A Season by Season Guide to Kyushu's Vibrant Local Festivals
Kyushu, located in southwest Japan, is known for its long history that dates back further than the third century, its rich natural landscapes, and its delicious cuisine. Must-see highlights for every visitor to this area is Kyushu's atmospheric local festivals, which are called "matsuri" in Japanese. This article will introduce the many different festivals held year-round in Kyushu. If you happen to be in town when any of these are held, make a point of checking them out!
Dec 10 2019 (Dec 18 2019)
* Written in collaboration with the Kyushu Tourism Promotion Organization.
Kyushu is an area located in Japan's southwest. Kyushu differs from the Kanto region (the eastern part of Japan where Tokyo is located) and the Kansai region (the western part of Japan where cities like Osaka and Kyoto are located) in that it was exposed to trade with the outside world earlier than other places in Japan. For example, Dejima, an island located off the Nagasaki coast, was the only area in Japan permitted to trade with the Netherlands during the Edo period (1603 - 1968). This background gives Kyushu a history and culture that has diverged a little with the rest of Japan. For this reason, Kyushu offers sophisticated cities like Fukuoka and Kumamoto as well as many wonderful areas where you can see and experience traditional Japanese culture and historical performing arts.
In other words, even if you've been to other major cities like Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, or Kyoto, you should be able to enjoy Kyushu without feeling like you've seen it all before!
There are seven prefectures in Kyushu: Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Kagoshima, Oita, Nagasaki, Saga, and Miyazaki. Since Kyushu is located in southern Japan, its average temperature tends to be around 1 to 2 degrees higher than areas like Tokyo.
A highlight of any trip to Kyushu would definitely have to be the food! In particular, there are many types of noodle dishes the locals are particularly proud of, including Hakata's famous tonkotsu (pork bone stock) ramen, soft-textured Hakata-style udon, and Nagasaki's champon noodles.
There are also a wealth of majestic natural features, including local hot spring waters rich in natural salts and minerals, and the world's largest complex volcano. This vibrant natural environment means that visitors can enjoy Kyushu's beauty year-round.
Kyushu's transport infrastructure is also very convenient. Almost all of Kyushu is connected by rail, and you can access Kyushu by bullet train or plane from all over Japan. However, the vast natural landscapes that cover this part of Japan means that there are also some more remote areas that are best reached by rental car.
Kyushu also has unique local cultures and traditions, such as festivals that embody the faith and values of Kyushu's different cities and prefectures. Participating in these festivals is a way for visitors to experience the lifestyle of local Kyushu residents for themselves. Many of these festivals are held at the same time each year, so checking the dates and venues when planning your next trip to Japan is sure to make your time here more meaningful!
Festivals in Kyushu
* The photos and videos in this article were taken during Kyushu Festival Island 2019.
Summer Festivals in Kyushu (July - August)
July and August are the hottest times of the year in Japan. Seeing the traditional Japanese costumes and floats and getting swept up in the festivities during the warm weather is a true highlight of summer in Japan.
July: Feel Hakata's Summer Passion with the Iconic Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival (Fukuoka)
Dates: July 1st, 9th - 15th
The Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival is a must-see if you happen to be in Hakata, Fukuoka during the event. This festival, along with 32 other festivals across Japan, was registered on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2016. This festival is dedicated to the Kushida Jinja shrine and according to legend, started back in the year 1241. As one of the many Gion festivals that honors the legendary Susano-no-Mikoto, it is associated with warding away disasters, with roots in both Shintoism and Buddhism. This festival has been held every single year for the 770 or so years since its beginnings, and has become a beloved summer event ingrained into the local culture.
The seven festival floats called "kaki-yamakasa" (example shown in the above picture) are all completely different and are gorgeously decorated in unique ways with artisan-made dolls and shingaku (shrine name plaques) to create a stunning sight as they're raced through Hakata's summer streets.
The dolls, by the way, are made by master artisans and can come in many forms, such as a vigorous millitary general or a graceful heavenly maiden. They can be said to take the center stage, decorating the kaki-yamakasa as they're carried through areas such as Hakata, Tenjin, Nakasu, Gion, Gofukumachi, and so on.
This festival has different events on different days, but the highlight is the yamakasa races where groups of teams like Chiyo-nagare and Ebisu-nagare from seven local areas compete with each other for time. While the team that has the best time doesn't actually win a trophy or anything to that effect, they do get the honor of singing a Hakata original song if they win the Oiyama Narashi or the Oiyama-kasa events. Called the "Hakata Iwai Uta", it is generally sung on celebatory events, and each team will put their pride on the line to win this honor.
