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When is the Best Time to Visit Japan for Festivals?
Picture | January 30th, 2019 | Dayna Hannah
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There’s nothing more quintessentially Japanese than a festival. Japanese people celebrate national holidays, the seasons, give thanks to Shinto deities, and reenact historical events through elaborate, jovial bashes. For travelers, matsuri (festivals) offer opportunities to try traditional Japanese street food, wear yukata or kimono, and immerse themselves in Japanese culture. Depending on your interests, some festival seasons might seem more enticing than others, so let’s take a look at the top festivals in Japan!

OUR FAVORITE SPRING FESTIVALS

As the snow and cold weather melt away, Japan comes to life as if waking from a dreamy spell. For locals, spring signifies the beginning of the school and fiscal year, and everyone feels a sense of renewal and revitalization. The newfound energy helps attract visitors for the flowers, food, and fun!

Takayama Sanno Spring Festival

The Takayama Sanno Spring Festival features a procession of musicians wearing hats made with bird feathers and dancers who perform the rhythmic shishimai (lion dance). At the end of the parade, over 10 yatai (giant floats) are pulled through the streets. These yatai have all sorts of decorations, including marionettes that move with such fluid dexterity that it’s hard to believe this technology was developed during the Edo period!

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Matsumae Park Cherry Blossom Festival

Most international travelers spend their time at cherry blossom festivals dashing between every tree, but the Japanese relax with a picnic, or in some cases, have a full-on barbecue party. The northernmost island, Hokkaido, is the last to experience the season, and the park near the famous Matsumae Castle has over 10,000 sakura trees. The Matsumae Park Cherry Blossom Festival takes place during the peak bloom (typically late April to early May). It features a samurai parade and a celebration for the birth of Buddha.

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Aoi Matsuri

Most festivals are joyous, noisy occasions, but the Kyoto Aoi Festival—one of the most famous festivals in Kyoto—is known for its elegance and grace. Every year on May 15th, around 500 people dressed in Heian period clothing walk, ride on horseback, or drive oxen-drawn carts from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the two Kamo Shrines. The parade is a solemn event, but the celebrations outside of the Kamigamo Shrine include dance and musical performances, as well as horseback archery.

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OUR FAVORITE SUMMER FESTIVALS

Summer is the time of year that has the most festivals. Shrines, temples, and public establishments seem to hold events every day! Despite the scorching temperatures, Japanese people dart between booths to try dishes from different parts of the country, play carnival games, and enjoy haunted houses.

Gion Summer Festival

In July, you can take part in a grand and storied tradition: the Gion Summer Festival. The main event (Yamaboko Junko) happens on July 17th when a marvelous procession of floats is pulled through the streets. The floats can reach 25 meters (82 feet) high and weigh up to 12 tons! Despite its name, however, the Gion Festival doesn’t take place in Kyoto’s famous Geisha district, but across the river from it.

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Aomori Nebuta Matsuri

There are plenty of prominent festivals to choose from in Japan, but August is the only time you can see the Three Great Festivals of Tohoku. The Aomori Nebuta Festival attracts millions of spectators with a paradise of colorful, gigantic lantern floats from August 2nd-7th. The best part about the Nebuta Festival is that anyone can participate in the parade! All you need is the proper attire, which can be purchased for 5,000 JPY (US $50.00) or rented for 3,000 JPY (US $30.00).

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Kanto Matsuri

The next Great Festival of Tohoku is the Kanto Matsuri in Akita City. From August 3rd - 6th, locals hoist massive bamboo poles that stretch 12 meters (40 feet) into the air and hold as many as 46 brightly illuminated paper lanterns. In addition to celebrating the Tanabata holiday, the festival encourages an energetic atmosphere to embolden people to fight through their sleepiness and to keep working hard!

