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Summer Festivals in Japan: A Traveler's Guide

There is nothing quite like a Japanese summer festival. Discover the best ones in this comprehensive guide.
Summer Festivals in Japan: A Traveler's Guide

Did you know Japan has exciting festivals that happen all year round? Celebrations take place during the warmer summer months, from June to September. 

Each summer, there are hundreds of traditional and modern festivals that take place across the country. Regardless of which festival you head to, you'll find a spectacular experience. 

So, if you're planning a trip to Japan in the summer, make sure to attend one of the many festivals. A traditional Japanese festival is an ideal choice if you want to have an unforgettable experience. These festivals are fun, vibrant, and a great way to immerse yourself in Japanese culture. 

Since there are so many different Japanese festivals in summer, it may be tough to choose just one. This guide will introduce you to all the best options so that you can find the top summer celebration for you.

Why you should attend a Japanese summer festival

Why you should attend a Japanese summer festival

Japanese summers may be warm, but the festivals that take place make it well worth it to visit at this time of year. Summer in Japan is known as the Obon period (July and August). According to Japanese legends, this is when the spirits of the ancestors come back to visit earth. And many of the traditional festivals that take place are in honor of these spirits. 

You'll notice this focus on the otherworld when attending a summer festival in Japan. There are floats in the form of deities parading down streets, mobile shrines appearing in key festival locations, and even frenetic traditional dancing performances. Everything about these traditional summer festivals is designed to pay homage to the ancestors. 

The lively atmosphere and unique experience are reasons enough to attend a summer festival in Japan. But to get the most out of it, make sure to take part in the dances, join the parade, and chant with the crowds. This is also one of the best opportunities you'll get to mingle with the locals.

What to expect when attending a Japanese summer festival

What to expect when attending a Japanese summer festival

Japanese summer festivals are rooted in tradition. Celebrations (Matsuri) revolve around honoring a shrine's deity, commemorating an important event, or acknowledging a specific season.

If you're attending one of the traditional Matsuri festivals, you can expect processions featuring floats. Usually, the shrine being honored has a portable version that represents the deity (Kami) which is carried along with the procession.

Additionally, you'll encounter plenty of live music throughout these festivals. Drum and flute musicians tend to accompany the processions, but you'll find other musicians joining in too. The characteristics and personalities of each festival vary from region to region. 

For example, some festivals are calm, peaceful, and relaxed, while others are loud, colorful, and energetic. Regardless of the vibe, most incorporate singing and dancing along with the procession. However, during the summer months, you're most likely to find vibrant festivals full of bright decorations, tasty food, games, and fireworks.

The best Japanese summer festivals

If you're visiting Japan in the summer, then you're definitely in for a treat. Although there are countless festivals to choose from, this guide will introduce you to some of the best. Not only are these Japanese festivals incredibly fun, but they're also the best way to learn about Japanese culture, history, and tradition.

Japan's most famous festival: Gion Matsuri

Japan's most famous festival: Gion Matsuri

Gion Matsuri is probably Japan's most well-known festival. The celebration lights up the lovely city of Kyoto each July. The festival literally takes over Kyoto's entire downtown throughout the month. There are parades with elaborate floats, lively street parties, and plenty of festival-worthy food to sample as well.

The legendary event dates all the way back to the year 869 when Emperor Seiwa planned a special celebration honoring the Gods in hope that it would protect Kyoto from the plague. It's likely this longevity that plays a role in making this festival so impressive. The main parade (Yamaboko Junko) is so grand and holds so much significance that it has actually been registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The main processions take place on two different days. These processions happen in the mornings; however, there are also three festive evenings that lead up to these processions. Streets in Kyoto downtown are closed to traffic on these evenings to accommodate revelers. There are also some smaller events that occur before and in between the two processions.

How to get to Gion Matsuri: Osaka International (Itami) Airport is the closest one to Kyoto. You can rent a car and drive to Kyoto or take a bus from the airport to downtown Kyoto which takes approximately 1 hour.

• Address: Various locations across central Kyoto.

• Date: July

The lantern float festival: Nebuta Matsuri

The lantern float festival: Nebuta Matsuri

Another rather famous Japanese summer festival is the Nebuta Matsuri which takes place in Aomori City each year. This particular festival is the largest one in Aomori prefecture and occurs at the start of August. 

Although there is plenty going on during this festive week, the highlight is the procession of giant lantern floats each day. Plus, large taiko drums, musicians, and dancers accompany the procession. The two dozen lantern floats are truly impressive, and many of them are up to 9 meters tall and 5 meters wide. These floats can depict anything from Gods, heroes from history, mythological creatures, or even popular characters from local shows.

Parades take place every night in the streets of downtown Aomori City except on the last day when the parade is in the afternoon, followed by a fireworks show as a closing ceremony. The first two parades are slightly smaller, but the event builds up each day. Participation in the parade is highly encouraged, so you can join in on the festivities too if you want. Just make sure to purchase a traditional haneto dancing costume at a grocery store first, as it's a requirement for all participants.

How to get to Nebuta Matsuri: The parade route is a 5-minute walk from JR Aomori Station, whereas the start and finish point of the loop (Rassera Land) is located about a 10-minute walk from JR Aomori Station. 

