Summertime in Japan is associated with music, dance, and festivities. Almost every area has at least one local festival (matsuri) in late summer/ early autumn, where the celebrations are mostly centred around the paddy harvest. While there are no specific dates for when the festivals occur, they are usually clustered around traditional holidays such as Obon in Japanese summer.
Notable festivals often feature grand processions that include elaborate floats parading through the narrow streets, combined with cheery song and dance. Takoyaki stands, games, goldfish scooping, karaoke contests and other forms of entertainment are also often organised in conjunction with the summer festivals. Here are 10 of them.
1. Bon Festival/ Obon, various
One of the biggest summer festivals in Japan, Obon refers to a time for honouring the dead. This is based on the Buddhist belief that the dead will return to the world during this time. This usually happens in August, which is during summertime. Summer festival traditions include Bon Odori (the Bon Dance) and fireworks shows. The traditional dance is meant to welcome and celebrate the dead as they briefly visit our world, while the fireworks displays are a symbol to send them off afterwards.
2. Tanabata Festival, various
Tanabata translates to ‘Evening of Seven’. It explains why it is typically carried out on 7 July, which is the beginning of Japanese summertime, though this date varies from place to place. Also known as the Star Festival or Hoshi Matsuri. This festival celebrates the deities of Orihime and Hikoboshi, represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively. On the days leading up to the festival, people write their wishes on small, colourful strips of paper (tanzaku) and hang them on branches of small bamboo trees. More popular neighbourhoods include Asagaya, famous or the gigantic papier-mache sculptures that are put up for the festival. While Osaka is known for the 50,000 blue lights afloat on the Okawa River which is meant to mimic the Milky Way.
3. Gion Festival, Kyoto
Dating back to the ninth century, the Gion Festival probably has one of the longest traditions in history. It is held in Kyoto and is famous for the enormous floats that go as tall as 25 meters in height and up to 12 tons in weight. It is crowned by a parade starting at the Yakasa Shrine in Kyoto’s Gion district, with about 30 or more floats each representing a distinct neighbourhood of Kyoto. As the Gion Festival has been held for over 1,000 years, there is no surprise that it is considered one of the greatest festivals in Japan. The festival is set to last the whole month of July, even though the main ceremonies take place on 17th July and 24th July with the grand float procession. Joining this festival, local Japanese feel Summer has finally come
4. Fukugawa Festival, Tokyo
A festival deeply rooted in the Edo period, the Fukagawa Festival lasts for five days during the middle of Summer, around mid-August every year. The 54 portable shrines are carried through the neighbourhood along with a wild water-throwing session on one of these days. The festival was first celebrated to honour the god Hachiman around 1641 and has been celebrated annually ever since. It takes place around Tomioka-Hachiman Shrine in Tokyo, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Hachiman. It is also one of the three most famous festivals in Tokyo.
5. Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori
Held in Aomori City from 2 August to 7 August, this festival is centred around a flamboyant float procession. The floats are made of painted washi paper over a wireframe, depicting a number of scenes from Japanese culture. Taiko drummers, flute and cymbal players, and hundreds of dancers join the floats in the procession. As one of the three best festivals of the Tohoku region, this is definitely not to be missed when travelling to Japan during the summer season. Anyone who has a traditional ‘haneto’ dancing costume can even join in the dance procession, which can be purchased from grocery stores and shops for around 12,000 yen.
【Website】Aomori Nebuta Festival
6. Akita Kanto Festival, Akita
Translating to ‘pole lantern festival’, the Akita Kanto Festival is held in Akita City and occurs every 3 August to 6 August. The festival features performers balancing long bamboo poles (Kanto) decorated with lanterns lit by candles on different parts of their bodies such as their head, hands, and back. They add more lanterns to the pole throughout the night until they reach their maximum height. The poles come in different sizes, with the largest being 12 meters in height and 50 kilograms in weight, carrying a total of 46 lanterns. These performers are accompanied by the sound of drums, flutes, and chants that make the parade feel extremely exciting. You can definitely enjoy Japanese summertime here.
【Website】Akita Kanto Festival
7. Tenjin Festival, Osaka
Directly translating to the ‘Festival of the Gods’, the Tenjin Festival is held in Osaka on 24-25 July every year to honour the Japanese god of scholarship and learning. The festival begins with prayers at the Osaka Tenmangu Shrine in the morning before performances by taiko drummers and Danjiri dragon dancers are carried out, and ends with a spectacular fireworks display. As the festival was first carried out in the 10th century, the festival is carried out very ceremonially every year. The purpose of the exuberant activities are to entertain the deity as they take him out to the streets before taking him back to the shrine at the end of the day.
【Website】Tenjin Festival, Osaka
8. Kanda Festival, Tokyo
Another one of Tokyo’s three most famous festivals, the Kanda Festival takes place in mid-May in odd-numbered years. The festival consists of numerous events held over the entire week, though the main festivities usually occur over the weekend around 15 May. The festival first started during the Edo Period, which was celebrated as a demonstration of prosperity under the new regime. The main procession involves rituals held to invite spirits of the three deities of the Kanda Myojin Shrine into the portable Shinto shrines, which are paraded alongside musicians, priests on horses, onlookers, many of who are usually dressed in colourful traditional costumes. It may be too early to tell it’s Summer in Japan during the period though, you’d feel the coming of Summer somehow.
【Website】Kanda Festival, Tokyo
9. Mitama Festival, Tokyo
Around mid-July each year, more than 30,000 lanterns are lit up, dedicated to the spirits of the deceased during World War II. The festival takes place in Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the lamps at night create a breathtaking scene. You can even buy lamps to be strung along with others, which costs around 3,000 yen for a small lamp and 12,000 yen for a big lamp. First celebrated in 1947, the lanterns are representative of lasting peace and prosperity to the country. It attracts around 300,000 visitors today, so join in the local Japanese to celebrate this momentous festival in the summertime.
10. Miyajima Water Fireworks Festival, Miyajima
Held at Itsukushima Shrine, the spectacular fireworks show is set on the sea behind the famous torii gate, which creates a gorgeous view as the fireworks sparkle in the dark water at night. Around 300,000 visitors gather for this annual show held around late August every year. It is considered one of the best fireworks shows in the country. People are said to gather on opposite shores of the nearby cities of Hatsukaichi and Hiroshima to view the show too.
【Website】Miyajima Water Fireworks Festival
As you can see, summer is a time for festivities in Japan. It is celebrated in many different ways and attending one of these festivals would definitely give you a glimpse into authentic Japanese culture. So flaunt those yukatas and join in the fun!