Once you have arrived there will be plenty to keep you busy, but depending on the time of year, here are a few events taking place…
Spring (March – May)
This is a festive event held on March 3rd when hina ningyo dolls are decorated in homes where there are daughters. It is also called Momo-no-Sekku (Peach Festival). Displayed on the a tiered doll-stand are gorgeous hina ningyo dolls together with miniature articles and furniture. And offerings of diamond-shaped rice cakes, sweet and peach blossoms are made to accompany prayers for the healthy growth and happy future of the daughters. There is also the custom of cooking clams and short-necked clams, these dishes decorate the doll-stand and are served as a special dinner for this feast.
Dai Himonjiyaji at Aso Fire Festival
A fire festival which is held over a period of one month in all towns in the environs of Mt. Aso in Kyushu. No-yaki refers to setting fire to the plains in order to maintain the pasture grass in good condition and is carried out in a number of places. The main event is the Dai Himonjiyaki which is held in Ojo-dake on the second Saturday of March. On the mountain slope, a gigantic Chinese character signifying ‘fire’ measuring 350 m appears. The no-yaki fire spreads nearby and the excitement of this spectacle continues until late into the night.
Hakata Dontaku Festival
People dressed up in unique costumes parade through the streets while clapping shamoji spoons and dance on stages and in squares in various quarters of the town. A shamoji, which is a wooden utensil for serving rice, evokes the image of a woman, busy preparing a meal, dashing out to join the parade passing in front of her house. The parade of gorgeously decorated vehicles called hana jidosha is also entertaining. Of all the Japanese festivals held during the so-called Golden Week when there is a series of national holidays from the end of April to early May, the Hakata Dontaku boasts the greatest number of spectators, with some two million people turning out every year. Visitors are also welcome, so don’ t hesitate to join in.
Kite fighting contest
More than 100 kites are flown in the sky over the Nakatajima Dunes, one of the three largest sand dunes in Japan, which overlooks the Enshunada Sea. Here you can see many large kites measuring 3.5 meters by 3.5 meters. Then to the sound of the trumpet, the fighting starts. Making the 5-mm thick hemp strings intertwine, the kite-fliers try to cut their opponents’ strings by friction, which is very exciting to watch. The strings burn, giving off a scorched smell. You can try flying a kite yourself in the grounds adjoining the shuttle bus terminal. Don’t miss this opportunity of experiencing the actual sensation of flying a kite high in the sky.
Bonfire Nor Performance
Takigi O-Noh is a traditional Japanese musical drama performed on the open-air stage built on the lawn of Kofukuji Temple, which is registered as a World Heritage Site. The stage is made by placing large boards over the lawn, with bamboo poles set up and bound with rope, and the drama is performed amid the illumination of the bonfires which are set alight in early evening. Takigi Noh signifies ‘a Noh traditional musical theater drama performed at a banquet held around a bonfire.’ In the case of Kofukuji Temple, this is respectfully called Takigi O-Noh, the ‘O’ being an honorific prefix. Originally, such performances were carried out when sacred takigi (firewood) was delivered to the temple. Today, similar performances are also held in other towns, but this Bonfire Noh is believed to have originated in this temple in 869.
Ukai (Cormorant Fishing)
Ukai is a traditional method of catching small Japanese trout by manipulating seabirds called u (cormorants) in the Nagaragawa River, famous for its limpid stream, in Gifu Prefecture. Master trainers of cormorants dressed in ancient costume freely manipulate 10-12 wild sea cormorants to skillfully catch small trout. This fishing is performed every night between May 11th and October 15th except during a full moon or in heavy rain. You can watch the entire spectacle aboard a small wooden boat while dining and drinking sake. This 1300-year-old event is protected by the Japanese government.
Grand Festival of Spring
The highlight of this festival is the procession called Hyakumono-Zoroe Sennin Gyoretsu of some 1,000 men dressed as samurai warriors on the 18th. Nikko Toshogu, which is registered as a World Heritage Site, is dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo (Tokyo). This procession reproduces the scene of his grave being transferred from distant Shizuoka Prefecture to Nikko in accordance with Ieyasu’s will.