From July 10th, events where you can see the kaki-yamakasa being carried start in the city. Two particularly unmissable events are the Oiyama Narashi, held to measure the team's times on July 12th from 3:59 pm, and the festival's climax, the Oiyama-kasa race, which is held from 4:59 am on July 15th.
Teams compete to achieve the best time in two phases during the Oiyama Narashi event: the Kushida-iri, where each float is carried for 112 meters through the Kushida Shrine grounds before the start of the course, and when the floats are carried at full speed through the approximately 4 km course to the finish line at a Naraya-machi intersection. The Oiyama Narashi is a rehersal for the Oiyama-kasa event, and thus so is the Kushida-iri. Regardless, only those who win at the the Kushida-iri are allowed to sing the Hakata Iwai Uta.
The Shudanyama-mise event, where local figures ride on the floats to take the lead (held between the Gofuku-cho intersection and Fukuoka City Hall in Tenjin on 3:30 pm, July 13th) and the Nagare-kaki event (July 14th) also serve as rehearsals for the Oiyama-kasa race the next day. This is where the teams make the rounds in their representative areas, so it might be a chance to get a closer look at them in a smaller street. Some teams also rehearse for the Kushida-iri event, and all of these events are worth seeing.
At the festival's climax, the Oiyama-kasa on July 15th, the teams race to the beat of large taiko drums, leaving one by one from the Kushida-iri, starting at 4:59 am, through to the approximately 5 km Oiyama-kasa course to a finish line at Susaki-machi. Each group competes for the fastest time, and the sight of each of the seven groups using all of their strength to carry their kaki-yamakasa floats is an overwhelming and impressive sight.
Seeing the history that has been kept alive from generation to generation, the beauty of the kaki-yamakasa floats, and the power of the float bearers will show you just why this festival has been registered as a piece of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
July: Admire the Magnificent Yamaboko Floats of the Hita Gion Festival (Oita)
Dates: Annually on the Saturday and Sunday around July 20th
The Hita Gion Festival is an annual festival held in Hita City, Oita Prefecture, where over 10 meter tall floats are carried by large groups of male participants. Yamaboko floats are decorated with dolls, cabins, artificial flowers, and other decorations used for kabuki (a type of traditional Japanese theater). The back of the floats are hung with curtains embroidered with images of mythological animals and other designs.
The chants of the men who carry the floats and the harmony of the music played by the Gion Orchestra players both add another layer to the Hita Gion Festival, creating an event that lives on in the memory of everyone who sees it.
Nine floats assemble at Hita Station for the Hita Gion Yamaboko Float Display at 7:00 pm in the evenings. The sight of these floats lit by countless paper lanterns creates a magical atmosphere that's quite different from their appearance during the day.
It's said that this festival began approximately 300 years ago as a prayer to the gods for safety during a period of epidemics and natural disasters. The style of the festival has been adapted over the years to become the beloved local tradition it is today. This festival has also been registered on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
The festival is held annually in the Mameda and Kuma areas of Hita City, Oita Prefecture, on a weekend that falls around July 20th. Nine floats are also exhibited outside JR Hita Station for two days before the event. If you're in Kyushu in late July, don't miss your chance to see this festival.
July: See Magnificent Pyramids of Light Standing 7 Metres Tall at the Tobata Gion Yamagasa Festival (Fukuoka)
Dates: Annually on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday that fall on the fourth Saturday of July
Tobata Gion Yamagasa Festival is held annually in Tobata, Fukuoka Prefecture. One feature of this festival is the fact that you can see different sides of the event during the day and night. During the day, the floats are decorated with crimson and white flags in an event called the Nobori-Yamakasa. In the evenings, the floats change their appearance as the flags are removed and a total of 309 lanterns in 12 tiers are attached to create a 7-meter high display called Chochin-Yamakasa. The gorgeous scene created by these countless glowing lanterns is the biggest highlight of the Tobata Gion Yamagasa Festival.
It's said that the Tobata Gion Yamagasa Festival was first held around 210 years ago during an epidemic that broke out in the Tobata area in 1802. The residents prayed to the god Suga for an end to the plague, and began building the festival floats as a show of faith.
