Every summer, Japan becomes one of the most dynamic countries in the world with hundreds of festivals organised from north to south and coast to coast. From fireworks, to dance, to music, to food… summertime Japan is the place to be! Summer festivals in Japan are extremely diversified so we’ve put together this list to help you find your way around. Also called matsuri, summer festivals in Japan celebrate many events across the country, from local traditions to national events, regional commemorations and religious ceremonies.
The most spectacular festivals are certainly those featuring fireworks. These mainly happen in July and August. Fireworks were historically used in Japan to ward off evil spirits. Japanese fireworks are very original, a show can last up to one hour and don’t just expect a plethora of colours, here you get smiley faces, animals and anime characters too!
Music festivals are also very popular and widespread. Some are put on by local groups who specialise in performing traditional Japanese music. Others are adept at jazz, rock or some other form of contemporary music. Those offering dance too are arguably the most folkloric. When touring Japan in the summer you will often see people gathering at shrines or any other large public spaces to dance in a circle around a small tower (yagura).
For those of you who like to be entertained or have kids, most festivals will include a wide selection of games. Usually on offer are popular carnival games such as those of luck, skill and dare. For something a little different, give the goldfish scooping (kingyo sukui) one a try. All you have to do is catch a gold fish in a small basin. Easy, right? Probably not as the net you will be given is made of paper and after three tries it will most likely disintegrate in the water. Good luck!
For gourmets… well there are many food festivals! These events are usually filled with many food stands so feel free to try a little bit of everything. Restaurants usually participate too with special menus featuring local and seasonal items. From our foodie bucket list, try yakisoba (fried noodle with pork and vegetables) and yakitori (grilled chicken skewers).
Beer festivals are also quite fashionable nowadays, and are a good way to cool off during the summer heat. The Japan Beer Festival alone serves up more than 120 different varieties of the golden nectar. You’ll surely be able to find your next all-star brew! We advise heading to any of the ubiquitous beer gardens scattered throughout the country, where people enjoy hanging out on roof tops and terraces as they sip and snack to their heart’s content.
Film festivals showcase the best and most original films currently available. They are a great way to see less well-known and mainstream titles. Whether they are short, long or anime, more than 300 local and international films will be showed this year. You could probably pass the whole summer just trying to watch them all!
Here are the most famous and best summer festivals in Japan:
The Tanabata Festival is celebrated on the 7th of the July, it commemorates the yearly meeting between the gods Orihime and Hikoboshi (represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively). People traditionally write wishes on coloured pieces of paper and hang them in bamboo trees. Go to Shonan Hiratsuka near Tokyo to truly experience this festival’s vibe.
In Kyoto, the Daimonji Bonfire Festival is held on August 16th and features five bonfires lit around the city, three fires feature take the form of giant Chinese characters and two familiar shapes. This is the kind of amazing spectacle you usually see on postcards, so it’s definitely a place to photograph and be!
During the whole month of July, Japan’s arguably most famous festival – Gion Matsuri – is celebrated in Kyoto. The high point is when 30 floats, standing 25 metres and weighing 12 tonnes, are paraded through the city on July 17th and 24th. We recommend not missing the three days prior to each parade too, when the celebrations are already in full swing (from 14-16 and 21-23). At night-time the streets are lined with stalls selling traditional goodies, especially sweets.
With a history of more than 1,000 years, the Tenjin Matsuri Festival in Osaka (July 24-25) is a must-see. As the world’s greatest boat festival to boot, here you can marvel at more than 3,000 people parading the streets dressed in imperial-style attire and witness a platoon of 100 boats lit up in the evening time.
Always held on the last Saturday in July (this year the 25th), the Sumida River Fireworks Festival will set the night sky on fire in Tokyo. Unlike fireworks displays in other parts of the world, this event follows the Japanese tradition of being an intense competition between rival pyrotechnic groups. Each group tries to out-do the last, and the result is an incredible variety of fireworks, not just in different colours and patterns, but forming shapes as complicated as Doraemon, sumo wrestlers and Chinese characters.
In Tokyo, head to Mercure Tokyo Ginza or ibis Tokyo Shinjuku. Near Shonan for the Tanabata festival, go to Mercure Yokosuka. In Kyoto try the ibis Styles Kyoto Station. And finally at Osaka, attend the Tenjin Matsuri Festival from your home base at ibis Styles Kyoto Station or Novotel Koshien Osaka West.
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