Asakusa Sanja Matsuri
The Sanja Matsuri, a symbolic festival of Tokyo, is one of the largest festivals of mikoshi (portable shrines) held in Asakusa, which is a quarter where you can still find traditional houses and streets. Every year, hundreds of thousands of spectators visit Asakusa during the three festival days. With amazing vigor, men carry several dozens of portable shrines on their shoulders. There are also portable shrines carried by women only, and by children only. The most exciting moments are when the portable shrines are jolted vehemently, for this jolting is believed to intensify the power of the deities mounted on the portable shrines. On the Saturday around noon, small and large portable shrines gather at Asakusa Shrine, and then set off to parade through the town streets. On the Sunday, three especially large-sized portable shrines join the parade. These huge portable shrines depart from Asakusa Shrine early in the morning at 6 o’clock, and return around 8 o’clock at night.
The scene of a boat party on a river from 1,000 years ago is reproduced by some 20 boats on the Oigawa River flowing through Arashiyama in Kyoto. Every year, 100,000 tourists come to view this graceful spectacle. This is an event organized by the Kurumazaki Shrine standing close to the river, and originates in a ceremony that was held upon receiving the Emperor on his visit to this land. After a ritual held at the shrine at noon, people dressed in ancient costumes proceed along the beautiful Togetsukyo Bridge and board the boats. Their costumes are very colorful, and you will also see cute little children who are dressed in kimono, too. Also interesting are the boats which have dragon heads or birds’ heads designed on the prow. Each boat has its assigned role, for example, there is a boat carrying musicians who play music, while dance performances are given on another boat, or poetry is recited on a different boat. Sensu fans of all colors are floated on the water surface by ladies dressed in 12 layers of kimono known as juni-hitoe, producing a most exquisite and graceful spectacle.
Summer (June – August)
Otaue Rice planting Festival
The Japanese lifestyle and rice cultivation are deeply associated with one another. Of particular significance is the process known as taue in which rice seedlings growing in the nursery are replanted in the paddy fields. Although events associated with this rice planting can be found all over our country, the festival at the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine is unique for its reproduction of the rituals in faithful observance of ancient procedures in such a grand ceremonial style
Chagu Chagu Umakko Horse Festival
Some 100 horses, fitted with brightly colored harnesses and lots of bells, parade along a distance of approximately 15 km from Takizawa City to Morioka City. ‘Chagu Chagu’ is an onomatopoeic expression for the bells sounding as the horses trot along. This simple yet pleasant sound has been selected by the Ministry of the Environment as one of “the 100 best sonic scenes of Japan to be preserved into the future.” The donut-shaped accessory hung below the neck of the horse, which also makes a pleasant sound, was originally a bell for warding off wolves.
Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival
Men carrying yamakasa, which are large 1-ton floats elaborately decorated for this festival, race through the streets of Hakata at full speed. The sight of the men concentrating all their energy into the floats captivates the hearts of the spectators who number as many as 1 million people
Tanabata ( Star Festival)
This is an annual celebration of the stars. According to a legend, the two stars, Vega and Altair, separated lovers, are allowed to meet each other across the Milky Way only once a year on the evening of July 7th. At this festival, prayers are also offered so that young girls will improve in calligraphy and handicraft. The custom is to set up leafed bamboo branches in the garden, and people write poems, words or wishes on tanzaku or long strips of colorful paper which they tie on the bamboo leaves
O-Bon (Lantern Festival)
O-Bon is a Buddhist ceremony for welcoming back and appeasing the souls of our ancestors. The formal name of this festival is Ura-Bon. Depending on the region, the Bon Festival may be held one month later, during August 13th-15th. Generally, a mukaebi fire is lit in front of the gate early on the evening of the 13th to receive the souls of the ancestors. At the same time, a Buddhist priest chants sutras in front of the Shoryodana or ‘Shelf of Souls,’ where offerings of fruit and vegetables are placed. On the evening of the 16th, an okuribi fire is lit to see off the souls of the ancestors
Having a history of more than 1,000 years, the Tenjin Matsuri, which is one of the three greatest festivals of Japan, is also the world’s greatest boat festival. It is a summer festival held at Osaka Tenmangu Shrine dedicated to Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903), who is deified as Tenman Tenjin, the patron god of learning and art. On the days of the festival, traditional Japanese performing arts such as kagura music, which is performed when paying homage to gods, and bunraku theatrical performances using puppets are performed in all parts of the city, and the entire city becomes filled with a festive mood.
