Summer is the perfect time to visit Japan and enjoy the country’s most colourful and spectacular traditional festivals. Get ready for fun in the sun!
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If you’re already craving summer, why not start planning your dream holiday to Japan today? Every summer, hundreds of festivals take place across Japan. Each one is unique and the summer months arguably have the most colourful, spectacular, and extravagant. Attending a traditional Japanese festival, or ‘matsuri’, during your visit to Japan is one of those unmissable experiences that will elevate your holiday to a whole new level. Japan’s summer festivals are fun, vibrant, and unforgettable. We’ll give you our recommendations for the very best festivals to attend across Japan over the summer, how to get there with your JR Pass for unlimited train travel, and everything you need to know before travelling.
Summer in Japan
Japan’s summer takes place across June, July, and August. Temperatures can range from 65°F to up to 93°F in these months, and tend to peak in July, with early June and late August being slightly cooler. June is also the beginning of Japan’s rainy season and is known as the month of water, but don’t let that put you off. Read more about why June: the Month of Water is a Hidden Gem, to find out why it’s also a great time to visit. July and August are the hottest months, but this does vary across the country. For instance, Hokkaido in the north is always much colder, and Okinawa in the south is warm practically all year round. Generally speaking though, June to August are Japan’s hottest months and the country’s official summer.
Summer is a perfect time to hit the beach, go swimming and diving, and enjoy water sports. Temperatures are at their hottest, but it can also be wet with the typhoon season beginning in June and lasting until October. Even so, summer is beach weather! Read our guide to Japan’s Best Beaches and Watersports Destinations for more. Summer is also a great time for outdoor adventures, from climbing and hiking the likes of Mt. Fuji, to bike rides around the country’s excellent cycle trails, as well as river rafting, walking, and exploring Japan’s amazing National Parks.
And of course, with summer come celebrations! In Japan, these tend to take the form of traditional ‘matsuri’ or festivals. These are no ordinary music or food festivals like you get in the West though - they are extravagant parades, often with a history dating back hundreds of years (and in some cases over a thousand!).
A Brief History of Japanese Festivals
There are an estimated 300,000 Matsuri across Japan, and hundreds in the summer months. There are so many ‘matsuri’ because almost every shrine, town and village has its own festival. The focal-point of these can vary, from honouring a shrine’s kami (a Shinto deity), to remembering an important historical event, or celebrating a particular season such as summer. Traditional matsuri feature processions and decorated floats known as dashi, yatai, danjiri, and other regional variations. Kami are sometimes carried from their shrines in mikoshi (essentially a portable shrine carried by the procession), and processions are often accompanied by drum and flute music. 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. Traditional matsuri are a great way to experience the history and culture of Japan and summer arguably brings together the most colourful and spectacular. Look out for summer parades, floats, decorations, dancing, food, games, fireworks, and more!
Best Summer Festivals in Japan
If you’re visiting Japan over the summer months, these ‘matsuri’ are unmissable. They’re a great way to experience Japanese culture first-hand as well as being incredibly fun!
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.
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. Find out more about this celebration in our guide to Obon Festival: Celebrating the Spirits of Japan.
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.
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 JRailPass. To find out more about this festival, read our Guide to Tenmangu Shrine and Tenjin Festival.
One of Tokyo’s main three 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.
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 JR Pass.
Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival
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 Fuji Five Lakes Fireworks Festival, Lake Biwa Fireworks, and Nagaoka Festival and Fireworks.
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.
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.
Held in Kochi Prefecture each August since 1954, Yosakoi is one of Japan’s biggest traditional dance festivals.
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.
If this list wasn’t enough to satisfy your festival craving, be sure to check out our guide to the Top Festivals across Japan to Visit.
Summer Festival Games
It’s not just about watching the action at Japanese summer festivals, you’ll also have the chance to join in. You can dance at the Bon Odori and can also play festival games such as:
Kingyo-sukai - win a goldfish!
- Shateki - shoot at targets.
- Wanage - ring throwing.
- Yoyo-tsuri - fishing for water balloons.
Summer Festival Food
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:
Shaved ice with syrup - this is one of Japan’s favourite summer foods and perfect for cooling down.
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.
A cold tofu dish traditionally topped with katsuobushi fish flakes and spring onions with ginger and soy sauce.
A delicious slice of watermelon served fresh. Can you get any more summery?
This is almost like a festival game in itself! Diners have to grab cold somen noodles as they slide down a bamboo chute. You can then dip your noodles in a soy-style tsuyu sauce.
Skewered meat grilled over charcoal – the beautiful simplicity and amazing taste of Yakitori makes it a street food favourite in Japan.
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.
Naturally, Japan’s love of food and culinary excellence can be enjoyed all year round - it isn’t restricted to festivals. You can find out much more about the country’s greatest dishes in our dedicated beginner’s guides to sushi, ramen and our Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Food and Regional Dishes. The country has plenty of drink options to wash down all that great food too. If you’re a beer lover then you’ll want to consider annual events such as The Great Japan beer Festival and Snow Monkey Beer Live, although there are a wide number of beer festivals to choose from across Japan. You can find out more in Kanpai! Japan for Beer Lovers.
Bonus Tips for Festival Goers
Bonus Tips for Festival Goers
- Summer in Japan can be hot and wet so make sure you pack the right clothing and footwear.
- 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.
When you’re travelling across Japan for multiple festivals or any kind of special events, the Japan Rail Pass is the best value way to travel. Find out exactly why by reading Is The Japan Rail Pass Worth It?