• 8 July 2022

Looking for a reason to celebrate? Matsuri is the Japanese word for festival and these cultural events are unlike any other festivals in the world! If you’re planning a trip to Japan, why not see if you can work in one of the country’s many exciting annual events? That way, you’ll really get to immerse yourself in the local culture! Expat Explore has put together a list of top Japanese festivals to make your Japan holiday all the more memorable!

Top 6 Japanese festivals to experience:

1. Hanami (Cherry Blossom Festival)

All over Japan, March/April

Possibly the best known of all Japanese events, Hanami is the pretty-in-pink cherry blossom festival that features in so many beautiful photographs of Japan. The cherry blossoms (sakura) start to appear at different times, depending on where you are in the country. In Tokyo and Kyoto, the blossoms usually appear around March or April, just in time for spring! Hanami literally means “viewing flowers” and that’s essentially what this festival is all about. 

As a result of spending much of the winter indoors, Japanese locals cannot wait to flock outdoors to celebrate the warmer weather and stunning scenery. You can enjoy plenty of outdoor fun is during this time. Picnics, performances and parties all take place under the flowering cherry trees in local parks and public spaces. As the flowers only bloom for a short time in each region, it is important to make the most of them and plan accordingly to avoid disappointment.

Cherry Blossoms during Hanami festivals in Japan
The sight of the cherry blossoms during Japan‘s spring is truly magical.

Related: Japan is beautiful all year round but a visit during these seasons is best!

2. Yuki Matsuri (Sapporo)

Hokkaido, February

Spring may see Japan’s prettiest festival but winter isn’t without its festivities! Every year in February, Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city, hosts the Sapporo Snow Festival.  This magical festival is best known for its spellbinding ice and snow sculptures. These large-scale sculptures depict beloved characters like Mickey Mouse and Darth Vader, replicas of famous landmarks from around the world, celebrated Japanese athletes and more! 

Aside from the exceptional ice and snow artworks, there are many fun winter activities for people of all ages to enjoy. You’ll never be bored with activities like ice-skating, skiing, sledding and more to choose from! You can warm up with sake, beer and delicious snow crab legs! 

Sapporo Snow Festival, Hokkaido, festivals in Japan
This Darth Vader snow sculpture is just one of the impressive artworks on display during the Sapporo Snow Festival.

Related: Don’t leave Japan without trying these 15 foods

3. Gion Matsuri

Kyoto, July

Located in Kyoto’s iconic Gion district, Gion Matsuri is one of Japan’s largest and most famous festivals! The month of July is full of festivities in Gion with the main festival day taking place on 17 July. This day is known as Yamabuko Junko. The word Yamabuko refers to the types of floats on display during the festival’s parades. There are two types of floats; the smaller yama floats and the massive hoko floats. The hoko floats can weigh as much as 12 tons and require about 40 people to carry each of them through the Kyoto streets! It’s quite the sight to behold as the floats are ornately decorated with gorgeous tapestries and lanterns. 

Gion Matsuri dates all the way back to the year 869 and has been an annual event since the year 1000! It began as part of a purification ritual to appease the gods believed to cause natural disasters and disease. Today, it is a huge part of Kyoto culture. The three evenings leading up to Yamabuko are known as yoiyama. On these nights, streets are closed and filled with locals and visitors enjoying food stalls, traditional performances, music and costumes. One of the most fascinating elements of the yoiyama is Byobu Matsuri (folding screen festival). This is when local Kyoto residents open up their homes to the public and display their family heirlooms!

Hoko float during Gion Matsuri, festivals in Japan
The massive hoko floats on display during Gion Matsuri are pulled by around 40 people to pull and weigh up to 12 tons!
4. Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri

Osaka, September

Are you ready for Osaka’s biggest annual celebration? There are a few Danjiri (traditional wooden floats) festivals in Japan but Kishiwada, located in the town of the same name in southern Osaka, is the biggest! The Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri takes place annually in September and is an autumn festival where attendants pray for a fruitful harvest. Similar to Gion Matsuri, you’re guaranteed to see incredible, large-scale floats made in the shape of a temple or shrine. These danjiri weigh up to 3,000kg (that’s close to 4 tons!) and are pulled by locals from neighbouring districts in a race! 

35 teams of up to 1,000 people compete by lugging these hefty floats to the finish line. The daikugata (the float’s carpenter) dances on the danjiri’s roof while the float is carried through the streets. This is one of the highlights of the festival as each daikugata has their own performance style. It is a very esteemed position reserved exclusively for local carpenters with an excellent sense of balance! 

Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri, festivals in Japan
The daikugata balances atop the danjiri and performs during the Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri!

Related: Looking for more unique Japanese experiences? These are the best things to do in Japan!

5. Kanamara Matsuri

Kawasaki, April

This next festival is certainly less traditional and somewhat infamous for its… unusual theme. Kanamara Matsuri translates to the “festival of the steel phallus“ and displays phallic shaped objects and fertility symbols in the form of decorations, candy, shrines and trinkets. It’s a light-hearted, fun celebration and raises funds for HIV research. It takes place annually on the first Sunday of April at the Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki, Japan.

There are three main mikoshi (shrines) at the festival. The oldest is the kanamara shrine which is made out of wood. The Kanamara boat mikoshi contains a glowing black phallus and was donated by a major Japanese industrial company. Then, there’s the bright pink Elizabeth mikoshi which was donated by the Elizabeth Kaikan drag club in Tokyo and is carried by transgender women. The Kanamara Matsuri is unique as Japanese society is generally very conservative. This festival offers a rare opportunity for Japan’s LGBT community to celebrate proudly and openly.

Kanamara Matsuri, festivals in Japan
The candy and souvenirs available during the Kanamara festival are certainly unique!
6. Omizutori 

Nara, March

The beauty of the cherry blossom season makes it Japan’s most picturesque festival. However, this beauty is quite possibly matched by the stunning Omizutori festival. Omizutori consists of a series of events from 1-14 March in the city of Nara. This is one of the oldest Buddhist festivals in Japan dating back over 1,000 years! The purpose of the festival is to cleanse people of their sins and to usher in spring, hence taking place just before cherry blossom season. 

The most famous event to take place during Omizutori is Otaminatsu. This takes place after sunset every night of Omizutori and sees giant torches up to 8m in size being carried up to the Tōdai-ji temple. On 14 March, the last day of the festival, all ten torches are brought up to the balcony of the Nigatsu-dō hall at the same time and shower down towards the audience. In addition to being a truly spectacular sight, it is also said to bestow blessings of safety, health and happiness! 

Omizutori, festivals in Japan
The embers from the torches during the Omizutori festival light up the sky like fireworks!

Excited to experience Japan’s fascinating and incomparable culture? Join Expat Explore on our Highlights of Japan tour! Visit Tokyo, Osaka, Hokkaido, Kyoto and more while making memories to last a lifetime. 

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