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Spring into Summer with Japan’s Festivals
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Spring into Summer with Japan’s Festivals

Sun’s out, fun’s out! Japan's traditional festivals are an amazing opportunity to experience this incredible country in full party mode. 

What is a Japanese Festival?
Top Ten Summer Festivals in Japan
Bonus Recommendations


Spring and summer in Japan are a time of renewal and celebration. From cherry blossom season and Golden Week in spring to the traditional festivals and fireworks of the summer months, it’s one of the most joyous times to visit Japan. This is exemplified by Japan’s traditional festivals, which take place throughout the year, but which arguably reach their zenith during the spring and summer months. One of the many great things about the Japan Rail Pass is the ability to hop on and off trains and travel right across the country without having to buy multiple tickets. This gives you the freedom and flexibility to experience traditional matsuri taking place across this beautiful country. Ready to celebrate spring and welcome the arrival of summer? Let’s go!

What is a Japanese Festival?

Simply put, a Japanese festival is a celebration. In Japan, they are known as ‘matsuri’ and the most ancient and traditional festivals usually honour a temple, shrine, or sacred place. However, there can be a vast range of other reasons why they are held, from celebrating the seasons to much quirkier, more contemporary reasons. Japan has literally thousands of festivals that take place across the country, at temples and shrines as well as in cities, towns, and villages. From the serious to the sublime, historic to contemporary, these festivals are known as matsuri in Japan and occupy a very important part of Japanese culture. From snow festivals to cherry blossom festivals, religious and spiritual festivals to harvest festivals, from music, food and beer festivals to computer games, cosplay and anime – Japan has festivals and celebrations for all of these and more with an estimated 300,000 matsuri across Japan each year. Traditional matsuri feature processions and decorated floats known as dashi, yatai, danjiri, and other regional variations. However, each matsuri is also slightly different, with its own unique personality and characteristics. While some are serene and peaceful, others are colourful, loud and energetic, and feature dancing and singing. Attending a festival is a brilliant opportunity for an overseas visitor to experience an authentic Japanese tradition first-hand.

Top Ten Summer Festivals in Japan

With around 300,000 festivals across the whole of Japan, it’s pretty hard to choose just 10 to recommend, so we’ve focussed on the summer months as we head into June, July, August, and September. Let's take a look.

1. Santa Matsuri plus two more Tokyo Festivals in one weekend!)

Every May, Tokyo comes alive with three festivals in one weekend when Sanja Matsuri, Shibuya Kagoshima Ohara Matsuri, and Kagurazaka Street Stage O-edo Tour, take place over the course of two action-packed days. Sensoji Temple in Asakusa is one of Tokyo's leading attractions and Sanja Matsuri is the biggest annual celebration (and one of the city’s best matsuri!). First held in 1312, look out for the festival’s three huge mikoshi (portable shrines) heading through the streets of Asakusa.

2.  Fukagawa Hachiman

Staying in Tokyo for now, we have one of the city’s three main Shinto festivals - one of the two main religions in Japan alongside Buddhism - Fukagawa Hachiman takes place at Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in August. Fukagawa festival features more than 53 mikoshi (portable shrines) and sees water thrown over the participants as part of a purification ritual to please the gods. This is considered one of three great Edo festivals alongside Sanno Matsuri and Kanda Matsuri.  

3.  Gion Matsuri

Illuminating the beautiful city of Kyoto every July is Gion Matsuri - one of the most famous festivals in all of Japan. Seeing the Gion Festival is a great experience for visitors to Kyoto, with the festival dominating the city’s downtown area. This huge festival dominates the month of July, with parades, street parties and plenty of food to be enjoyed. The festival dates back to 869 when the emperor declared a special ceremony to pray to the gods to protect the city from a plague. Gion Matsuri is best known for its grand parades through downtown Kyoto that feature elaborate floats, and the street parties that lead up to the parades. These street parties are no small affair either, with streets throughout the downtown area closed to traffic in the evening. The grand procession of floats - Yamaboko Junko - is so spectacular and so significant to the people of Kyoto and the rest of Japan that it has been registered with UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. For a full guide to this famous festival, read Experiencing the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto.

4.  Soma Nomaoi

A three-day celebration of martial arts and horsemanship in northeast Honshu, Soma Nomaoi takes place each year in July and dates back more than 1,000 years. Spectacular and different. To reach Soma, take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen line to Sendai and switch to the JR Joban line for Soma using your JRailPass.

5.  Tanabata: the star festival

Known as the Star Festival, Tanabata Matsuri takes place across Japan each summer. The main activity of the festival is people writing down their wishes onto a small, coloured piece of paper called a tanzaku. Next, the tanzaku are tied to bamboo trees, creating clouds of colourful paper hanging down over people. Although the most common custom, each region has its own traditions for the festival. These are often closely related to Buddhist customs that take place during the Obon Festival. Without a doubt the largest and most famous Tanabata festival in Japan is the Sendai Tanabata Festival. It takes place in August and has a history that stretches back to the rule of Date Masamune in the 16-17th century. To reach Sendai with your JR Pass, there are plenty of train options, including the Tohoku-Hokkaido Shinkansen.

6.  Tenjin Matsuri 

This famous and celebrated festival at Tenmangu Shrine in Osaka is in honour of Sugawara no Michizane, who was deified as the god of learning and art. With over 1.5 million visitors, the Tenjin Matsuri is one of the largest three seasonal festivals held in Japan and is celebrated annually in July. The festival starts with a traditional procession at the temple, followed by parades through the city. On day two the celebration continues with a river procession. The festival concludes with a massive fireworks display. The temple is closely located to the station called JR Osaka Tenmangu station on the JR Tozai-Gakkentoshi Line. From Osaka station, the fastest way to get there is using the JR Osaka Loop Line to Kyobashi station. Once there, transfer to the Tozai-line bound Tenmangu. The route is fully covered by the JR Pass. To find out more about this festival, read our Guide to Tenmangu Shrine and Tenjin Festival.

