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Top 14 Japanese Festivals and Celebrations

Japan is a country of festivals and no matter when you visit, its pretty likely that there's a celebration or major holiday happening in at least one of the major cities. In Japan, festivals are known as matsuri and are often spectacular celebrations including colorful costumes and parade floats, great street food, religious worship, and traditional performances.

While it's unlikely that travel will resume in 2020, you can start planning for your 2021 trip today by deciding which of Japan's top 14 festivals and celebrations you are most interested in experiencing yourself. While there are many incredibly beautiful festivals that take place in Japan, we've listed the ones we think travelers will enjoy the most below.

Top Festivals in Japan

1. Gion Matsuri

July 17 and 24, 2021—Kyoto

This is probably the most famous festival to take place in Japan and is one of the country's largest celebrations. Gion Matsuri, or the Gion Festival, is a celebration that began as a way to appease the gods that cause natural disasters. Today, it is an incredible event that showcases the beauty of Kyoto's ancient culture including great street food and parades filled with floats that are several stories tall carrying costumed performers.

During the celebrations, you can also check out traditional music shows, dance performances, and may even spot a real Geisha or Meiko.

Gion Matsuri is typically celebrated for the entire month of July with the largest parades and events taking place on July 17th and a smaller parade taking place on July 24th.

Where to celebrate

  • The procession of floats takes place on Shijo, Kawaramachi, and Oike Streets and the main events take place on the other side of the river.
  • Before the processions, the floats are displayed at the intersection between Shijo and Karasuma Streets.

2. Kanda Matsuri

Mid-May, 2021—Tokyo

Kanda Matsuri is one of Tokyo's three biggest festivals and only happens once every two years. The next Kanda Matsuri will fall in May in 2021. The celebration of this festival lasts for an entire week and consists of large parades of over 300 people that make their way through downtown Tokyo.

Kanda Matsuri began as a Shinto celebration during the Edo Period, and today small Shinto shrines, known as mikoshi, are still paraded through the streets during the celebrations. The parades also include priests riding horses, dancers, and musicians.

Where to celebrate

  • The procession goes through the streets of Kanda, Nihonbashi, Otemachi, and Akihabara.
  • It starts early in the morning from the Kanda Myojin Shrine and returns there in the evening.
  • On Sunday, parades are held in both the Kanda and Nihonbashi districts.

3. Tenjin Matsuri

July 24 and 25, 2021—Osaka

Tenjin Matsuri takes place in Osaka every year and is another one of the country's top three cultural celebrations. This is a great one to attend as a traveler and especially as a history buff because the celebrations include actors dressed as Japanese mythological characters and performances of traditional music and dance.

The second day is the largest day of celebrations and includes 3,000 people dressed in Heian Period attire marching through the streets. The atmosphere of this festival is one of pure joy and fun and this is a great time to try Japanese street food at stands that are specially set up for the holiday.

At the end of the celebrations on the second day, make sure to check out the firework display that takes place over flaming boats on the river.

Where to celebrate

  • The first day of processions begins at the Tenmangu Shrine around 8:30 and ends at the Hokonagashi Bride.
  • The second day's parade is the largest and starts around 3:30 pm from the Tenmangu Shrine traveling 3 kilometers on Oimatsucho and Shinmindosuji roads.

4. Obon

August 13 to 15, 2021—all of Japan

Obon is a beautiful Japanese Buddhist festival that is celebrated in either mid-August or mid-July across Japan depending on how each district interprets the ancient lunar calendar. Obon is a celebration of ancestors and a family holiday. During the festival, Japanese people believe that the spirits of their ancestors return to Earth to visit their relatives.

To welcome the spirits, many Japanese will return to their ancestral homes, clean graves, and leave food offerings at altars and temples. On the first day of celebrations, a mukaebi, or welcoming fire, is lit to help guide the spirits home. Many people will speak to the spirits of their ancestors at this time sharing life updates like new jobs, births, and events while visiting their graves.

Where to celebrate

  • The most famous Obon festival is held in Kyoto. Bonfires shaped as Chinese characters are lit on the mountains, creating a unique nighttime spectacle.

