Summer in Japan means festivals. From massive water fights to awesome fireworks displays to giant paper floats lit up from inside by thousands of lights, there is something spectacular about each one.
Regardless of what festival appeals to you, be prepared for celebratory moods and lots of good cheer—as well as delectable street food and drink vendors aplenty. If you are lucky enough to have friends with whom you can stay for a festival or two, you need only concern yourself with booking tickets for some of the stage performances and parades (that is, if you prefer to take a seat rather than stand and mingle with the crowds). For everybody else, make sure to book your accommodations as early as possible.
Some of the festivals, such as the Sendai Tanabata Festival, see in the neighbourhood of two million tourists each year! Others, like the Fukagawa Hachiman Festival in Tokyo, frequently have more than 30,000 participants walking and dancing in the parade. Joining in with these lively festivals is nothing short of absolutely fantastic. And, for those of you wondering about the rates of crime with such massive crowds, rest assured: while there is a strong police presence to keep everybody in order, the festivities very rarely get out of hand. Everybody is there to take in the show and to join in the celebration.
With all of the festivals taking place in the months of July and August, your main task will be deciding which ones to prioritize when considering your upcoming vacation plans. Will it be watching the mikoshi being loaded onto processional boats while dining on local delicacies at Osaka’s Tenjin Festival? Getting wet in Tokyo as you cheer on (and throw water on) the men and women carrying the heavy mikoshi through the streets? Partying with visitors and locals before one of the great parades at the Kyoto Gion Festival? Or dancing like nobody is watching (or cares!) at the Awa Dance Festival in Tokushima? Read on to find out more about all of these festivals and to help you decide which one is for you.
All Photos: courtesy of JNTO unless otherwise noted Illustrations: Chieko Watanabe
The colourful Aomori Nebuta Festival, originating in the Edo era, is the most famous of all of Japan’s Nebuta festivals. Giant paper lantern floats (nebuta), depicting brave warriors from Japanese folklore and myths, are lit from within and paraded through the streets, pulled by children using ropes (or at least appearing to be pulled by the children) and accompanied by chanting dancers wearing the traditional haneto costume. The yearly festival is an important part of Aomori’s cultural heritage and locals make up most of the participants. However, anybody is able to participate in the procession so long as they pick up a haneto costume, for rent or sale in many shops and stalls in the area.
The nebuta were originally lit from inside by candles, a practice that was eventually banned by the government for fear of a potential fire. Following the Second World War, the nebuta were brought back in order to boost the morale of citizens. This time, however, the giant floats were lit from inside by battery-powered lightbulbs and portable generators, while the outer frames of the nebuta were changed from the original bamboo to wire in order to lower the potential risk of fire. There are three types of lantern that make an appearance during the festival: the children’s nebuta, the regional nebuta and the grander and larger nebuta. Some of the larger lanterns are lit up by hundreds of lightbulbs in order to achieve the most stunning effect.
This festival of lights takes place every year in Aomori from August 2 to 7, with the float parade taking place nightly. The final day is filled with non-stop fun, with a daytime parade and an evening fireworks show that accompanies bringing the nebuta to the sea. There is also an award (Nebuta Taisho, the grand prize) for the best processional group.
Photos: ©Yasufumi Nishi / ©JNTO
FUKAGAWA HACHIMAN Tokyo
The Fukagawa Hachiman Festival is Tokyo’s giant summer water fight festival, and it is most definitely a wet one! The crowds cheer on the mikoshi, which bear men and women, and throw cold water on them as they travel along the processional route. Mikoshi are portable shrines that are also very heavy, and since the weather in Tokyo in August is scorching hot, the teams carrying them must feel grateful for the constant showers. While this festival takes place yearly, every three years it is grander than usual, with 2017 being one of those years. This involves a longer festival running from August 11 to 15, with the main parade taking place August 12. The main parade starts at Fukagawa Hachiman shrine, where upwards of 50 mikoshi teams, complete with dancers and musicians, then cross the Sumida River before returning back to the shrine for the closing festivities. In recent years more than 30,000 participants joined the parade, with 500,000 spectators cheering them on.
Osaka’s Tenjin Festival is regarded as one of Japan’s top summer festivals. It is held annually on July 24 and 25. The festival begins at the Tenmangu shrine, followed by prayers at the river for continued peace and prosperity. Later, drums are sounded by men wearing traditional costumes and tall red hats to mark the start of the celebrations. On day two, the drummers lead the procession from the shrine and then wind through the streets. There are three mikoshi that are carried during the procession; one carries the spirit of the Tenmangu shrine’s deity, Sugawara Michizane, following a boy and a girl leading a sacred ox (who is the messenger of Michizane). Before dusk, the procession moves to the river, where the mikoshi are loaded into processional boats, traditional performances take place on stage boats and innumerable food stalls line the river’s edge, all creating a joyful and celebratory mood.
