Making Sense of Japan's 10 Strangest Festivals

It’s no secret that Japan loves a good festival. To the uninitiated, however, some of the ceremonies performed during Japanese festivals might seem rather odd. Yet there’s always a meaning behind even the strangest. Thousands of traditional festivals, called “matsuri,” are held throughout the year at shrines and temples all across Japan, often spilling out onto the streets and lasting for several days. These festivals are a long-established part of Japanese heritage and culture, deeply rooted in either local or Shinto traditions and playing a big part in bringing local communities together. In this article, we’ll decode 10 of the strangest festivals in Japan, including what they mean, and what exactly is going on.

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What’s the Meaning Behind Japan’s Traditional Festivals?

Though many of Japan’s festivals may seem baffling at first, there is usually a fairly straightforward explanation behind each of them. Ultimately, the purpose of most Japanese festivals is to pray for peace and prosperity for the local community in times ahead. A common theme for many is to please or appease the deities who are believed to bring good fortune, such as an abundant harvest, good health, or prosperity in the coming year. Alternatively, some festivals are held to scare away demons and ward off evil spirits that might bring harm to the town or its crops.

The origins of many festivals date back several hundreds of years and are the most important celebration in each community’s calendar. Whilst usually centered on a local temple or shrine, Japanese festivals often feature processions through the local streets, varying from simple dances to the parading of a shrine’s deity in portable altars called “mikoshi.” Others involve huge elaborate floats carried by local people. However, the strangest Japanese festivals often include customs that need some explaining.

10 of the Strangest Festivals in Japan

Kokusekiji Sominsai Festival – Iwate Prefecture

The Kokusekiji Sominsai Festival is one of the oldest and strangest festivals in Japan. This festival has been held every year at Kokusekiji Temple in the city of Oshu in Iwate Prefecture for over 1,000 years. As one of the many naked festivals held in Japan, hundreds of men wearing nothing but a traditional form of underwear called a “fundoshi”  participate in the Kokusekiji Sominsai Festival. Despite being so underdressed, the festival takes place in early February in the height of winter.

Beginning late at night, the Kokusekiji Sominsai Festival consists of several different stages that last until the morning. The festival starts with the fundoshi-clad men dousing themselves in the freezing cold Yamauchi River as part of a cleansing ritual. Next, the men climb a towering smoldering bonfire whilst chanting “jasso joyasa,” which translates as “evil go away.”

The men then march towards the temple, bashing the ground with burning tree branches ahead of the festival’s main event. The remainder of the festival consists of the crowd of men all competing to own a sacred sack, called the “somin bukuro.” This stage lasts for several hours and finishes after sunrise. The festival culminates with an enormous scrum of near-naked bruised and sometimes bloodied men grappling for the sole ownership of the sack for several hours. Whoever has hold of the sack at the end of the festival is said to be guaranteed health and prosperity in the year ahead.

Nakizumo Festival

Nakizumo Festivals, also known as “Crying Sumo Festivals,” are held at Shinto shrines throughout Japan. Another long-standing tradition, Nakizumo Festivals have taken place in Japan for around 400 years. Two sumo wrestlers face off inside a sumo ring, each holding a young baby. The first baby to cry is deemed the winner of the bout, as it’s believed that the sound of a baby crying can scare away evil spirits. A long and loud cry is also said to be a good sign that the baby will grow up to be strong and healthy.

Nakizumo festivals typically take place around early May. During the festival, babies aged between 6 to 18 months are pitted against each other whilst held by a sumo wrestler. The sumo wrestlers employ tactics to try and make the baby they are holding cry first, such as pulling faces, gently bouncing the baby or by shouting “naki,” which means to cry. If neither baby cries, the tournament referee will put on a monster mask in a final attempt to get the tears flowing. The most famous Nakizumo festival takes place at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo.

Kanamara Matsuri Festival – Kanagawa Prefecture

The Kanamara Matsuri has become something of a tourist attraction. Also known as the “Penis Festival,” it is held each April at Kanayama Shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture, within easy reach of central Tokyo. The festival always attracts a large and often boisterous crowd seeking a more peculiar side of Japan. The main draw is the procession of three large penis statues that are paraded around the streets near the temple. Stalls set up inside the tiny temple’s grounds sell all sorts of phallic snacks and souvenirs.

