Japan is not only colourful when it comes to its landscapes and animals, no; a very important part of Japan and its culture are also its festivals—in Japanese, matsuri. There’s not an exact number of how many festivals are celebrated all over Japan in one year, but it’s estimated that it’s around 200.000. With approximately 190.000 shrines and temples that hold at least one festival per year, it’s not difficult to reach that number.
There are festivals for everyone—not only can they be loud, rough, dangerous or quiet and peaceful events, but they’re also different in style. Not all of the matsuri are religious, there are also festivals dedicated to fire, to dancing and to music. Many of them are also considered a rite of passage, and it is very important for young Japanese people to participate in one of these at least once in their life.
The list of festivals is seemingly endless, and they all have something that makes them worthwhile. This is why I have chosen to write about those that caught my special attention, hoping to make somewhat of a small summary.
Starting with the dance festivals, one of the biggest is the Tokushima Awa Odori, a four day traditional dance festival held in Tokushima in the middle of August. Participants wear colourful costumes and there are different dances for day and night, the night ones being frenzied and energetic in opposition to the elegant ones during daytime. This festival attracts about 1.3 million tourists each year. The modernization of the Awa Odori dance can be found in the Yosakoi dance, which made traditional dances popular in Japan and of course it has its own festival, too: the Sapporo Yosakoi Soran Festival, with around 35.000 dancers and 1 million spectators. A fundamental element in the Yosakoi dance is the use of naruko, hand clappers. In May, we have Tokyo’s wildest festival, called the Sanja Matsuri. It features dancing, mikoshi parades—carrying the Shinto gods around in elaborate shrines—, and very rare performances by Tokyo’s geisha.
Every festival related with fire is a real sight. For example, the Kanto Matsuri, in which participants balance 12-meter lantern poles on their palms or foreheads. These poles weigh about 60kg and every lantern is lit by a candle. In another festival, the Daimonji Gozan Okuribi, taking place in Kyoto, giant kanji characters are burned into the mountains surrounding the city. In Osaka, there is the Gangara Fire Festival, a fire prevention festival that consists in lighting giant 100kg torches and racing them wildly through town. Ironic, huh?
From fire we go over to fireworks, which also play an important role in festivals and are always beautiful to look at. One of the best is the Nagaoka Fireworks Festival, known for using 300kg shells that burst into 700m-diameter fireworks. Another one takes place in one of Japan’s most beautiful places to photograph—the Floating Gate of the Itsukushima Shrine, called the Miyajima Water Fireworks Festival. And water fireworks are always breathtaking, aren’t they?
Finally, a few more peculiar festivals. There is for example the Honen Matsuri, a fertility festival celebrated throughout Japan. In the small town of Komaki, however, you can find the best rendition, which consists in parading a 2,5 meter wooden phallus through town. In addition, free sake is passed out from barrels. Very important is also the OkayamaHadaka Matsuri, the naked festival. Each year, 9.000 naked men participate. One of them is selected as the “naked man”; his body is blessed, shaved and then chased through the streets while the others try to touch him. The touch is supposed to free them of disease and other evil, since the naked man will absorb them. Usually, the naked man is always injured and loses consciousness. Afterwards, he is dressed and kicked out of town, the evil leaving with him. This is one of the most dangerous festivals Japan has; people have died and on top of that, even the yakuza participates. In Tokyo, you can also find the Crying Baby Festival, which literally consists in parents handing their babies to sumo wrestlers and see if they cry. The baby who cries the loudest wins the competition.
It goes without saying that Japan also has great events dedicated to video games and anime, like the Tokyo Game Show or the World Cosplay Summit.
So, as you have seen, Japan is definitely worth a visit for any of these festivals and for all those I haven’t mentioned here. If you want to know more about Japan, its culture and its places, tune in toJapan’s Wild Year, premiering in April on NatGeo!