5. Toro Nagashi

Toro Nagashi lantern festival

August 15, 2021—all of Japan

Toro Nagashi is an extension of Obon and is celebrated on the last day. During Toro Nagashi, people all over Japan release floating lanterns on lakes and rivers to help guide their ancestors back to the spirit world. Traditionally, the Japanese believe that all people come from water and that releasing the lanterns represents the lights of the spirits returning to the water.

Toro Nagashi is sometimes also called "the Festival of Recovery" because it was first held in 1946 to commemorate the people who died during the U.S. bombings of Tokyo and other cities during WWII. Today, you'll find the biggest Toro Nagashi celebrations at locations where major disasters occurred, but it is also celebrated in most major cities.

Where to celebrate

  • The best place for Toro Nagashi in Tokyo is the Asakusa celebration that takes place along the Sumida River. This lantern release commemorates the people who died during the Great Earthquake of 1923.
  • Another city that participates in large lantern releases is Hiroshima.

6. Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo Snow Festival

February 4 to 11, 2021—Sapporo

Sapporo Snow Festival is locally known as Yuki Matsuri and is held for around a week every year in Hokkaido. This is one of the country's most popular winter events and is celebrated with 400 snow and ice sculptures that are erected by competing teams all around the city. 

Odori Park holds the famously large snow sculptures some of which stand at 15 meters tall and 25 meters wide. All the sculptures are lit up daily and are open to be explored until around 10 pm.

Where to celebrate

  • Odori Park is the main place for celebrations with the largest number of statues, some of which are also the biggest.
  • In Susukino, you will find about 100 ice sculptures and Tsu Dome is a family-friendly site with snow slides, snow rafting, and more sculptures. Inside the dome, there are also food stalls and a stage for performances.

7. Aomori Nebuta Matsuri

Aomori Nebuta Matsuri

August 2 to 7, 2021—Aomori City

This is one of Japan's most beautiful and colorful festivals, the highlight of which is a daily parade that includes large and colorful lantern floats joined by drummers, musicians, and dancers. These floats are made with paper over wrapped a wire frame and often depict gods or historical figures. Each one takes an entire year to create and is moved through the parade using human power. 

On the last day of the festival, some of the floats are put on boats and displayed around the bay before a two-hour-long firework show ends the celebrations.

Where to celebrate

  • This festival is a type of Tanabata celebration and is held in towns all over Aomori Prefecture, however, the largest celebrations take place in the city itself.
  • The parade normally takes a 3-kilometer-long route around central Aomori near the City Hall and Aomori Park.

8. Awa Odori 

August 12 to 15, 2021—Tokushima and Tokyo

Awa Odori, sometimes called the Awa Dance Festival, is a celebration that began in the 16th century in rural Tokushima on Shikoku Island. The festival started as a celebration arranged by Lord Awa for the opening of the Tokushima castle and included music, singing, and dancing through the night. Since then, the holiday has been celebrated every year and has become Japan's most fun-loving and lively matsuri

Today, the festival includes a fun and colorful dance competition that features dancers wearing beautiful traditional costumes. The atmosphere of the celebrations is jovial with the lyrics of the music speaking about how everyone is a fool so you might as well dance.

Where to celebrate

  • The largest celebrations take place in Tokushima which can be hard to reach because it is such a rural destination.
  • You can also see the celebration in Tokyo's Koenji neighborhood which puts on a much smaller show but still attracts over a million visitors every year.

9. Shogatsu

January 1, 2021—all of Japan

Shogatsu, or Oshogatsu, is the celebration of the New Year and is the most important holiday in Japan. This holiday is heavily focused on tradition and family and is widely respected because the transition into the new year is a very important time in Japanese culture. During the festival, many people throw bonenkai parties or "year forgetting parties" which are meant to help everyone leave the troubles of the previous year behind.

Leading up to the new year, Japanese people will clean their homes, decorate their houses with pine and plum trees, and eat toshikoshi soba which are noodles that symbolize longevity. It is also popular to visit a temple or shrine during the three nights of the New Year. During the three days of celebrations, the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo sees several million visitors.

