If you happen to be visiting Japan during the balmy summer months, be sure to plan your trip around one (or a few) of its spectacular matsuri, or festivals. Drawing crowds by the thousands, they’re a great opportunity to learn about Japanese history and mythology — and mingle with locals. Click on the map for more details on each.
DISCOVER THE FESTIVALS
If you happen to be visiting Japan during the balmy summer months, be sure to plan your trip around one (or a few) of its spectacular matsuri, or festivals. Drawing crowds by the thousands, they’re a great opportunity to learn about Japanese history and mythology — and mingle with locals.
Click on the map for more details on each.
The month of July (with popular events on July 17 and 24)
Kyoto’s biggest festival, it’s known for a procession of elaborate, wooden mega floats, many of which measure over 80 feet high and represent a distinct neighborhood or corporation of Kyoto.
It began as a ceremony in the ninth century as a plea to the god of the Yasaka Shrine to stop the plagues.
The grand procession of floats, called Yamaboko Junko, takes place on the 17th and 24th of July.
Nicknamed mizu-kake matsuri, or water-throwing festival, the event features the tradition of throwing purifying water at those carrying the shrine’s 120 mikoshi (portable shrines), during a parade through the streets of Tokyo.
Dating back to 1642, onlookers threw water to refresh both the bearers of the shrines and the kami (divine spirits) for whom the shrine is dedicated.
Tomioka Hachiman-gū, the shrine that hosts the festival, has the heaviest and most elaborate mikoshi. Decorated with gold and jewels, it weighs 4.5 tons and is usually on display at the shrine.
Located at two spots along the Sumida River bank, this is the oldest fireworks festival in the world and today attracts more than one million visitors.
In 1733, the event was established as a way to lift the spirits of the Japanese, who had suffered a terrible famine the year before.
20,000 hanabi (Japanese fireworks) are lit and launched from their respective locations toward one another. Ten major fireworks companies participate in the competition.
September 14-15; October 12-13
Located in the small city of Kishiwada in the Osaka prefecture, this high-energy festival is often compared to Pamplona’s running of the bulls. The main event challenges participants to race through winding roads carrying (and dancing atop) hand-carved floats (danjiri).
The Danjiri Matsuri (wooden float festival) first took place in 1703, when the Kishiwada Castle’s daimiyo (feudal lord) prayed to the Shinto gods for a rich harvest.
Stalls serve up everything from ikayaki (grilled squid) to takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes).
July 24 and 25
Taking place along the Osaka Okawa River near the Temmangu Shrine, this “festival of the gods” began 1,000 years ago and is most famous for a land processional (featuring 3,000 performers in traditional imperial-court style dress), boat bonfires and firework displays
It is believed that the Osaka Temmangu god leaves his shrine every year to check on all of the shrine’s parishioners. They hold this festival to celebrate with him.
During the festival parade, 3,000 performers dress in traditional attire from the eighth to the 12th centuries. Attendees often wear yukata (summer kimonos) and geta (wooden slippers).
A celebration honoring ancestral souls, this popular festival features a stunning corridor of 30,000 glowing amber lanterns that illuminate the pathway to Yasukuni Shrine.
Processions of mikoshi (portable shrines), traditional dance routines and theatrical performances pervade the city streets.
Many attend wearing traditional summer-weight kimonos, or yukata. (For the ultimate summer selfie, pose in front of the wall of lanterns!)
This Kyoto festival is the culminating event of the week-long Obon holiday in Japan, a time when households around Japan welcome back the spirits of their ancestors. The bonfires lit on this August evening are said to guide the spirits back to the heavens.
The bonfires are lit in succession on top of the largest mountains surrounding Kyoto, each representing Japanese written characters, along with shapes of a boat and a gate.
The stunning panoramic view of the festival from the city’s Funaokayama Park.