Enjoy a matsuri season of processions, prayers, street food, fireworks and celebration
Matsuri (festivals) are held throughout the year in Japan, but some of the biggest and best are hosted in summer. From the weird and wonderful, the large scale to the local and the traditional and timeless, there is a matsuri to suit every taste.
Join us on a whistle-stop tour of some of the most important summer festivals in Japan. From spectacular fireworks to traditional dance, legends that have lasted more than a thousand years and processions that bring entire cities together, there’s nothing like a matsuri to bring some fun to your travels.
If you’re looking for things to do during summer in Japan, let our list of the best summer matsuri inspire you.
Gion Matsuri, Kyoto, Throughout July
Japan’s most famous matsuri is registered on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. This spectacular event dates back to 869 when an epidemic wiped out huge swathes of the population. Emperor Seiwa (850 - 881) declared that a festival would be held to appease the gods, who were believed to have inflicted this event on Kyoto. Soon after the festival, the epidemic disappeared. As thanks and as a preventative measure, the Gion Festival was held annually thereafter. The event has had very few cancellations in the preceding years but, ironically, the matsuri was halted during the pandemic. The 2019 event drew more than a million people over the month and, with the return of tourists, 2023 looks set to bring the event back to its former glory.
The festival centres around Yasaka Shrine, founded in 656. Events are held throughout the month, but the most popular take place on the mornings of the 17th and 24th when grand processions of floats parade through the streets. Floats are intricately decorated, up to 25 meters tall and weigh around 12 tonnes, making for spectacular sights.
If you venture to Kyoto during July, make sure to sample conger eel, which is in season during this time of year. Gion Matsuri is so closely associated with conger eel (hamo), that it’s informally called the Hamo Festival.
Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori City, 2nd - 7th August
This Tanabata (see above) related festival is the largest of its kind in Japan. More than 20 colourful lantern-floats of up to five meters high and nine meters wide are paraded throughout the streets at night. The procession is accompanied by taiko drummers, dancers and other performers. Bystanders are encouraged to dress in traditional haneto costumes and join in the festivities. The more extravagant displays with the most floats are held from 4th to 6th. After the last float procession on the 7th, a two-hour firework display fills the night sky.
Locals construct these impressive floats throughout the year, using washi paper on wire frames. These lantern floats depict gods, mythical creatures, historical figures and even popular TV and kabuki actors. During the day, you can meet the artisans behind these incredible creations. The floats are stored at the Aomori Prefectural Center for Tourism and Industry where you can photograph them up close and meet the people who constructed them.
Awa Odori, Tokushima City, 12th to 15th August
Japan’s most famous dance festival is held during Obon, the Buddhist festival of the dead when people welcome the spirits of their ancestors back home. The roots of the Awa Odori have grown hazy over the years, with some people saying it began with an epic street party thrown with the completion of Tokushima Castle in 1587 and others saying it emerged in 1663 when a popular Noh theatre performance came to town and elicited street celebrations.
Today, troops of dance performers and traditional musicians wear yukata (women) and happi (men) and dance the “Fool’s Dance”, a simple dance with a history that dates back 400 years. The lyrics to the song translate to “Fools dance and fools watch, if both are fools, you might as well dance”. Indeed, audience participation is strongly encouraged, so wear your dancing shoes!
The main events are held during the evening, but you’ll find smaller events and plenty of matsuri food and entertainment to keep you entertained throughout the day, too.
Akita Kanto Festival, Akita City, 3rd - 6th August
Akita Kanto (pole lantern) is another Tanabata-related festival and one of the most famous matsuri in Northeast Japan. It dates back around 270 years and is held every year in prayer for a bountiful harvest. It is designated by the Japanese government as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural property.
The festival is best known for its bamboo poles, reminiscent of grains of rice on a stalk, which tower up to 12 meters high and is loaded with up to 46 giant lanterns lit by candles. During the evening, skilled performers carry more than 250 kanto poles through the street while others play drums and flutes. The skilled performers then raise these poles in unison before the performers showcase their skills, hoisting these poles (which weigh up to 50kg) overhead and balancing them in one hand, on their forehead, their shoulder, or hip using techniques that have been passed down over generations.
To appreciate the skill and strength involved in balancing these poles, there is a 15-minute Q&A session with the performers at the end of the evening’s 90-minute event and the opportunity to try hoisting the Kanto for yourself.
Tenjin Matsuri, Osaka, 24th - 25th July
This historic event was first recorded in 951 and has grown to become one of the most important festivals in Japan, drawing more than a million spectators each year. Tenjin Matsuri, the festival of the gods, commemorates Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar who was deified as the god of learning. He is enshrined at Tenmangu Shrine in Osaka’s Tenma district.
The first day of the festival begins with a Shinto ritual at Tenmangu Shrine, and plenty of street food stalls to keep visitors sated. Events ramp up on the second day, with a parade that begins in the streets and continues on water. A golden mikoshi (portable shrine) is carried throughout the district before being transferred to a boat on the Okawa River. More than 100 beautifully lit boats join the evening maritime procession, as people sing, shout and play drums. The evening is capped off with an impressive fireworks display, but the revelry typically continues much later into the night.
Sendai Tanabata Matsuri, Sendai, 6th - 8th August
Tanabata Festival (also known as Star Festival) is celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month in Japan. It comes from the Chinese legend of two star-crossed lovers, represented by the stars Vega and Altair, who are only permitted by their families to meet once a year. People hope for clear skies on Tanabata so the lovers can be reunited.
The most extravagant of the country’s many Tanabata celebrations is Sendai Tanabata Matsuri. Thousands of colourful washi paper streamers, measuring up to 5 meters long, decorate the city alongside innumerable other decorations, including paper cranes, paper kimonos and paper purses on which people write their wishes and hang them from bamboo branches. The city comes alive with colour, which is accentuated by visitors donning bright yukata for the event, too.
Other attractions during the festival include live music, traditional dance, street food and a riverside firework display the night before the festival starts.
Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival, Tokyo, last Saturday of July
Firework festivals don’t get much bigger than this. Every year, rival pyrotechnic groups compete to put on the most extravagant fireworks display, ensuring a thrilling display for bystanders. From 7 pm bystanders will be treated to 90 minutes of both traditional and some of the most innovative new fireworks in the world, all against the backdrop of Tokyo Skytree.
The event has a long history, considered the oldest fireworks festival on record. It is thought to have originated in 1733 when the 8th shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, used fireworks as a way to pray for the end of famine and to ward off evil spirits.
Luxurique creates highly tailored itineraries and events to suit your interests so you can discover Japan on your terms, without compromise. Get in touch with us to start planning your trip.