Where to celebrate

  • In Tokyo, before midnight, people gather at Shibuya Crossing for the countdown with plenty of bars staying open until morning.
  • To experience the Buddhist ritual of joya no kane (the bell ringing), head to Zojoji, a big Buddhist temple in Tokyo.

10. Nagasaki Lantern Festival

January 1 to January 15, 2021—Nagasaki

This celebration in Nagasaki was started by Chinese immigrants who lit bright lanterns to celebrate Chinese New Year. Since 1994, the festival has been celebrated by all of Nagasaki by lighting around 15,000 lanterns from small paper lanterns to large zodiac animals that can be around 8 meters tall.

The main events of this celebration include a procession of Chinese ships entering Nagasaki port, the emperor's parade, dragon dances, lion dances, Chinese acrobats, and the performance of traditional Chinese music.

Where to celebrate

  • The best places to go in Nagasaki during the festival include the Shinchi Chinatown, Hama-ichi, and Kankodori.

11. Tanabata Matsuri

August 6 to 8, 2021—all of Japan

Tanabata Matsuri, also known as the Star Festival, has been celebrated for around 2000 years and is based on an ancient Chinese love story. In the story, a celestial princess and cow herder fell in love but the two were then separated by the Sky King. Eventually, the Sky King relented and the two lovers were allowed to see each other one day a year.

During this holiday, the most popular thing to do is to write a wish on a piece of paper and then hang it on a special bamboo tree in the hopes that it will be granted. This holiday is celebrated throughout July and August all across Japan. Different regions celebrate at different times, however, some of the biggest celebrations take place in early August.

Where to celebrate

  • Sendai is around 40 minutes from Tokyo and has some of the biggest celebrations with dozens of handmade streamers hanging throughout the city.
  • In Tokyo, the best place to celebrate is in the Asagaya neighborhood where they create giant paper mache sculptures.
  • Osaka releases 50,000 blue lights on the Okawa River during the celebrations to represent the Milky Way that separated the two lovers in the story.

12. Chichibu Yomatsuri

Chichibu Tomatsuri

December 2 and 3, 2021—Chichibu

Chichibu Yomatsuri, also known as the Chichibu Night Festival, takes place at the Chichibu Shrine which is located around 90 minutes from central Tokyo. The main events of this festival take place on December 3rd and include parade floats made of ornately decorated lanterns that are joined by traditional music.

The festival ends in a large fireworks display that lasts for 2 and a half hours and is one of the few opportunities to see fireworks in winter in Japan.

Where to celebrate

  • The parade starts at Chichibu Shrine around 7 pm and ends at the city hall.

13. Omizutori

March 1 to 14, 2021—Nara

Omizutori is also known as the Sacred Water-Drawing Festival that takes place at the Todaji Temple. This is a Buddhist festival that has been celebrated every year for over 1000 years to cleanse people of their sins and welcome the spring. 

During the holiday, holy water that is said to have divine properties is transported to the temple from Obama City. Visitors are allowed to drink the water and those who wish to must take a vow of silence for multiple days before drinking.

The main event of the celebrations is the cleansing by fire. This takes place every evening of the festival when giant torches are carried to the balcony of the Nigatsudo Hall where they shower embers down on the crowd to bless them with safety in the coming year.

Where to celebrate

  • This festival can only be celebrated at the Todaji Temple in Nara. Once the festival is over, Japan will experience the Hanami or blooming of the cherry blossoms so you can see two festivals in one.

14. Hanami Cherry Blossom Festival

Hanami Cherry Blossom Festival

March to April, 2021—all of Japan

Hanami is also known as the Cherry Blossom Festival and is one of the most famous and beautiful times to visit Japan. During the months of March and April, the cherry blossoms begin to first bloom in the south around Osaka and then slowly spread northwards until they reach Sapporo at the end of April.

Today the Hanami, or viewing of the flowers, is celebrated with thousands of people flocking to parks and temples with sakura trees. There is often plenty of food and drink available around the area and many bring picnic supplies to parks to spend all day relaxing there.

Where to celebrate

  • In Tokyo, head to Shinjuku Gyoen, a park with more than 1,000 trees.
  • In Kyoto, Nakaragi no Michi houses the Kyoto Botanical Garden which is one of the best places to experience the cherry blossom festival.
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