This festival has been registered on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, and is held Friday through Sunday around the 4th Saturday of July. The Friday portion of the event is held at Tobihata Hachiman Shrine, Sugawara Shrine, and Nakahara Hachiman Shrine. At 1:00 pm on the Saturday, all the floats assemble at Tobihata Hachiman Shrine for a purification ritual. From around 6:00 pm that evening, many onlookers gather to see the Oyamakasa competition held in the streets surrounding Aso Park. The Nobori-Yamagasa and Chochin-Yamagasa parades are held during the day and evening respectively on the Sunday of the event.
July - August: Marvel at the Intoxicating Parade of the Dragon Gods at the Omuta Daijayama Festival (Fukuoka)
Dates: A two-day period that falls between the third Monday of July (Marine Day) to August (dates vary from year to year)
This festival, held in Omuta City, Fukuoka, has two major highlights. The first is the 10-meter dragon god floats, called daijayama, that breathe fire as they are paraded through the Omuta city streets. These daijayama floats are built in the local area from wood, and are structured with a head, body, and tail. Decorations are made from materials such as traditional washi paper, bamboo, and straw.
The second highlight is a sou-odori, or group dance, that stretches around 2 km long. The Ten-Thousand Person Sou-Odori event features festival participants and spectators dancing together to traditional festival songs like "Daijayama-Bayashi" and "Tanko Bushi".
As the biggest festival in Omuta City, the Omuta Daijayama Festival helps keep the city's history, traditions, and culture alive. While this festival typically falls on a two day-period between Marine Day (the third Monday in July) and August, the exact dates change from year to year, so check the schedule on the festival's website when planning a trip.
August: Sing, Dance, and Laugh at the Hyuga Hyottoko Festival (Miyazaki)
Dates: Main event held on the first Saturday in August, with pre-festival events held the preceding Friday
The Hyuga Hyottoko Festival is held in Hyuga City, Miyazaki Prefecture, an area located in southeast Kyushu. This festival often draws laughter from the spectators thanks to the lighthearted dances performed by participants wearing masks depicting traditional comical characters like Hyottoko and Okame. This festival is so fun, it might set you off dancing as well!
Most of the participants dance while wearing masks depicting characters from a local folktale, "The Tale of the Hyuga Hyottoko Dance", such as a fox character, Kitsune, a female character named Okame, and a male character named Hyottoko.
In this folktale, a married couple named Okame and Hyosuke lived in a town called Nagata. While the couple had been married a long while, they had been unable to conceive, and so each morning they made offerings of food at the Inari Shrine to pray for a child. However, one morning, a hungry priest ate the food the couple had offered to the god Inari. The angry Inari took the form of a fox and chased the priest, but on his way he ran into Okame. Inari fell in love with Okame at first sight and took her away with him. Hyosuke and the villagers flew after Inari and Okame in an attempt to stop them... or so the story goes.
The dance performed at the Hyuga Hyottoko Festival depicts Hyosuke and the villagers chasing after Inari (in the form of a fox) and Okame. On the Friday evening before the main event, a competition is held between dancers in the fox, Okame, and Hyottoko categories, while on the Saturday at the main dance, a competition is held between teams from all categories.
The Hyottoko Summer Festival is currently held each year on the first Saturday in August, with the competition and dancing starting the Friday evening before. This lively summer festival with lighthearted dancing and music is guaranteed to be a fun experience, so be sure to join in if you're in Kyushu in early August!
August: Dance with Kumamoto Locals at the Hinokuni Festival (Kumamoto)
Dates: Annually on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday that fall on the first Saturday of August
If you ask Kumamoto locals to name a summer event, the Hinokuni Festival will be the first to spring to mind for many. Held on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday around the first Saturday of the month, this large-scale event creates a festive atmosphere during Kumamoto's summer, and has been held for over 40 years. The highlight of this festival is the group dance held on Saturday at the Kumamoto city center. In addition to the group dance, a range of other events are held over the three days, including family sports events and food festivals.
The Otemoyan Sou-Odori is the major group dance event where crowds of participants dance together to the jaunty rhythm of the Kumamoto folk song, "Otemoyan". A charm of this festival is that anyone can join in on the day, regardless of whether you live in town or not. The sight of 60 groups of more than 5,000 participants dancing in the city center is such an extraordinary spectacle, you're sure to have fun even if you just watch on.
Autumn Festivals in Kyushu (September - November)
Autumn falls between September and November in Japan, and this season is a great time for festivals thanks to the mild weather that's not too hot and not too cold. There are a range of events held in Kyushu around this time, from dances to traditional military-themed parades, and even some parades with some more unusual local twists.