Though it may seem comedic, the festival does have a serious side. Kanayama Shrine has long been a place for sex workers to pray for protection from sexually transmitted diseases, and the festival itself began as a way of asking deities to protect and purify the businesses of those who worked in the sex industry. In recent years, the festival has also become a celebration of fertility, sexual health, and gender rights. The profits raised from the festival are donated to charities that carry out research into AIDS and HIV.

Onbashira Festival – Nagano Prefecture

The Onbashira Festival is another historic matsuri said to have been celebrated for over 1,000 years. The festival takes place once every six years in the Suwa Taisha Shrine in Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, lasting for several months. The ultimate purpose of the festival is to relocate 16 freshly felled fir tree trunks from the nearby forests to the grounds of Suwa Taisha Shrine. There the trunks are erected in the four corners of the grounds of the four main shrine buildings.

Each of the 16 tree trunks weighs around 12 tons. They are moved entirely by hand along the eight kilometer journey from the mountains to the shrine by huge teams of brightly dressed participants. A carnival-like atmosphere takes hold as the tree trunks are pulled by ropes along Suwa’s narrow streets and even across rivers. V-shaped structures called “medodeko” are attached to the tree trunks which many of the festival’s participants perilously climb and balance on as they make their way to Suwa Taisha Shrine.

Often called the most dangerous festival in Japan, the most startling moment is called “kiotoshi.” At this point, the tree trunks are sent hurtling down steep slopes, still ridden by many of the festival’s participants. Those who manage to cling to the tree trunks all the way to the bottom of the slope are treated like heroes. Once the tree trunks reach Suwa Taisha Shrine, they are erected in a ceremony called “Tate Onbashira,” replacing those that were installed during the previous festival.

Namahage Sedo Festival – Akita Prefecture

The Namahage Sedo Festival is a relatively young festival, having been held in Shinzan Shrine in Oga City in Akita Prefecture since 1964. However, the festival is based on centuries-old Shinto and folklore rituals whose primary purpose appears to be terrifying children into good behavior and avoiding idleness. The “namahage” are mythical ogres that appear on New Year’s Eve and traditionally go from house to house to scold badly behaved or lazy children.

Traditionally, men dressed as namahage wear big red or blue demonic masks and cloaks made from straw, scouring houses looking for naughty children. The demons are only pacified when they are given rice cakes called “mochi.” The Namahage Sedo Festival sees the same traditions carried out at Shinzan Shrine every February. Parents bring their children to the shrine, who are given the fright of their lives by the rampaging demons that emerge from the nearby mountains carrying flaming torches. Among the festival’s many highlights are the traditional dances and drumming performances carried out by the namahage.

Nada Kenka Matsuri – Hyogo Prefecture

Held each October at Matsubara Hachiman Shrine in Himeji, the Nada Kenka Matsuri is another of Japan’s dangerous festivals. The clue is in the name “kenka,” which means to fight, with three teams doing battle in spectacular style. 

The Nada Kenka Matsuri takes place across two days. On the first day, highly decorative portable floats called “yatai” are carried through the streets to the Matsubara Hachiman Shrine. The floats represent seven different districts of the Nada area of Himeji. Three portable “mikoshi” shrines are also carried to the shrine, which can each weigh up to 2 tons. The lightest mikoshi is carried by men aged between 16 and 25 years old, while the second heaviest is carried by men between 26 and 35 years old. The heaviest mikoshi can only be carried by men aged 36 to 45 years old.

The highlight of the festival takes place on the second day, which sees three teams fight each other while carrying their mikoshi. An incredible spectacle, the aim is to cause irreparable damage to the other team’s mikoshi. The bashing of the mikoshi is believed to please the shrine’s deities, and crowds chant and cheer as the teams violently clatter into each other. The seven yatai floats are likewise pitted against each other in a winner-takes-all battle. While these frenzied fights often result in a number of injuries, the riotous Nada Kenka Matsuri remains an enormously popular annual celebration.

