10 of the Most Famous Festivals (Matsuri) in Japan
Since ancient times, the countless deities of Japan have been praised and pleased through traditional Japanese “matsuri” festivals. Filled with dancing, music, costumes, food, and more, each matsuri festival boasts its own fascinating history and unique charm. From the vast selection of matsuri festivals dotting Japan, we’ve picked out the most famous and unique. No Japanese cultural experience is complete without a visit to one of the following matsuri!
Oct 05 2021 (Aug 12 2022)
How Does Japan Celebrate a Matsuri Festival?
Matsuri festivals can celebrate anything, from local deities to abundant harvests, good fortune, delicious sake, and self-fulfillment. Many of the rituals are passionate and intense while others are relaxed and peaceful. Most of the prominent matsuri festivals are held in major cities during summer or winter, however, smaller local matsuri with their own distinct charm can be found all across the country throughout the year.
Most matsuri festivals run annually or semi-annually by a shrine and can last anywhere between a single day to an entire month. While there is no definitive data detailing exactly how many matsuri occur in Japan every year, estimates suggest that it could be as many as 300,000!
Apart from the costumes and music, one of the biggest icons of many matsuri is the “mikoshi,” a portable shrine said to hold a deity passionately carried around the neighborhood. Other common practices include group dances, effigy burning, parade floats, and performances with traditional instruments. Often surrounding these festivals are pop-up stalls selling food, drinks, souvenirs, toys, and more. Locals will dress up in kimono or yukata to watch the parade while relishing festival treats, including chocolate bananas, karaage fried chicken, okonomiyaki pancakes, yakisoba noodles, and more. If you’re looking for an excuse to wear a kimono or yukata, you won’t find a better occasion!
1. Awa Odori (Mid-August, Tokushima)
The largest traditional dance festival in Japan, Awa Odori takes place in Tokushima City in the secluded prefecture of Tokushima on Shikoku Island. Occurring for several days during mid-August, the Awa Odori boasts over 400 years of profound history and is counted amongst Japan’s Three Great Bon Odori festivals, which are all large-scale traditional dances occurring during the summertime holiday of Obon.
Awa Odori features groups of choreographed dancers known as “ren.” There are lots of different ren of varying sizes, including amatuer ren made up of locals, highly trained professional ren, and ren of schoolchildren or employees from a company. Each ren is divided between the men’s dance and the women’s dance, with the men donning a traditional garment known as a “happi” and socks while women wear a yukata and traditional “amigasa” straw hat with “geta” wooden clogs. The men’s dance is intense and dynamic while the women’s is refined and elegant. Awa Odori is also noted for its distinctive duple time music, which is produced by a band called a “narimono” with a number of instruments including bells, flutes, shamisen, and taiko drums.
2. Sendai Tanabata Matsuri (August 6-8, Sendai)
Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival, is an important Japan-wide seasonal celebration taking place on July 7 and lasting until mid-August (depending on the area and region). During this time, people will write their wishes on strips of rectangular “tanzaku” paper and hang it on the leaves of bamboo while praying to the stars. Streets, shopping arcades, homes, and stores will display decorations of colorful streamers and bamboo leaves, weaving together an energetic, enchanting atmosphere. The festival was originally based on the Chinese Qixi Festival and celebrates the legend of Orihime and Hikoboshi, star-crossed lovers represented by the stars Vega and Altair who are separated by the Milky Way. Once a year, during the seventh day of the seventh lunar month according to the lunisolar calendar, they are allowed to meet, marking the beginning of Tanabata. During this time, the light shining from Vega and Altair is said to be at its brightest, leading to the belief that the two deities were finally together.
While much of Japan now celebrates Tanabata on July 7, the city of Sendai, the home of Japan’s leading Tanabata festival, hosts it a month later in line with Japan’s old lunisolar calendar from August 6-8. The Sendai Tanabata Matsuri was originally promoted by Sendai’s legendary samurai founder Date Masamune and continues today as one of Japan’s most flamboyant celebrations. During this time, the entirety of Sendai and surroundings become engulfed in a tapestry of dazzling handmade Tanabata decorations, including bamboo, origami, tanzaku paper, drawstring bags, and streamers. Many are made to be huge and extravagant, with the thick meter-long streamers hung on huge sticks of bamboo being the most eye-catching.