7.  Obon

Obon is an important and deeply spiritual celebration of ancestors’ spirits coming home to rest that has been taking place for at least 500 years. It is staged in July and August, depending on the lunar cycle, and sees families come together at temples, shrines and at home, to light lanterns and fires to guide their ancestors’ spirits home. Bon Odori is a traditional dance used to celebrate the Obon festival. While performances vary widely from region to region, the dance is traditionally accompanied by Japanese taiko drums and is performed by participants wearing yukata. Anyone is welcome to join in the dance, which often takes place in parks, temples, shrines, and other public places. Obon takes place in many different locations in Japan at various times throughout the year. Popular destinations to visit during Obon include Kyoto, Gujo, and Hokkaido, all of which can be accessed using the Japan Rail Pass.

8.  Aomori Nebuta Matsuri

Nebuta are huge colourful floats made out of papier-mâché in the shape of characters from Kabuki theatre, historical figures and mythological creatures, which are accompanied by hundreds of dancers known as Haneto, and the sound of Taiko drums and flute music. It is held annually during the month of August in Aomori, which is in the Tohoku region. To get there from Tokyo using your Japan Rail Pass, take the JR Tohoku bullet train to Shin-Aomori station and then transfer to JR Aomori Station. Another recommendation is Mitama Matsuri. Taking place every July at Yasukuni Jinja Shrine in Tokyo, Mitama Matsuri sees more than 20,000 lanterns light up the nearby alleyways. You can even buy a yukata - a traditional festival kimono - to wear if you want to attend and join in the celebration, which features spectacular floats, dancing, and theatrical performances. 

9.  Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival

Japan loves fireworks just as much as festivals. Founded in 1732, Sumidagawa is the oldest fireworks festival in the world and takes place on the banks of Tokyo’s Sumida River near Asakusa on the last Saturday in July. Summer nights and fireworks go hand in hand! There are lots of major firework displays in Japan over the summer. Also look out for the Fuji Five Lakes Fireworks Festival, Lake Biwa Fireworks, and Nagaoka Festival and Fireworks.

10.   Awa Odori

A hugely popular and colourful dance festival, Awa Odori was originally staged to honour returning ancestral spirits. Fun and colourful, the festival sees hundreds of dancers called Ren compete against each other in Tokushima city centre during August. The dancers, made up of men, women and children, wear distinctive straw hats and summer cotton kimono to create a truly spectacular sight which is watched by more than one million people. Tokushima is on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, and can be reached with the JR Pass. Also look out for the Yosakoi Festival. Held in Kochi Prefecture each August since 1954, Yosakoi is another one of Japan’s biggest traditional dance festivals. 

Festival Food & Games

Japan’s festivals have more to offer than an incredible spectacle. You’ll also have the chance to join in by indulging in traditional games and delicious food and drink. You can also dance at the Bon Odori and play festival games such as:

  • Kingyo-sukai - win a goldfish!
  • Shateki - shoot at targets.
  • Wanage - ring throwing.
  • Yoyo-tsuri - fishing for water balloons.

If all those fun and games work up an appetite, then you’re in luck! Japan is a paradise for food lovers and festivals are a great place to enjoy food. Most feature food stalls and street food and several have special foods connected to the celebration or local area. Here are a few summer dishes to look out for:

  • Kakitori

Shaved ice with syrup - this is one of Japan’s favourite summer foods and perfect for cooling down.

  • Goya

A bitter melon that grows in the summer months, goya is very good for you but has a love it or hate it flavour. It’s sometimes cooked in a larger dish with other ingredients such as the Okinawan speciality goya-champuru which features pork, tofu, bean sprouts, and egg as well as goya. 

  • Hiyayakko

A cold tofu dish traditionally topped with katsuobushi fish flakes and spring onions with ginger and soy sauce.

  • Watermelon

A delicious slice of watermelon served fresh. Can you get any more summery? 

  • Nagashi Somen

This is almost like a festival game in itself! Diners have to grab cold noodles as they slide down a bamboo chute. You can then dip your noodles in a soy-style tsuyu sauce.

  • Yakitori

Skewered meat grilled over charcoal – the beautiful simplicity and amazing taste of Yakitori makes it a street food favourite in Japan.

  • Tomorokoshi

People are often surprised that corn cobs (which are often seen as being quintessentially American) are so popular in Japan, especially from Yatai street vendors and Matsuri stalls. Of course, the Japanese version is unique and delicious – it is grilled with miso, butter, and soy and served on a stick. Tomorokoshi is traditionally associated with the Hokkaido region.

Bonus Recommendations

We have many more astonishing facts about Japan and a wealth of useful information in our many in-depth travel guides on the JR Pass blog. Here are a few suggestions for further reading as well as some extra advice: 

  • For more on festivals, read our guide to the Best Japanese Festivals to Visit.
  • Unsure of what season is best for you? For a comprehensive month-by-month guide to the weather and temperatures across Japan read our Guide to Japan’s Weather and Seasons
  • Each of Japan’s seasons is different based on the location within the country. For this reason alone, it pays to rent your own Pocket Wifi to stay connected as you travel and explore Japan, keeping you abreast of the forecast and local conditions in any part of the country.
  • If you’re interested in experiencing some of Japan’s most famous celebrations you should also read our guide to Golden Week in Japan and How Japan Celebrates New Year.
  • Need a helping hand on arrival? Our dedicated Meet and Greet Service is like having a personal assistant for your holiday who happens to be an expert on Japan. We’ll take care of you from the moment you arrive in Japan.  

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