Abare Festival – Ishikawa Prefecture

Often dubbed the “Fire and Violence Festival,” it’s fair to say that Ishikawa’s Abare Festival is one of the most explosive in Japan. Held in Ushitsu over the first Friday and Saturday of July, the Abare Festival dates back to the 1600s when it was first performed to celebrate the eradication of a contagious disease that had blighted the region. The Abare Festival is held in honor of Gozu Tenno, a deity believed to be capable of both causing and curing epidemics. The more violent the festival, the more this destructive deity will be pleased.

During the Abare Festival, 40 large lantern floats called “kiriko” are brought through the town and into the city’s main square. Here, they are paraded around five large burning wooden pillars. The following night, two portable shrines are each carried by 12 men through the town and frequently dropped and deliberately damaged. The shrines are then thrown from a bridge into Ushitsu’s narrow river. The men jump into the river after the shrines and continue to pound away to try and break them up even further. Sparks from a bonfire lit above the river rain down on the men as they continue to trash the shrines. Eventually, the battered shrines are taken to Yasaka Shrine where they’re repeatedly thrown onto and retrieved from another fire. The festival ends when the shrine’s priest declares that the two shrines are suitably destroyed.

Paantu Punaha Festival – Okinawa Prefecture

The Paantu Punaha Festival shares some similarities with the Namahage Sedo Festival. Held in different locations on the Okinawan island of Miyakojima, the Paantu Punaha Festival similarly sees strange mythical creatures descend upon local towns and villages. The festival is named after “paantu,” supernatural beasts that are covered with tree branches and caked  with mud donning ogre-like masks. The paantu walk like zombies through towns and villages trying to scare away evil spirits and rid the island of bad luck.

The paantu also spread their mud across the faces and bodies of everyone that crosses their path. It’s believed that spreading mud on people, particularly children, will bring good luck. The paantu will often chase after its victims, particularly traumatized children, to smear them with mud. Adults and even tourists are all considered fair targets too, whilst houses and cars also end up covered in mud. The festival dates are announced only a few weeks before the event, which is usually held in early October.

Sendai Otsunahiki Festival

Kagoshima Prefecture’s Sendai Otsunahiki sees around 3,000 men compete in a super-sized tug of war in the city of Satsumasendai. The festival began over 400 years ago and was believed to be a ritual designed to raise the morale of warriors during Japan’s Warring  State period. Held each September, the tug of war is a fiercely competitive battle between two neighboring areas of the city.

The Sendai Otsunahiki Festival begins with the making of the rope used in the tug of war. The final rope is made up of around 300 thinner ropes that are laid out in the streets near to where the battle will eventually take place. Over 1,500 people, including hundreds of schoolchildren, combine to skillfully weave the ropes together. When finished, the completed rope is a staggering 400 meters long and weighs around 7 tons. The tug of war is a raucous and exhausting encounter, often taking over an hour before one side claims victory. Once settled, the rope is split in two at the end of the festival.

Rokugo no Takeuchi Bamboo Festival – Akita Prefecture

The Rokugo no Takeuchi Bamboo Festival is held over five days in Akita Suwa Shrine. The festival has been practiced for over 700 years and is an Important Intangible Cultural Property of Japan. Like many of Japan’s festivals, the Rokugo no Takeuchi Festival is a way of praying to the gods for an abundant or prosperous year ahead. Over the first four days, several ceremonies are held in which prayers are offered to the gods for a good harvest in the coming year.

It is the climax of the festival on the fifth day that Rokugo no Takeuchi is most famous for. This is when two teams representing the north and south side of the town face off against each other, doing battle with poles of bamboo up to 8 meters long. In front of a blazing fire, the two sides attack each other with their bamboo poles across three increasingly violent bouts. According to tradition, if the north team wins there’ll be a good harvest in the year ahead. A victory for the southern team is said to guarantee a rise in the price of rice.

Japan’s Strangest Festivals – Age Old Tradition at the Heart of the Community

While many of the strangest festivals in Japan may seem utterly perplexing at first glance, they are usually deeply rooted in ancient traditions and beliefs. Their elaborate ceremonies are often set out to appease specific deities in order to bring an abundant harvest, prosperity, good health or harmony to the local community! So, don't miss the opportunity to witness Japan's 10 strangest festival on your next trip to Japan! 

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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James
James Davies

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