Attending a Japanese festival is an experience unlike any other. A matsuri, in Japanese, means it’s time to celebrate the season, a religious rite, or a historical tradition. Depending on which festival you attend, you might witness a solemn procession at a shrine or temple, or a raucous affair with plenty of laughs and sake to go around.
You can find events throughout Japan all year round, and each festival features spectacular attractions and activities. If you have a specific interest in Japanese culture, you’ll find a matsuri for it! Here are our favorite annual Japanese festivals, and when and where they happen.
The Sapporo Snow Festival (aka Yuki Matsuri) celebrates innovative artists from around the world. The catch is, they can only use ice or snow as their medium! The inner-city park Odori Koen hosts hundreds of immense statues modeled after buildings, pop culture icons, and scenes of Japan. Some double as stages for dramatic or musical performances.
The nearby Susukino neighborhood also holds an ice sculpture competition. Although smaller than the Odori site, you can interact with some of the pieces, including ice tunnels, bars, and slides. If you’re coming with children, head to the Sapporo Community Dome (Tsudome) for family-friendly activities.
The Gion Matsuri is arguably Japan’s most famous festival. On July 17th, teams of locals pull towering wooden floats through the streets in a grand procession. The floats can reach up to 25 meters high and weigh as much as 12 tons! This tradition dates back to 869 AD when a destructive plague hit Kyoto.
If you can’t make it on the 17th, you can participate in other festivities that take place throughout the month. From the 10th to the 14th, you can watch as artisans build the floats from scratch without using any nails to assemble them. Nighttime street festivals with vendors open on the 14th-16th. A second procession takes place on the 24th, but it doesn’t use as many floats.
For over 400 years, around one million visitors flock to Tokushima Prefecture to see Japan’s largest dance festival. According to legend, when Hachisuka Iemasu established Tokushima Castle in 1585, the citizens celebrated in drunken revelry. Today, men, women, and children don traditional clothes and recreate that night.
Awa Odori also has the nickname “Fool’s Dance,” which comes from a popular song with the lyrics, “Fools dance, and fools watch. If both are fools, you might as well dance!” Anyone can sign up to participate, from teams of professionals to amateurs that begin practicing the day before.
Many Japanese people say the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri is the best festival in the country. While we don’t like to make sweeping generalizations, it’s a hard point to argue! Nebuta festivals take place throughout the region, but the one in Aomori City is the biggest of its kind. During these celebrations, millions of spectators cheer on dancers, taiko drum players, and massive floats.
The most exciting part about this festival is that anyone can participate in the parade. Haneto dancers walk in front of the floats while chanting, “Rassera, rassera!” As long as you purchase or rent the proper attire, you can also join in the fun.
Unlike most Japanese festivals, which are vibrant and jovial affairs, the Aoi Matsuri is one of elegance and grace. During the main event, 500 people dress in Heian Period clothes and reenact a procession that took place in the 6th century. Participants ride on horses, pull ox carts, and carry flower offerings from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines.
Every year, the city chooses one young woman to play the High Priestess, who performs several Shintoist rituals throughout the day. When she finishes the last ceremony, horseback archery (yabusame) demonstrations begin. The festivities run between 10:30 am and 5:00 pm. You can fight for a spot along the procession route early in the morning, or pay for seating at the palace or shrines.
According to Japanese legends, when the celestial princess Orihime married Hikkoboshi, they fell so deeply in love they stopped working. Angry, Orihime’s father separated the lovers, but he allows them to meet on the seventh day of the seventh month. During this time of year, Japanese people celebrate by making wishes on this lucky day.
Tanabata festivals take place all over Japan, but no one does it like Sendai. Colorful streamers and paper decorations hang all over the city. You might spot ornaments made to look like cranes, kimonos, and even garbage cans. Live entertainment takes place around town, and on the day before the festival, there is a fireworks display over Hirosegawa River.
During this ice festival, the banks of Lake Shikotsu transform into a frozen fantasyland. The caldera is the second-deepest lake in Japan, and it has some of the purest water in the country. During the festival, the locals use sprinklers that pump from Shikotsu to create spires, slides, and mazes.
When the sun hits the ice sculptures during the day, they surreally glow from the sapphiric properties of the lake’s water. At night, strategically placed lights illuminate the structures in different colors. On weekends, fireworks close out the evenings.
Don’t despair if you’re going to miss the cherry blossoms in March and April. There are many opportunities to see them bloom, and that includes during winter! Kawazu City has a particular type of cherry tree that blossoms earlier and at a slower pace than most varieties.
The festival takes place on the Kawazu River, where 8,000 cherry blossom trees grow. As you walk along the bank, you can buy street food from vendors or kawazu zakura saplings as souvenirs. Japanese attendees make a day of the event by bringing picnics to eat under the shade of the pink petals.
Also known as the “Pole Lantern Festival,” the Kanto Matsuri prays for a good harvest. It originated in the mid-1700s as a ceremony to repel drowsiness from the summer heat. As part of the rituals, people would hang lanterns on poles to hoist around town. Gradually, they became taller and taller, and now reach heights of 12 meters and can carry around 50 lanterns.
The highlight of the festival is the balancing competition. To the sound of cheers and traditional music, performers stabilize the poles for several minutes on different parts of their bodies. This includes their hands, foreheads, shoulders, and lower backs!
When: early February (annual dates vary)
When: Asahikawa, Hokkaido
Around the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival, Asahikawa holds a similar celebration. However, the snow and ice sculptures in this city are even bigger! In 1994, a snow statue modeled after South Korea’s Suwon Castle made it into the Guinness Book of World Records.
Many of the structures double as stages for performances, and at night, projection mapping displays light them. Children can also enjoy activities like the giant snowball tournament and snow mazes.
Matsumae City has the only Japanese-style castle in Hokkaido. The current main keep is a reconstruction that houses a museum about to the clan that built it and Ainu artifacts. The grounds surrounding the castle is a public park that hosts one of the most beautiful cherry blossom festivals on the island.
What distinguishes Matsumae Park from other cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan, is that it has over 10,000 trees of around 250 varieties. They flower at different times, meaning you can see the full bloom for the better part of a month instead of the usual two-week period. During the festival, you can also watch live folk performances, eat local food, and see illuminated blossoms at night.
The Sanno Spring and Hachiman Autumn Festivals are the pride of Takayama City. Both events center around local shrines and have similar attractions and schedules. During the day, teams of locals pull floats that date back to the Edo Period through the streets. However, because the floats are so old, the teams will quickly return them to their storehouses if it starts to rain.
The highlight of the floats is the adorning marionette-like dolls. Sophisticated pulley systems inside of the floats make the puppets dexterously move. Doll performances take place at designated times throughout the afternoon. In the evening, the floats come out again for a second procession after getting covered in one hundred paper lanterns.