October: Be Swept Up in the Spirited Yasokoi Sasebo Festival Dances (Nagasaki)
Dates: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday towards the end of October (exact dates vary year to year)
The Yosakoi Sasebo Festival is an annual festival held in Sasebo City, Nagasaki, that is known for its energetic line dances. With everyone from children to the elderly participating each year, this is an event that anyone with the desire can take part in, regardless of age or gender.
Festival plazas at 13 sub-venues and one main venue are constructed each year to accommodate the over 170 teams that perform during the festival period. Attendees can enjoy dance performances by these teams over the three-day festival. This event is held on a Friday to Sunday in late October each year, but the exact dates vary, so we recommend checking the official website for the schedule when planning a trip.
October: Dance to the Ringing of Traditional Ceramic Dishes at Arita Sarayama Festival (Saga)
Dates: Annually on the third Sunday of October
Arita in Saga has been renowned for its local ceramics, called Arita ware, since the beginning of the 17th century. Not content with sticking to the common festival style, Arita Sarayama Festival was designed pass on the proud local culture to the next generation and visitors alike through a unique feature: each of the festival dancers holds two small Arita-ware dishes in each hand, making the dishes chime together to the rhythm of the music as they dance.
People of all ages and genders participate in the parade. You can also see unique performances played on Arita porcelain taiko drums that you won't see anywhere but this festival.
The Arita Sarayama Festival is held at Arita Station, Saga on the third Sunday of October each year. For a detailed schedule and travel information, please refer to the information provided on the official Arita webpage. You won't regret taking the chance to experience the uniquely Japanese Arita Sarayama Festival.
October: Learn About Kagoshima's History Through a Unique Military Parade at the Myoen-ji Mairi (Kagoshima)
Dates: Annually on the fourth Saturday of October
Myoen-ji Mairi is a festival commemorating Shimazu Yoshihiro, an important Kagoshima historical figure who returned to the area after fighting in the 1600 Battle of Sekigahara. This festival takes the form of a procession of participants costumed as traditional warriors who make their way on a 40 km round trip pilgrimage to Myoen-ji Temple.
This festival includes events such as a procession of participants dressed gallantly in helmets and armor from Japan's Warring States period and displays by the Hioki Gun Corps from Hioki City.
Folk entertainment and displays of local products are also held during the festival, and participants can also take part in an either 10 km or 20 km walk rally event from Kagoshima City. Myoen-ji Mairi is held annually on the fourth Saturday of October, a time of year which typically has mild weather that's ideal for both participating in and watching the events.
October: Experience Okinawan Folk Music and a Taste of the Ryukyu Period at Yomitan Festival (Okinawa)
Dates: Annually on the fourth Saturday of October
Okinawa was once not a part of Japan but an independent state called the Ryukyu Kingdom. Yomitan Festival is one of Okinawa's largest festivals, with over 80,000 people attending the two-day event. The highlight is a large-scale traditional Ryukyu music concert in which over 300 Ryukyu dancers from the village of Yomitan perform. This event commemorates Akainko, a historical figure said to be the father of the Okinawan three-stringed instrument called the "sanshin". The sounds of classical music played by traditional instruments that resound through the village create a gorgeous, festive atmosphere.
The main event of the festival is the Shinkosen, a theatrical show of what trading with China was like during the Ryukyu Kingdom period. Taiki, the first emissary sent to pay tribute in China, is depicted riding a large boat.
The Yomitan Festival is held annually on the fourth Saturday of October in the village of Yomitan in Okinawa. If you're in Okinawa during this time, don't miss seeing this festival for yourself!
November: See Processions of Portable Shrines and Legendary Animals at the Yatsushiro Myoken Festival (Kumamoto)
Dates: Annually on November 23rd
Held in the Kumamoto areas of Minamata and Yatsushiro, the Yatsushiro Myoken Festival is a prestigious event that has been registered on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list and designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property by the Japanese government. The main event is a procession held on the morning of the festival that progresses from Yatsushiro Hachiman Shrine to Yatsushiro Shrine (also known as Myoken-gu Shrine). Approximately 1700 people participate in around 40 different performances during the parade, including parading kasaboko floats and dances depicting mythological animals such as the kida (a turtle-serpent hybrid) and shishi (guardian lion-dogs).
Spectators gather at the Tosakino Kawara venue to see the introduction of the portable shrine procession, the animal dances, and equestrian events like horse herding.
The Yatsushiro Myoken Festival is held on November 23rd every year. As Kumamoto's biggest event, we highly recommend you take the chance to see it if you can.