3. Aomori Nebuta Matsuri (Early August, Aomori)
One of northern Tohoku’s stand-out events, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri is centered around huge, dramatic “nebuta” paper lantern floats designed in the shapes of deities, mythical creatures, kabuki actors, and more. The Nebuta Matsuri is celebrated simultaneously in almost every region of Aomori Prefecture during early August, with popular places to witness it being Aomori City, Hirosaki, and Goshogawara. Surrounding the floats are “haneto” dancers, who perform an energetic routine timed to a musical accompaniment while dressed flamboyantly.
Beginning as a ritual to send off the spirits of the dead, the origins of this custom can be traced back as far as the Tanabata/Obon festivals of the Nara Period (710-794). While most of these festivals see small lanterns gently gliding down rivers, those in Aomori have evolved into massive sculpture-like nebuta lanterns reaching up to 5 meters tall and 9 meters wide. With over two million people mobilized for the event, it remains one of Japan’s largest celebrations and a part of Tohoku’s Three Great Festivals.
4. Sapporo Snow Festival (Late January/Early February, Sapporo)
Aiming to make the bitter cold of Hokkaido’s mid-winter bright and fun, the Sapporo Snow Festival features hundreds of massive and extraordinarily detailed ice and snow sculptures adorning the city of Sapporo. The festival’s main location is the central Odori Park, while the nearby neighborhood of Susukino and the Tsu Dome in Higashi Ward also showcase a delightful range worth checking out.
Compared with many of the other festivals on this list, the Sapporo Snow Festival has a relatively short and humble history. It was kicked off by a group of local high schoolers who started building sculptures out of snow plowed and discarded in Odori Park. Each year, more professional and passionate sculptors would come to try and outdo each other, making the event rapidly grow in scale. Now attracting over 2.5 million visitors from Japan and abroad, the ice and snow sculptures lining the frozen streets grow more ambitious and breathtaking every year. The festival is also enhanced by stunning illuminations, projection mapping, ice skating, food stalls, snow slides, and more, providing entertainment well worth braving the cold for!
5. Hakata Dontaku Matsuri (May 3-4, Fukuoka)
One of the most popular Golden Week (holiday period in late April/early May) festivals in Japan, the Hakata Dontaku Matsuri is held annually on May 3-4 in the city of Fukuoka in Kyushu. During the festival, the streets are taken over by beautifully costumed dancers, many bearing the festival’s iconic wooden "shamoji” spoon, alongside gorgeously decorated “hana jidosha” floats.
The word “dontaku” is said to have originated from the Dutch word “zondag,” meaning “Sunday” or “holiday.” The word came into use in Japan during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) to denote the 1st and 6th of each month, which were considered official holidays between 1868 and 1876. The Hakata Dontaku Matsuri itself can be traced back to 1179 as a “Matsubayashi” festival to celebrate the Lunar New Year. While it was briefly banned by the government in 1872, it was kickstarted again in 1879 on a new date under the fresh name of Dontaku. After the war, it assumed its current form in 1962, with a series of processions and dances by locals of both young and old men and women occurring over two days. Nowadays, there are roughly 650 Dontaku groups of over 30,000 performers cheered on by up to 2 million spectators!
6. Nagasaki Lantern Festival (Late January/Early February, Nagasaki)
Beginning as a humble Chinese New Year celebration, the Nagasaki Lantern Festival is now a dreamlike display of over 15,000 lanterns transforming the city into a tapestry of fiery reds and vivid yellows. Occurring during the Lunar New Year, the festival attracts over 1 million visitors to Nagasaki City’s Chinatown and nearby locations to witness the lanterns alongside fireworks, traditional dances, theatre performances, and more.
The festival was originally started by Chinese residents living in the Nagasaki Chinatown celebrating the Chinese New Year. After impressing the other citizens of Nagasaki, the festival was ramped up and redesigned in 1994 to include all residents, quickly becoming one of Kyushu’s most prominent winter icons. The festival runs for around two weeks during an ever-changing period around late January and early February. There are 7 main areas decorated with lanterns, including the Nagasaki Chinatown, Central Park, the Chinese district of Tojinyashiki, Kofukuji Temple, and more.
7. Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri (Mid-September, Kishiwada)
Held in Kishiwada City, Osaka, during mid-September, the Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri is known for its show of extremely large and heavy “danjiri” wooden floats pulled along at breakneck speeds. Considered one of the most thrilling traditional festivals in Japan, over 400,000 spectators gather to watch this nail-biting display of raw energy and excitement.
