Japan is rich in tradition and culture. With an abundance of festivals ranging from the tranquil to the energetic, there is always an event to get excited for. We’re here to introduce you to 5 Magical Lantern Festivals in Japan. From sky lanterns that cast an enchanting glow, brightening up the winter, to vibrant and colourful lanterns floating on water, ferrying ancestral souls back to the afterlife, there’s an array of lantern festivals that are sure to transport you to somewhere magical.
1. Gozan-no-Okuribi Festival, Kyoto
The Gozan-no-Okuribi Festival, which translates to Bonfires on five mountains, is actually a fire festival. It’s held during Obon, one of the major holidays in Japan that pays respects to ancestors and family members who have passed away. During this festival, 5 different Japanese characters or symbols are burnt into the mountains. The most easily accessible bonfire to be viewed, and therefore the most crowded, is the dai character (大), which means big. It is also the first character to be lit and is best viewed from Maruta-machi to Misono Bridge.
The torii gate symbol is best seen at Hirosawa-no-ike pond. This is also where the tora nagashi, or floating lantern festival, simultaneously takes place. Here, colourful floating lanterns are placed into the water, creating a mesmerising view. The tradition of placing floating lanterns into the water is associated with the Obon period during which this festival is held. During the three-day period of Obon, it’s believed that one’s departed ancestors have temporarily returned to Earth. At the end of Obon, the tora nagashi ceremony is performed and the floating lanterns on the water represent the ancestral souls returning to the afterlife.
【Date】August 16th, every year
【Time】Tora Nagashi Festival starts at 7 pm and the Gozan-no-Okuribi Festival starts at 8 pm
【Access】To get to the Tora Nagashi Festival take the JR San-In Line from Kyoto Station to Hanazono Station. Next take the no. 91 bus to Uzumasa Kainichicho and walk for 11 minutes.
2. Tsunan Snow Festival, Niigata
Winter in the city of Tsunan, Niigata, sees heavy snow fall, the heaviest of which typically occurs in late February to March. In order to brighten up these dark, winter days, citizens began to hold the annual Tsunan Snow Festival. This tradition has continued since 1974 and now many travellers come to the city to take part in the festival and light their own sky lanterns.
The ‘Sky Lantern Launch’ for which the festival is popular allows visitors to purchase and light their own sky lantern. They can then release them together at the same time in a beautiful cloud that floats solemnly into the air, casting a warm glow across the snow-covered night.
Aside from the beautiful display created by the myriad of floating sky lanterns, visitors can also enjoy Japanese street food from the outdoor vendors or take part in treasure hunts in the snow. They are also welcome to watch various stage events and fireworks displays, as well as a freestyle snowboarding competition, called ‘Snow Wave’.
【Date】Changes every year but usually occurs 2 days in March (Eve Festival and Main Festival)
【Access】From Iiyama Station take the JR Iiyama Line to Tsunan Station. Shuttle buses are running from Tsunan Station during the snow festival. It’s recommended you stay locally if you want to see the sky lanterns, as trains and shuttles buses stop before the event is over.
3. Nagasaki Lantern Festival, Nagasaki
During Chinese New Year, an explosion of colour and light hits Nagasaki with 15,000 lanterns illuminating the city for 15 days. Due to their trading history, China has had a strong influence on Nagasaki and this event was first celebrated at the Nagasaki Shinchi Chinatown. It has grown since then to include several nearby locations including Hama-ichi and Kankodori Arcade. Beautiful lanterns of different colours and shapes cover the city creating a buzz of energy and excitement.
There is also a wide variety of events that can be enjoyed. The Mazu Procession is a procession of Chinese ships entering the port of Nagasaki, dating back to the Edo Period. The Emperor’s Parade involves around 150 participants dressed in traditional Chinese costumes parading about with a palanquin of the Qing dynasty’s Emperor and Empress in the centre. The Dragon Dance and Chinese Lion Dance are performed by acrobats and are exciting spectacles involving percussion instruments and elaborate costumes. There are also performances of traditional Chinese instruments, such as the Erhu and Kokyu.
【Date】January 1st – January 15th of the Lunar Calendar
【Time】5pm – 10 pm (light up)
【Access】The main area of the festival is at Minato Park. To get there take the Nagasaki Denki No.1 tram from Nagasaki Station to Shinchi Chinatown and walk 3 minutes.
4. Taketa Bamboo Lantern Festival, Oita
As the sun sets, the beautiful glow from 20, 000 lanterns carved from bamboo start to illuminate the castle town of Taketa in Oita Prefecture. This festival takes place annually for 3 days (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) in November and coincides with the stunning red leaves of autumn. This festival, which is called Chikuraku in Japanese, actually started fairly recently, about 20 years ago.
Taketa is famous for its bamboo, which is used in the production of furniture. However, in recent times cheaper alternatives have started to replace bamboo. Therefore, to stimulate their economy again, the people of the town decided to hold a festival to draw tourists in. Thus, the bamboo lantern festival was born and is now enjoyed by 10,000 visitors and counting each year. This festival is very much a community event with schools, and businesses helping to carve the bamboo lanterns. The people of the town also sell local street food and perform live music that add to the enchanting atmosphere.
There are various locations around the town where you can view the lanterns with the most popular being ‘Juroku Rakan’. Here, you can see a beautiful path of lanterns leading you up the stairs to Kannoji temple. There are also numerous signs along the paths and streets from Bungo Taketa Station. These will lead you to the major sites of the festival, so you can walk along these paths and enjoy the magical atmosphere that this festival offers.
【Date】3rd week of November (Fri, Sat and Sun)
【Time】4 – 9:30 pm
【Access】From Oita Station take the Hohi Line Kyushu Odan Limited Express 72 to Bungo Taketa Station.
5. Yunishigawa Onsen Kamakura, Tochigi
This festival is held from late January to early March in the onsen town, Yunishigawa; a town of rich history, hidden deep within the mountains of Tochigi prefecture. The festival’s main feature is the winter tradition of kamakura, which is an igloo-like hut made of ice and snow. During the festival, the town is decorated with countless kamakura of varying sizes. The smallest are only big enough to house a candle, while the largest are big enough to house up to four people. At night, the town is illuminated by the warm glow of candlelight emanating from within each kamakura. This creates a magical spectacle and a not-to-be-missed photo opportunity. You can even bundle yourselves into one of the larger kamakura and enjoy a hot pot meal, sheltered from the cold outside.
Aside from the kamakura displays, there are numerous winter activities that can be enjoyed during the festival. You can even make your very own kamakura. While you are in Yunishigawa, be sure to also take the opportunity for a relaxing bath in one of the town’s local hotsprings and a visit to the Heike-no-Sato open air museum.
【Date】late January – early March
【Time】9 am – 9 pm (light up starts from 5:30 pm)
【Cost】Heike-no-sato venue ¥510, Sawaguchi mini kamakura area is free
【Access】From Shinjuku Station take the Nikko-Kinugawa Spacia Kinugawa 3 Limited Express train to Shin-Kanuma Station. Then take the Nikko-Kinugawa Revaty Aizu 117 Toll Limited Express to Yunishigawaonsen Station.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our list of magical lantern festivals in Japan and learned more about the interesting and rich traditions behind them. Let us know which kinds of lanterns are your favourite in the comments down below and tag us with your lantern festival pictures on our Instagram @gdayjapan.