November: A Straw Bale-Rolling Race at the Tamana Odawara Festival (Kumamoto)
Dates: Annually on November 23rd
Tamana Odawara Festival is a harvest thanksgiving festival held in Tamana City, Kumamoto. Held to pray for further blessings, this festival's biggest event is the straw bale-rolling race. It's an overwhelming sight to see the speed in which the participants roll the enormous straw bales, which are 2.5 meters in diameter, 4 meters long, and weigh over a ton.
Other events held at the festival grounds include a Gourmet Festival where attendees can enjoy a range of local foods. Don't miss this festival if you're in Kyushu in late November.
Recurring and Off-Season Festivals
Nakae Iwato Kagura: A Majestic Performance of Japanese Legends (Kumamoto)
Dates: The first Sunday of the month from April to November (excluding October)
Nakae Iwato Kagura is a festival held in Aso City, Kumamoto. Unlike many Japanese festivals, which are held once or twice a year, this festival is held year-round. The event runs over seven months from April to November, excluding October. However, the festival is held only once on the first Sunday of each month.
This festival is themed around the Japanese legend, Ama no Iwato (Rock Cave of the Sun Goddess). In this legend, the sun goddess Amaterasu was driven into a rage by the evil deeds of her younger brother, Susano'o, and retreated into a cave called the Ama no Iwato, an act which plunged the world into darkness. In an attempt to draw Amaterasu back out, the gods held a grand festival with singing and dancing in front of the cave. Eventually the festival succeeded, and Amaterasu returned from her seclusion.
This festival weaves together various styles of classical court dance and music, including styles of kagura and gagaku performed in and outside the Imperial Palace and kumemai, a style of court dance. With gorgeous costuming, set design, and even kagura performances by local elementary school children, there is plenty to enjoy during this festival.
With a history that dates back over 270 years, the Nakae Iwato Kagura festival was designated an Important Intangible Cultural Asset by the Japanese government in 1975. This important cultural property is free to see for both residents and visitors alike. Make a point to see it if you are in Aso during one of the festival dates.
January, March, April, May, October: See Traditional Performances and Courtesan Processions at the Kumamoto Castle Tsuboigawa Garden Party (Kumamoto)
Dates: Festival held four times a year
[Cherry Blossom Viewing Gala] Held on one Saturday and Sunday that falls in late March to early April
[Grand Garden Party] Thursday to Sunday in the first week of May
[Autumn Gala] Three days including the second Saturday and Sunday of October
[New Year's Gala] January 1st to 3rd
Held at the Josaien Gardens, Tsuboigawa River, and Kumamoto Castle in Kumamoto City, this festival, held four times a year, is an opportunity to enjoy Japanese culture and traditional performances. This event changes its name from season to season, and can be enjoyed no matter what time of year you attend.
A highlight is the Procession of Courtesans, held during the Autumn Gala in October. This beautiful procession recreates a scene of the high-class Edo period (1603 - 1868), with courtesans called "oiran" visiting tea houses to meet with patrons. The folk entertainment performance Higo Emaki held during the Grand Garden Party in May is also a must-see.
A boating experience on the Tsuboigawa River called the Tsuboigawa Boat Tour is also held during the festival. We recommend this festival as a way to enjoy traditional Japanese entertainment.
January: See a Drum Concert That Reaches the Heavens at the Kirishima Kumen Daiko New Year's Dedication (Kagoshima)
Dates: Annually on January 1st
The Tensonkourin Kirishima Kumen Daiko New Year's Dedication is a drum performance held at 12:00 am and 2:00 am on New Year's Day at Kirishima Jingu Shrine on Kirishima Island. The event is held on New Year's Day to send the sound of the drums to the heavens as a symbol of a renewed vow of faith for the new year. The drummers play taiko drums and conch shells while clad in white and pale purple garments and wearing nine masks that represent the gods descending from heaven.
Entry is free, so everyone can enjoy this folk performance that has been designated a Kirishima City Intangible Cultural Property.
Kyushu in southwest Japan has many festivals that have been kept alive through the dedication of the local residents, all of which charm Japanese and international visitors alike. Whether seeing the impressive yamakasa floats, dancing with the locals, or seeing traditional performances, there are so many festival experiences waiting for you in Kyushu. We hope you can refer to this article for highlights and details of each festival so that you can take part yourself when you visit Japan. Your trip to Kyushu is sure to be even more impressive because of it.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.