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Sendai Tanabata Matsuri

The Sendai Tanabata Matsuri is the last of the Three Great Festival of Tohoku. The Sendai Tanabata Festival celebrates this holiday by stringing up hundreds of paper streamers and decorations from August 6th-8th. The shape of the decorations determines their purpose. For example, kimono-shaped decorations ward off evil spirits, nets pray for good harvest, and trash cans represent cleanliness.

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Awa Odori Festival

Following the establishment of Tokushima Castle in 1586, the local people celebrated in a drunken revelry. According to popular belief, this event birthed the Awa Odori Festival. Over the past 400 years this event spread to other parts of the county, but the best place to see the festivities is in Tokushima City from August 12th to the 15th. The streets fill with live music, taiko drum, and dancers wearing traditional clothing and woven amigasa hats.

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OUR FAVORITE FALL FESTIVALS

When the intense humidity of summer finally releases Japan, the carefree atmosphere shifts to a renewed sense of duty. Students return to class and workers begin preparations for end-of-the-year goals. Despite the hustle, many cities in Japan hold delightful festivals during this time.

Autumn Leaves Festivals in Japan

At harvest time, charming festivals dedicated to giving thanks to gods pop up at local shrines. Japan’s autumn season is also distinguished by its striking fall foliage. In Kyoto, the brilliant golds and scarlet reds frame the city’s well-known castles, temples, and shrines. Many popular sightseeing spots like Kiyomizu Temple stay open past sunset and illuminate the trees with light displays.

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Takayama Hachiman Autumn Festival

The Takayama Hachiman Autumn Festival is a sister to the Sanno Spring Festival. On October 9th and 10th, volunteers pull over 10 yatai with marionettes through the streets in a parade straight out of the 15th century. At night, as many as 100 lit paper lanterns adorn each float creating a spectacular atmosphere. It’s no wonder that the Sanno Spring and Hachiman Autumn festivals are the pride of the small mountain town of Takayama.

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OUR FAVORITE WINTER FESTIVALS

In winter, northern Japan’s landscape glitters in pure white as lakes and ponds freeze over and snow falls heavily on the mountains. Although winter conjures images of skiing, snowboarding, and ice skating or curling up indoors with a mug of hot chocolate, in Japan, winter is another occasion to celebrate! You can find LED light displays twinkling everywhere from famous historical sites to small neighborhoods, as well as large scale festivals.

Sapporo Snow Festival

Every February, international artists, local students, and even Self Defense Force members build giant statues out of snow and ice in Sapporo. The main part of the Sapporo Snow Festival takes place in Odori Park where snow statues taller than buildings dominate the city blocks. In nearby Susukino—the entertainment district—smaller ice sculptures line the streets as they are lit by the flashing neon lights above.

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Asahikawa Winter Festival

The more family-friendly Asahikawa Winter Festival runs around the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival. Every year, children join the giant snowball tournament, and they’re encouraged to help decorate the town with snowmen. There’s also a snow maze, a 100-meter ice slide, and small amusement rides. At night, the snow statues and ice sculptures come alive with projection mapping and music!

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Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival

The ice sculptures at this event are all made from Lake Shikotsu’s water, which is said to be the clearest in all of Japan. During the day, the sun illuminates the natural “Shikotsu Blue” color of the statues, and at night the area becomes a fantasyland of lights. On weekends and holidays, firework displays conclude the evenings. It goes without saying that you should dress warmly before going to an ice festival, but this one gets extremely cold given the proximity to the lake.

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Kawazu Cherry Blossom Festival

The kawazu zakura cherry blossom variety’s season begins around mid-February—much earlier than most sakura varieties—and the Kawazu Cherry Blossom festival pops up along the Kawazu River as the sakura hit their full bloom (generally in the last two weeks of February). During the festival, you can shop for souvenirs or sample a variety of fresh local treats from one of the many food stalls along the bank. The flowers tend to bloom at a slow pace, so you’ll have a large window of opportunity to attend.

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If you’ve found the perfect season or festival for you….


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