• Address: Aomori Chamber of Commerce Hall 4F, 1-2-18 Shinmachi, Aomori City, Aomori 030-0801

• Date: August

The river procession with fireworks festival: Tenjin Matsuri

The river procession with fireworks festival: Tenjin Matsuri

Tenjin Matsuri takes place annually in Osaka in late July. Although not as long as the previously mentioned festivals, it makes up for it by being truly impressive. The first day acts as a warm-up to the main event, which takes place on the second day with both a land and river procession combined with a grand fireworks show.

Just like Japan's other top summer festival (Gion Matsuri), Tenjin Matsuri has a long and rich history. The festival first started in the 10th century in honor of the main deity (Sugawara Michizane) of the Tenmangu shrine. Because it is a religious festival, the event starts with a ceremonial ritual at the shrine and prayers by the river on the first day.

On the afternoon of the second day, the festivities ramp up with a land procession led by drummers wearing red hats. There are also traditional characters in costume, lion dancers, umbrella dancers, and festive music. The shrine is also carried along with the procession. Once they reach Okawa River, participants board the festival boats, and the procession continues along the river well into the night ending with a fireworks display.

How to get to Tenjin Matsuri: You can reach the festival area either by train or taxi. JR Osaka-Tenmangu Station and Minami-Morimachi Station on the Tanimachi and Sakaisuji subway lines are the closest to the shrine and river, respectively.

• Address: 2-1-8 Tenjinbashi, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0041

• Date: July

Obon dancing festival: Awa Odori

Obon dancing festival: Awa Odori

The Obon period (mid-August) is when most dance festivals happen around Japan, and Awa Odori in Tokushima is the most popular one. Awa was the original name for Tokushima prefecture, and Odori means 'dance'. From August 12 to 15 each year, spectators flock to Tokushima to view or participate in the event.

During the festival, roads in downtown Tokushima are closed to traffic, and groups of dancers (Ren) perform specific dances. Musicians playing traditional instruments accompany the dancers as they make their way through designated spectator areas. Both amateurs and professional dancers can take part in Awa Odori, but the experienced dancers stand out through advanced choreography and colorful uniforms.

There are some dances that happen during the afternoons, but most occur at night. This is when the city center becomes one large stage. The main attraction is the "Fool's Dance," which dates back to the 10 century. And, of course, it wouldn't be a festival without street food, game stalls, parades, and more.

How to get to Awa Odori: Fly to Tokushima Airport from Tokyo and then rent a car or take a bus or train to downtown Tokushima Station.

• Address: Awa Odori takes place at various locations in the city, but you'll find the main event in central Tokushima.

• Date: August 12 to 15

An elaborate star festival: Tanabata Matsuri

An elaborate star festival: Tanabata Matsuri

The city of Sendai hosts the largest and most famous Tanabata festival in Japan. Tanabata festivals which are also called "star festivals," take place all across the country on the 7th day of the 7th month. These festivals commemorate the crossing paths of two stars (Altair and Vega), according to a Chinese legend. Because of calendar differences, these events can occur either in July or August. 

The Sendai Tanabata Matsuri happens from August 6 to 8 each year. Although there are events that take place at various locations, the main draw is the thousands of colorful streamers which adorn the shopping centers in Sendai. These elaborate decorations are so large that they look like brightly colored forests. 

Besides the streamers, there are other items that can be found all over the city to represent certain wishes for the city and its citizens. You'll also find performances taking place on stages in certain areas, live music, traditional dancing, and food stalls. Plus, fireworks show on the night before the festival officially starts.

How to get to Tanabata Matsuri: Decorations are in Ichibancho and Chuo shopping arcades which can both be reached with a short walk from JR Sendai Station or Kotodaikoen Subway Station.

• Address: Ichiban-cho, Aoba-ku, Sendai, Miyagi 980-0811

• Date: August 6 to 8

A great Edo festival: Sanno Matsuri

A great Edo festival: Sanno Matsuri

Sanno Matsuri is one of the three biggest and most popular summer festivals that take place in Tokyo. There is a full and partial version of this festival. The full version only occurs on even-numbered years, and the partial version happens on odd-numbered years. This is a way to alternate with the other big Tokyo festival Kanda Matsuri which is the exact opposite.

The Sanno Matsuri festival takes place over 11 days in mid-June, and there are various small events that happen across Tokyo. During even-numbered years, the main attraction is a huge parade that meanders through central Tokyo for about 9 hours on one day. The festival is in honor of the deity at the Hie shrine, which is considered the guardian god of Tokyo. Both the deity and the shrine are believed to pre-date the city, but the Sanno festival only started during the Edo period.

Since Tokyo is such a large and essential city, the scale of the procession has been reduced over time to avoid the need for road closures. However, many streets are partially closed on parade day to make way for the floats, musicians, and dancers. At the Hie shrine, participants can walk through a large straw ring as an act of purification.

How to get to Sanno Matsuri: The parade starts at Hie shrine, which is in central Tokyo and can be reached from various subway stations. It is a 3-minute walk from Tameike-Sanno Station if you take the Tokyo Metro Namboku Line or Ginza Line. 

• Address: 2-10-5 Nagatachō, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0014

• Date: Dates and times vary from year to year, so check the event website

Time to celebrate summer in Japan

Time to celebrate summer in Japan

If you love a good part, then you'll love any Japanese summer festival. These colorful events are a true celebration in every way and a wonderful way to experience Japan. Attend one or many during your time in Japan by booking a trip using the JAL Japan Explorer Pass - the best way to discover Japan!

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