The Sumida River Fireworks Festival is Japan’s oldest fireworks festival, dating back to 1733, and was originally intended as a prayer for victims of a famine. Nowadays the festival, which takes place in Sumida Park, involves more than 22,000 fireworks and draws crowds upwards of a million people! Japanese fireworks are known as hanabi, meaning “fire flower,” because of their amazing designs, some in the intricate shape of chrysanthemums or peonies. One option for viewing the festival is along the river’s edge, where there are food stalls aplenty. You can also reserve a seat on a yakatabune (“cruise boat”), where you can dine on small dishes while taking in the spectacle. Or try walking across one of the three bridges where the fireworks are launched, from which you are guaranteed an amazing view (and a large crowd). This year, the fireworks display is set to take place Saturday, July 29 (with the rain date set for the Sunday).
KYOTO GION Kyoto
Kyoto Gion is also the longest summer festival in Japan, running from July 1 through 31 every
year. The main events are the two parades, held the mornings of July 17 (Saki Matsuri Yamahoko Junko) and 24 (Ato Matsuri Yamahoko Junko). There are a total of 33 yamahoko floats, separated into two types: 23 of the smaller yama and 10 of the towering hoko. Each hoko weighs up to 12 tons (24,000 pounds) and soars to heights of 25 metres! These massive floats are pulled by 50 men each and require an entire team to engineer their safe travel. The earlier parade is the larger and busier of the two, featuring 23 of the yamahoko.
The later parade was reinstated in 2014, after a hiatus of 48 years, and includes the remaining 10 yamahoko. This is the event to go to if you are more crowd-averse, and it would be great for families with small children.
At the head of the parade is the Naginata Hoko, which carries the divine sacred messenger boy and his companions. Starting three days before the parade, the child eats a special diet to purify his mind and body, and his feet are not able to touch the ground until the day of the procession, after which he returns to being a “normal” boy.
While there are 30 other, smaller events during the festival month, it is the three days and nights leading up to each of the parades that are perhaps the greatest attractions for visitors and locals alike. The streets are open only to pedestrians and they come alive with food stands, beer vendors and games. Many visitors dress in traditional costumes, including the yukata, and the atmosphere is one of great cheer and celebration. Interestingly, while the festival is named after the Gion neighbourhood, Japan’s most famous geisha district, most of the festivities take place on the opposite side of the Kamo River.
AWA DANCE Tokushima
“Dancing fools and watching fools… since both are the same fools, why not dance?” If you find this sentiment appealing, then this is the festival for you!
The Awa Dance Festival (Awa Odori) is the ideal festival for anyone who loves dancing, whether it be simply watching or joining right in! Especially appealing to families, the Awa Dance Festival takes place in Tokushima (Awa is the former name of Tokushima City), Shikoku, between August 12 and 15.
The folkdances performed during the Awa Odori date back to the late 1500s, when the feudal lord, Hachisuka Iemasa, offered copious amounts of sake to the village people in order to celebrate the construction of Tokushima Castle. The villagers drank sake in such great abundance that they became happily drunk and began dancing dynamically with irregular steps. There is a song often sung for the festival, “Eraiyatcha, eraiyatcha, yoi yoi yoi yoi,” whose lyrics include this sentiment: dancing fools and watching fools are both fools—so why not dance? This phrase accurately captures the spirit of this dance festival. Dancers form dancing teams called ren and each team competes to be the top performers during the festival. There is also a drop-in Niwaka Ren team for visitors wanting to join a dance team of their own.
There are only two styles of dance in the Awa Dance Festival—Otoko Odori, “male dancing,” which is funny and is full of movement, and Onna Odori, “female dancing,” which is sultry and elegant. Musician play the drums, gongs, flutes and traditional three-stringed instruments while dancers (grouped by gender) dance along to the two-beat rhythm. The only “rule” for the dancing, regardless if you are male or female, is to move your right arm and leg forward in unison, followed by your left arm and leg. While there are many stage performances during the day, evenings are filled with food and drink, and it is usually during the nights that spectators and visitors join in the excitement.
SENDAI TANABATA Miyagi
According to an ancient Chinese legend, on the seventh day of the seventh month, two of the brightest stars in the Milky Way galaxy, Altair and Vega, are able to meet. Altair and Vega represent the sad and romantic story of two lovers who displeased the gods and were therefore forbidden to see one another, except for this one day each year. The Sendai Tanabata Festival is one of the biggest and most famous of the Tanabata festivals and takes place between August 6 and 8, in accordance with the old lunar calendar. Festivities take place in the city centre, with a main attraction being the thousands of elegant streamers that decorate the shopping arcades. The streamers, crafted from washi and bamboo, are made by student groups and local shops. Each streamer is between three and five metres long and together they resemble a colourful forest. Other festivities include fireworks, live music, food and dancing. More than two million tourists come to Sendai City to enjoy this festival.
Photos: ©Yasufumi Nishi / © JNTO