Festivals in Japan are rich in culture and steeped in deep history. Held all-year round, there are numerous festivals held all over the country. Many festivals, or “matsuri” in Japanese, are hundreds of years old, yet remain a focal point of the local culture to this day. Some are small events that are focused on just a specific shrine. Others are extraordinary occasions that get a whole city buzzing!
When it comes to things to experience in Japan, matsuri should be at the top of your list. To give you an idea of what they’re like, the MACHIYA INNS & HOTELS local staff have gathered what we consider to be the 5 best festivals in Japan! Be sure to schedule your trip to Japan to coincide with these festivals to immerse yourself in matsuri culture!
We’re starting off this list of festivals in Japan with a bang — literally and figuratively. The Abare Festival is a fire-filled event. It’s a traditional Japanese summer festival of the Noto Peninsula (in the Ishikawa Prefecture), held on the first Friday and Saturday of July.
On the first night, 40 huge lantern floats called kiriko are paraded throughout the streets. There will be a large, sparking torch among them and people going wild all around!
Two mikoshi (portable Shinto shrines) join the parade on the second night, though they’re destroyed before the night ends. They get thrust into fires, dumped into a river, or slammed hard into the ground. The name of the festival, “abare,” literally translates to rampage. The Abare Matsuri is definitely one of the most boisterous and exciting festivals in all of Japan.
If you want to experience this intense Japanese festival for yourself, we recommend staying in Kanazawa City. From there, you can catch a 1-hour bus or train to the Noto Peninsula, and enjoy the festival on one or both nights.
If you’re into wine, kill two birds with one stone on your trip by also visiting the Noto Winery while you’re there for the festival. Ishikawa Prefecture is also famous for the delicious and fresh seafood, so be sure to sample some during your visit!
The Gion Festival is considered to be one of Japan’s “3 Great Festivals.” Also known as the Gion Matsuri, this Japanese summer festival is held in Kyoto City. It lasts the whole month of July, but the public events of the festival begin on July 10th.
There are many events and smaller festivals held during the Gion Matsuri. The main attractions, however, are the float processions that happen in mid-July. The floats of the Gion Matsuri are called yama and hoko, and these elaborately decorated traditional floats on wheels can be up to 25 meters tall and weigh up to 12 tons. The beautiful floats make their way through central Kyoto carried by men, with the highlights being the turns the floats have to make in order to navigate the streets of Kyoto. You can get a closer look at the festival floats during the night, at the Yoiyama Festival. It almost has a street party like atmosphere, with plenty of food and trinket stalls. Many people dress up in a summer kimono, or yukata, to attend the Gion Matsuri.
Like many festivals in Japan, the Gion Festival has a long history. It was first held over a thousand years ago, in the year 869! The original purpose was to please the gods and bring about the end of a plague that Kyoto city was facing at the time.
Check out this blog post dedicated to the Gion Festival if you want to learn more about the history and events associated with this iconic Japanese festival.
The Nara Tokae Lantern Festival is held from August 5th to 14th each year. Despite being a newer festival, first held in 1999, this is a Japanese summer festival we look forward to every year!
Held in Nara Park, the park famous for deer in Nara Prefecture, this Japanese festival centers around the use of candles. Thousands of candles are lit all around the park, bathing the area in a soft and romantic glow. You can purchase your own candle lantern for a small fee at the festival.
The calm atmosphere of this festival is beautiful and relaxing, and it is especially popular with couples in Japan. The area is most beautiful around the Sarusawa Pond, where the candlelight is gently reflected by the water.
The Nara Tokae Lantern Festival makes for a great day trip from Kyoto City. The train ride from Kyoto to Nara takes less than an hour. Just jump on the JR Nara Train from Kyoto Station, which you can access using the JR Pass.
The Takayama Festival is pretty unique compared to the other festivals on this list. First of all, it’s not held in the summer. Secondly, it actually consists of two festivals! One is held in spring (April 14th and 15th) and the other is held in autumn (October 9th and 10th).
The festivals both center around a parade of floats known as yatai. The parades also include karakuri, which are mechanized puppets that date back to the 17th century of Japan. Matsuri traditions vary widely around the country, and this is definitely one of the more unique ones!
Takayama city is a historic town in Gifu Prefecture, with traditional wooden buildings dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867). With everyone in the procession dressed in traditional costumes, it’s as if the city has been temporarily transported back in time.
The spring festival, known as the Sanno Festival, also doubles as a Japanese cherry blossom festival. The Hachiman Festival is the one held in autumn. You can look forward to many delicious food stalls lining the streets of Takayama City during the festival, regardless of which season you visit!
The last entry on this list is also not just one single festival. Rather, the Japanese cherry blossom festival is an ongoing experience during the country’s cherry blossom season. In the main tourist cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, the season is at its peak from late March to early April.
Cherry blossom festivals in Japan are also called hanami festivals or “flower viewing” festivals. Some of these events are coordinated by the city. Most often, you’ll find people holding their own Japanese cherry blossom festival. It’s usually just as simple as putting a picnic blanket beneath a cherry blossom tree and enjoying food and drinks with family and friends.
You can enjoy hanami anywhere. Our top recommendation, though, is Maruyama Park in Kyoto City. There are 600 cherry blossom trees, including a spectacular one called the “Gion Weeping Cherry.” There is also a lovely shrine, the Yasaka Shrine, right beside the park to visit. For more ideas on where to visit to see cherry blossoms in Kyoto City, check out our blog post on our top 7 favorite places to see cherry blossoms in Kyoto City.
Another great place to view cherry blossoms is at Inokashira Park in Tokyo City. There are many cherry blossom trees here, most of which hang over a pond that you can ride a swan boat over. There is also a shrine, zoo, aquarium, and even a Studio Ghibli Museum at the park!
Japanese festivals are some of the best ways to experience the beautiful culture and traditions of the country. If you’re looking to make your trip to Japan truly memorable, be sure to time your travels so you can participate in person!