Full of fire and ice, festivals are highlights of the year in Japan.
Festivals are a time to celebrate life and traditions. Gray suits and sober offerings from Uniqlo and Muji are replaced by elegant kimono and brightly colored yukata. Cities have their own unique festivals, often with ancient Shinto rites. While most are exciting, some are totally unbelievable–and all of them are enchanting.
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WHERE: Aomori, Japan
The giant floats of Nebuta Matsuri are enormous paper lanterns that depict scenes of samurai and deities. At night these illuminated behemoths seem to float through the streets. On August 7, the last day of the festival, the floats tour the city by day. The illusion of floating is then revealed: beneath the paper skin and wooden scaffolding, teams of men drag the floats along.
WHERE: Akita, Japan
Akita Kanto Matsuri, or pole lantern festival, turns the simple act of carrying a paper lantern into a competitive event. Carrying one lantern is easy. Carrying 46, however, is tricky. But balancing those 46 lanterns on your head is unbelievable. Upping the ante? Competitions take place at night.
WHERE: Suwa, Nagano, Japan
Every six years in Nagano Prefecture, tree trunks are dragged from the mountains to be raised as sacred pillars at Suwa Taisha Shrine. The journey has a couple of spectacular highlights, including a kawagoshi “river crossing” and kiotoshi “tree falling.”
Tree falling is somewhat of a misnomer, as the trees slide rather than fall down the steep slope, but the festival verges on the surreal as men try to ride trunks like arboreal horses. The festival often results in fatalities, but for the locals, traditions that have taken place for over a millennium are more important than modern rules of safety.
WHERE: Tokyo, Japan
Sanja Matsuri is one of Tokyo’s great Shinto festivals. Portable shrines known as mikoshi are carried by teams of men, women, and children through the streets around Sensoji Temple and Asakusa Shrine. Those carrying the shrines are usually wearing a simple loincloth and happi jacket. As some of the teams are from groups with possible links to the yakuza, keen-eyed observers will notice impressive irezumi (traditional tattoos) on some participants.
Asakusa Samba Matsuri
WHERE: Tokyo, Japan
Rio comes to Tokyo at the Asakusa Samba Festival. Twenty-two teams, including local Japanese and Brazilians, bring dancing to the streets around Asakusa Shrine. The sidewalks are packed by around half a million spectators, so it’s best to come early. Many of the Brazilian teams are dressed in the traditional plumage of feathers and sequins, while Japanese teams tend to wear costumes that are representative of their native region in Japan.
WHERE: Tokyo, Japan
Fukagawa Festival, better known as the Water-Throwing Festival, is held at Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine. The ceremony begins relatively sedately, with music and blessings from the Shinto priest. Mikoshi (portable shrines) are then carried through streets while spectators douse the shrine, those carrying it, and other spectators with water. While there are many young kids with Super Soakers and water guns, the most popular method is the plastic bucket. Numerous members of Tokyo’s fire departments also turn out to make sure all teams are suitably drenched.
WHERE: Osaka, Japan
Kishwada Danjiri involves teams of men dragging portable shrines on wooden carts through the city of Kishiwada, near Osaka. It’s similar to chariot racing with seemingly less control: narrow streets and spectators standing too close for safety. Injuries tend to occur when participants riding on top of the shrine tumble down, or when the cart takes a corner at speed and clips some of the spectators.
WHERE: Kyoto, Japan
In July, Kyoto holds the Gion Festival. Events are held throughout the month, but the most impressive parades take place on July 17 and 24. On these days, giant floats known as yamaboko roll through the city center dragged by teams of men. They do not go through the cobbled streets of Gion but rather trundle along the main shopping streets Shijo, Kawaramachi, and Oike. At the main intersections, the floats have to be rotated 90 degrees, an impressive feat of strength and teamwork that is met with cheers from the crowds.
Omizutori at Todai-ji Temple
WHERE: Nara, Japan
Todai-ji Temple is famous for the Vairocana Great Buddha that sits at the center. At 49 feet high, it is one of the largest bronze sculptures in the world. The neighboring Nigatsu-do hall is known for the view from its balcony at dusk and the Omizutori fire festival. Although the hall is constructed entirely of wood, the temple’s monks parade around the temple balcony swirling flaming torches around them, sending glowing embers raining down on the spectators below. These embers are thought to purify and protect those they touch.
Miyajima Fireworks Festival
WHERE: Miyajima, Japan
Each year in the middle of August, Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island hosts a spectacular fireworks festival. Three barges loaded with pyrotechnics are towed into the bay behind the iconic “floating” torii gate. Rockets screech into the night, filling the sky with glittering fire-flowers. Hundreds of thousands visit tiny Miyajima for the show; many are photographers hoping to capture the precise moment when the torii gate is silhouetted by the fireworks.
Sapporo Yuki Matsuri
WHERE: Sapporo, Japan
Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, has long, bitterly cold winters beset with Siberian winds that bring heavy snowfall to ski resorts such as Niseko. Residents of Sapporo, however, are a little more creative with the white stuff.
In February, teams of artists arrive in Sapporo’s Odori Park with shovels and chainsaws to transform giant mounds of snow and ice into palaces, dinosaurs, and the occasional Pokémon. The only problem is that you’ll never again be impressed by the ice sculptures at weddings—unless the bride and groom requested a solid ice velociraptor.
Shuri Castle New Year Festival
WHERE: Naha, Okinawa, Japan
Shuri Castle in Naha City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and distinctly different from many of the other castles in Japan. Okinawa was once its own independent Ryukyu Kingdom that traded with many nations, including China, and the design of Shuri Castle and many of Okinawa’s traditions are heavily influenced by this Chinese connection. The Shuri Castle Festival reenacts the parade of Chinese vassals who came to pay their respects to the King of the Ryukyus.
WHERE: Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto’s Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages) is an elegant parade of period costumes starting from Kyoto’s Imperial Palace and finishing at Heian Shrine. There are usually around 2,000 participants, including Shinto priests, samurai, archers on horseback, and local dignitaries, but the stars of the festival are Kyoto’s geisha, known as geiko, who often dress as historical figures.
WHERE: Tokushima, Japan
Awa Odori, the greatest of Japan’s dance festivals, takes place every August in Tokushima City on Shikoku Island. Teams of dancers move through the city, entertaining more than a million spectators. Men perform a “dance of fools,” moving in a low crouch with their arms waggling above their heads. The women, meanwhile, embody Japanese elegance, dressed in kimono and wearing straw hats known as amigasa. Balanced on the tips of their wooden sandals, they dance in formation, their hands stretched skywards.