Festivals or omatsuri in Japanese, are held year-round in Japan and are a great opportunity to experience the country’s traditional culture at its most raucous. There are both regional and national festivals, often held to mark the seasons or to celebrate the natural environment. Catching a local festival is an unbeatable way of accessing and understanding an area’s customs and culinary specialties. However, be wary of booking a trip to Japan over Golden Week – a series of national holidays that take place in late April and early May every year. Hotels increase their rates, trains become fully booked and the streets become crowded with people enjoying a few days off work. Before heading off on one of our Japan Adventure Tours, have a look at this handy guide to Japanese festivals to see if any of them coincide with your trip.
Gion Matsuri – held in Kyoto in July
Held throughout July and culminating with massive parades on the 17th and 24th of the month. Girls dress in traditional yukata and streets are lined with stalls selling food and souvenirs. The festival started in 970 as a purification ritual to appease the gods.
Jidai – held in Kyoto in October
A historical re-enactment parade, with participants dressing in costumes from various periods in history. The festival dates back to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the Chrysanthemum Throne was moved Kyoto to Edo (modern-day Tokyo).
Kanda – held at Tokyo’s Kanda Myojin Shrine in May
This festival started in the 17th century as a celebration of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory in the Battle of Sekigahara. Held every other year (odd-numbered years), alternating with Sannō Matsuri, the festival centres around a large parade, featuring musicians, dancers and floats.
Sanja – held at Tokyo’s Asakusa Shrine in May
This grand Shinto festival is one of Tokyo’s largest and most rowdy. The festival spans three days and attracts a huge number of visitors to the city every year.
Sannou – held at Tokyo’s Hie Shrine in June
Another major Shinto festival which alternates with Kanda and includes the famous shinko sai parade.
Tenjin – held at Osaka’s Tenman-gu Shrine in July
Dating back 1000 years, the Tenjin festival starts on dry land, with a 3000-strong parade of revellers dressed as medieval courtiers. The participants then board boats at the Tenmanbashi Bridge and sail up the river. Undoubtedly one of Japan’s most exciting festivals.
Wakakusa Yamayaki – held in Nara on the fourth Saturday in January
This festival involves burning the grass on the side of Nara’s Wakakusayama mountain, followed by a huge fireworks display. The view of the burning mountain is visible across the city.
Sapporo Snow Festival – held in Sapporo, Hokkaido every February
This visually stunning festival involves hundreds of large-scale snow and ice sculptures erected in the centre of Sapporo and attracts millions of visitors to Northern Japan every year.
Fixed-date National Festivals and Holidays
Seijin shiki (Coming Of Age Day) – second Monday in January
A holiday to celebrate those who have come of age (20 in Japan) over the past year.
Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival or Girls’ Day) – 3rd March
A holiday which dates back to the Heian Period (794 – 1185), on which (traditionally) families pray for the beauty and wellbeing of their little girls. Elaborate arrangements of traditional dolls are displayed in some homes and temples and special foods are eaten.
Tanabata (Star Festival) – 7th July
Based on China’s Qixi Festival, Tanabata celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi, symbolised by the stars Vega and Altair. People celebrate by writing wishes on slips of paper and hanging them on bamboo. Parades also take place throughout Japan.
Shichi-go-san (Children’s Festival) – 15th November
A traditional rite of passage, on which three and seven-year-old girls and three and five-year-old boys are taken to temples in an effort to ward off bad luck. It is not a national holiday and is usually observed on the nearest weekend to the 15th November.
Omisoka (New Year’s Eve) – 31st December
Japanese people traditionally clean their homes, pay off their debts and take baths on the last day of the year. At midnight it is customary to visit a shrine or temple and to drink amazake (sweet sake).
Shougatsu (New Year’s Celebrations) – 1st-3rd January
At midnight on New Year’s Day, Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times, symbolising the 108 human sins identified in Buddhist teachings. Families come together for celebratory meals and gatherings to mark the start of a new year.
Umi no hi (Ocean Day) – third Monday in July
A holiday on which Japanese people are encouraged to give thanks for the ocean’s bounty. It is traditional to visit the beach to celebrate.
Yama no hi (Mountain Day) – 11th August
Japan’s newest public holiday was introduced in 2016 to give thanks to the country’s mountainous landscape. As yet no widely-observed traditions have been established to mark the holiday.
Keirou no hi (Respect for the Elderly Day) – third Monday in September
A celebration to honour the elderly dating back to 1947.
Shunbun no hi (Vernal Equinox Day) – 20th or 21st March
A day to celebrate the coming of spring, on which many Japanese people visit the graves of loved ones and spring clean their homes.
Shūbun no hi (Autumn Equinox Day) – 28th or 29th September
A day to celebrate the coming of autumn, traditions reflect those carried out on the Spring Equinox.
Taiiku no hi (Health and Sports Day) – Second Monday in October
A day on which many schools and businesses hold sports days.
Bunka no hi (Culture Day) – 3rd November
A public holiday to celebrate arts and culture. Parades take place across the country and universities often use the day as an opportunity to present new research.
Kinrou kansha no hi (Labour Thanksgiving Day) – 23rd November
A day to celebrate labor and production and to give thanks to your colleagues.
Tennou Tanjoubi (Emperor’s Birthday) – 23rd February
A public holiday to observe the Emperor’s birthday – the holiday has recently changed date due to Emperor Akihito’s abdication.
Golden Week – From 29th April
Showa no hi (Showa Day)
Kenpo kinenbi (Constitution Memorial Day)
Midori no hi (Greenery Day)
Kodomo no hi (Children’s Day)