Japan is a land of festivals (matsuri) with some counts saying that there are around 200,000 recognized festivals held throughout the country. Most festivals are in the summer, but there are many scattered throughout the year, so no matter when you visit Japan, you may be able to find a festival which would give you the opportunity to enjoy something that is a quintessential Japanese cultural experience.
Featured below are 5 of the most destination worthy festivals Japan has to offer.
The Aomori Nebuta Festival, Aomori Prefecture (early August)
The Aomori Nebuta Festival is a culturally rich festival that draws several million visitors a year and was designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Asset of Japan in 1980. The festival is famous for its energetic atmosphere, dramatic floats (Nebuta), dancers (Haneto) who call out to each other and traditional Japanese drums and flutes all melding together enlivening the scene. One of great things about the Nebuta Festival is that anyone, not just locals, can participate as a Haneto (dancer) making it a great opportunity for tourists to join in the fun.
The sight of the colorfully illuminated five-meter tall, nine-meter long Nebuta parading through the streets at night is a sight to see. They are equivalent in height to a two-story building, leaving many first-time visitors in awe. The Nebuta feature grandiose paintings of historical and mythological motifs which take the festival goers back to past eras of Japan. On the final day of the festival, the Nebuta are put on boats and sailed in Aomori Bay under a brilliant fireworks display.
The Sendai Tanabata Festival, Miyagi Prefecture (early August)
Tanabata (star festival) is celebrated around Japan with the Sendai Tanabata Festival being the most well-known and grandious in the country. Sendai’s Tanabata is characterized by the gorgeous and colorful streamers, some of which are up to five meters in length that are displayed in the downtown area with the main venue being the shopping arcade located in the heart of the city. In addition to the colorful streamers, there are traditional dances, live music performances, food stalls and a fireworks show that is held to kick off the festival.
The streamers are handmade from ‘washi’ paper every year and the washi paper used for the decorations is traditional Kyo-chiyogami and Edo-chiyogami. Local community groups, schools, shops and businesses skillfully uses these different types of chiyogami to prepare the elaborate decorations. Designs are often decided in January and the next six to seven months are spent producing the decorations. The highly detailed decorations are filled with the wishes of each shop.
The Tokushima Awa Odori, Tokushima Prefecture – Shizuoka (middle of August)
The Awa Odori (Awa dance) is an annual summer festival that attracts around 1.3 million people from across Japan and abroad over four days. and one of the attractions is that anyone can participate. Awa Odori is characterized by lively music, dynamic movements and colorful traditional costumes.
The Awa Odori has a 400-year history, and it is said that during the Edo period, the Tokushima Domain issued a ban on the dance several times, fearing that the fervor of the dance would lead to revolts. However, the Awa Odori was very popular among the general public, especially among the Tokushima indigo merchants who became the bearers of cultural exchange with other parts of the country. Over time, the Awa Odori incorporated elements of various dances from different parts of the country. During the Meiji and Taisho periods, Japanese culture as a whole became modernized, and Western instruments such as violins were incorporated into the Awa Odori. With many variations having come and gone, the current form of Awa Odori has been performed for over half a century.
The Sapporo Snow Festival, Hokkaido (early February)
The Sapporo Snow Festival is a snow and ice festival held in Odori Park and other areas of Sapporo. It all started in 1950 when some local junior and senior high school students set up six snow sculptures in Odori Park. Now 70 plus years later, more than 200 snow and ice sculptures are erected, attracting an estimated 2.5 million visitors during the festival. The sculptures range from celebrities to world-famous architecture and everything in between. At night, the sculptures are lit up with colored lights transforming the sculptures into a fantastic visual feast.
Some of the snow sculptures feature music and serve as the backdrop for projected video which recreates scenes in movies and video game providing and magical three-dimensional, multi-sensory experience.
Crystal Street is another site where there are around 60 delicate ice sculptures. At this venue, an ice sculpture competition is held on the first day of the festival, as well as daily sculpting demonstrations. One of the best parts of the festival is being able to watch in person the ice sculptures being turned into works of art.
The Okinawa Zento Eisa Festival (end of August or early September)
The Okinawa Zento Eisa Festival, or Eisa for short, is a traditional Okinawan art form performed during the Obon season to pay respects to and send off ancestors. The main attraction is the varied dynamic dances performanced by the participating groups. These performances are often accompanied by the traditional Japanese instruments ‘sanshin’ (three-stringed instrument), ‘odaiko’ (large barrel drum) and ‘shimedaido’ (medium-sized drum). The powerful sound of the drums and the warm cheerful sound of the sanshin matched with the lively dance creates a truly festive atmosphere.
Eisa dance groups can range in size from a couple dozen to upwards of 100 people. The way the dancers move in unison and express themselves, along with the music and songs is truly dynamic and breathtaking. There are also public dance performances that are open to anyone, so be sure to check it out.
About the Author
I have been travelling by campervan to various areas all over Japan for more than 5 years. My goal is to visit all 47 prefectures in Japan! Just 12 more prefectures to go and I'll have accomplished it! I hope I can share some of information of wonderful places in Japan.