With up to 10 different varieties unique to certain areas, danjiri floats have hundreds of years of history and are at the heart of Kansai culture. Each danjiri hosts a group of musicians alongside a collection of locals and one individual chosen to stand atop to shift their weight and help it around corners. While there are several festivals featuring danjiri, Kishiwada is by far the most famous. The danjiri here weigh about 4 tons and are generally made from the wood of the Japanese “keyaki” tree and adorned with intricate carvings by the town’s most skilled carpenters. To help move it along, a team of up to 200 pull ropes from the front while pushing the wheels from behind with a stick, carefully matching their power and showing off their strength and dexterity.
8. Tenjin Matsuri (Late June - July 25, Osaka)
Ranked as one of Japan’s top three festivals, the Tenjin Festival in Osaka is celebrated for its dual land and river processions topped off by a breathtaking fireworks display. While events last for an entire month, the main spectacle takes place on July 24-25 with over 1 million people flocking to take part.
Boasting more than 1,000 years of history, Tenjin Matsuri festivals are actually held around the 25th each month at Tenmangu Shrines Japan-wide to honor the deity of scholarship Sugawara Michizane. Within this tradition, the annual summertime Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka is the most famous, with the climax of over 5,000 fireworks and convoy of approximately 100 boats, many bearing bonfires, transforming Osaka into another world.
The processions on the 24th are also worth checking out, with drums and men donning red hats swarming the streets during the afternoon to announce the completion of festival preparations. These processions intensify on the 25th, where a costumed crowd of 3,000 will march from Tenmangu Shrine led by the red-hatted men banging taiko drums while balancing on see-saw-like stands. With plenty of dances, exotic costumes, and more, it makes for an unforgettable two days in Osaka!
9. Gion Matsuri (July, Kyoto)
Held by Yasaka Shrine, which sits between Kyoto’s historical Gion and Higashiyama districts, the Gion Matsuri is another of Japan’s most famous matsuri festivals. Its history dates all the way back to 869 with the Emperor declaring a festival be held to appease the gods and curb plague. It has been held continuously since 970.
The Gion Matsuri is most famous for the spectacular procession of floats on the 17th and 24th of July along with the smaller “yoiyama” festivals the preceding nights. During the yoiyama, the giant “yama” and “hoko” floats used for the main processions are displayed outdoors with their lanterns lit accompanied by Gion-bayashi traditional music. There’s plenty more happening throughout July, so check out what event lines up with your stay.
The festival is also a time for locals and visitors to don their best kimono and show it off throughout the town. Surrounded by the ancient, retro streets of Kyoto’s geisha district, the jovial yet deeply spiritual atmosphere offers an intimate encounter with the soul of Japanese culture. Being one of Japan’s cultural heartlands, Kyoto is also host to a number of other matsuri festivals throughout the year, including the iconic burning kanji characters of the Gozan no Okuribi festival.
10. Kanda Matsuri (May, Tokyo)
Kanda Matsuri is one of Tokyo’s biggest Shinto festivals. Beginning during the Edo period, it is held by Kanda Myojin Shrine in Tokyo’s Chiyoda City and spreads out across neighborhoods like Kanda, Nihonbashi, Akihabara, and Marunouchi. During this time, over 200 mikoshi accompanied by roughly a thousand participants and thousands of spectators dominate the streets. The full “honmatsuri” version takes place on odd-numbered years, while a simplified version is held on even. Complemented by events throughout the week, the main attractions usually occur over the weekend closest to May 15, with day-long processions on Saturday and parades of mikoshi on Sunday.
The origins of the festival are murky, with some form of it believed to exist during the original construction of Kanda Myojin Shrine in 730. However, its modern iteration truly kicked off when Tokugawa Ieyasu visited Kanda Myojin Shrine to pray for his victory in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. He decisively won, leading to the start of the Tokugawa shogunate. Coincidentally, the day Tokugawa officially unified the whole of Japan was also the shrine’s festival day, naturally leading Tokugawa to believe the shrine held immense power. He allowed its mikoshi to enter the Edo Castle grounds while it became officially recognized and protected by the shogunate.
Japan: The Land of Matsuri Festivals
Mouthwatering delicacies, enchanting parades, soulful music, delightful costumes, and elegant dances of immense spirituality and historical significance - for those seeking an encounter with traditional Japan, nothing beats a matsuri festival! Even if your trip doesn’t coincide with one of the big ones, you’re almost guaranteed to find some form of matsuri festival or similar event throughout the year, so do some research and join the fun!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.