evening has ended.
Aoi Festival: A Multi-Colored Splendor
Each May, an estimated 150,000 people line the streets of Kyoto to see the multi-colored costumes and traditional pageantry of the Heian era for the city’s oldest and one of its most important festivals.
The Aoi Matsuri, translated as the “Hollyhock Festival” (and more formally known as the Kamo Matsuri), is an annual ritual that dates back to the reign of Emperor Kinmei (CE 539-571). When a bout of heavy rains and destructive winds obliterated crops and the harvest, diviners declared it a punishment from the Kamo deities. In response, the emperor sent his imperial messenger, along with a procession, to the shrine to appease the deities and pray for a bountiful harvest. The ritual was purportedly a success and became an annual event.
Although there are several events that precede festival day, the main event of Aoi Matsuri is the grand procession held each year on May 15. This procession is composed of two groups — the first is made up of men and led by the imperial messenger, and the second is made up of women and led by the Saiō-Dai princess.
The imperial messenger leads the procession on horseback, accompanied by court nobles, soldiers and offerings. He’s followed by two ox carts, four cows, thirty-six horses and 600 people — all of which are dressed in traditional Heian period apparel and donning Aoi, or hollyhock leaves, once believed to ward off natural disasters.
While the Saiō-Dai was traditionally an unmarried female member of the Japanese Imperial Family, today the role is played by an unmarried woman in Kyoto who is selected to maintain ritual purity and represent the emperor at the festival. The woman who is selected must go through several ceremonies of purification before the procession. She is then dressed in the traditional style of the Heian court, donning twelve exquisite layers of colored silk robes called jūnihitoe and is carried through the procession on a palanquin. She is joined by noblewomen, ladies in waiting and priestesses.
The parade is composed of two parts: the procession and the shrine rites. The procession begins at the site of the former Imperial Palace, winds its way slowly toward the Shimogamo shrine, and finishes at the Kamigamo shrine. When the procession arrives at a shrine, everyone pauses for the Saiō-Dai and Imperial Messenger to perform their rituals before continuing on.
Spectators can pay to reserve seats at the Imperial Palace and both Kamo Shrines to get the best view. Without reserved seats, it’s best to arrive early and secure your spot if you hope to get a closer look at the procession. To watch the full procession pass by takes roughly one hour. It’s important to note that compared to other festivals in Japanese culture which feature lively parades, this is a very stoic and proud event.
Today, the procession, with ox carts in tow and hollyhock abundant, looks much like it did hundreds of years ago. However you choose to watch it, the Aoi Matsuri is a stunning sight to see.
Japan’s spring festivals are each an incredible opportunity to experience not only the richness of Japanese history and culture but a chance to join in celebrating and welcoming the changing seasons.