Sumida River Fireworks Display
One of the major fireworks displays of Tokyo. On the last Saturday of July, the oldtown evening sky turns into a spectacle of dazzling colors from several tens of thousands of fireworks. This annual event is said to have originated in the custom of the common people of Edo viewing fireworks while enjoying the cool of the summer evening. According to other explanations, its roots are said to lie in the Suijin Festival dedicated to the water deity held to appease the souls of those who had died of starvation or of plague and to drive away pestilence during the reign of Tokugawa Yoshimune, the eighth Tokugawa Shogun (1684-1751). In the late Edo period, the festival was called Ryogoku Kawarabiraki and attracted many Edo townspeople. Traditional shouts of “Kagiya!” and “Tamaya!” voiced when the fireworks are set off, originate in Ryogoku Kawarabiraki when spectators yelled out the names of the leading fireworks manufacturers (Kagiya and Tamaya) at the time. The festival survived the Meiji Restoration, and in the latter half of the 19th Century (Meiji – Taisho – early Showa eras), it was held almost every year. Although suspended because of too much traffic or too many buildings in the neighborhood, from 1978 onwards it was revived under a new name, Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai (Sumida River Fireworks Display). This has now taken root as one of the delightful scenes of the summer season in Tokyo.
Autumn (September – November)
Nagasaki Kunchi Festival
This is an autumn festival held at Suwa Shrine which has a history of 380 years. Today, this festival is held every year for three days starting on October 7th in accordance with the solar calendar, drawing large numbers of tourists from both inside and outside Nagasaki Prefecture.
Takayama Matsuri Autumn Festival
The Takayama Festival, which is cited as one of the three most beautiful festivals of Japan, consists of two festivals: the Spring Takayama Festival or Sanno Matsuri at Hie Shrine, and the Autumn Takayama Festival or Hachiman Matsuri at Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine.
Nikko Toshogu Shrine Grand Autumn Festival
This is the autumn festival of Nikko Toshogu, a registered World Heritage Site, where the Shunki Reitaisai – Grand Spring Festival is staged on May 17th and 18th. Just as in the Spring Festival, the main attraction in the Grand Autumn Festival is the grand procession of men dressed in samurai costumes (known as Hyakumono-Zoroe Sennin Gyoretsu or the Parade of 1,000 Samurai Warriors).
Festival of Ages
A festival held at the Heian Jingu Shrine, the Jidai Matsuri is one of the three largest festivals of Kyoto together with the Aoi Matsuri – Hollyhock Festival (May 15th) and the Gion Matsuri (July 1st – 31st)
Feudal Lords Procession in Hakone
An annual tourist event held on Culture Day (a national holiday), November 3rd, at Yumoto Onsen, Hakone. A procession of a total of 170 people dressed up as samurai warriors and princesses parades over a distance of some 6 km in the hot spring town.
Children Shrine visiting Day
This is a ceremonial visit paid by parents and children to their tutelary shrines to offer gratitude for the healthy growth of the children. Celebrations are carried out on November 15th for boys who reach the age of 3 or 5, or for girls who turn 3 or 7 years old. The custom is for the children to dress in their best clothes, and to carry Chitose-ame which are long thin candy sticks colored in red and white, believed to bring good luck.
Winter (December – February)
Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa is one of the most famous sightseeing spots in Tokyo. The Hagoita-Ichi (Battledore Fair) is an annual fair held in its precincts at the end of the year. Near the Hondo or main hall of Senso-ji Temple, some 50 open-air stalls selling hagoita (battledores), shuttlecocks, kites and other New Year decorations stand huddled together, and numerous people gather here from all over the country. This is a traditional fair dating back to the Edo Period, but it was apparently only after World War II that the name Hagoita-Ichi became popular
Ball catching festival
Men wearing only loincloths compete for an 8-kg treasure ball (takara-no-tama) 30-cm in diameter which is believed to bring good fortune upon the person who can lift it over his head. The men are divided into the Land Team made up of farmers who mainly work on the land and the Sea Team consisting of fishermen who work at sea. Whether the New Year will bring a rich harvest or a large catch will be determined by which team wins the ball and hands it to the Shinto priest. This is one of the three main festivals of Kyushu. With a history of 500 years, its origins are said to lie in the legend of the dragon god (ryujin) offering two balls to Empress Jingu (170-269).
New Years Parade of Firemen
Organized by the Tokyo Fire Department, this is an event held to pray for a safe year. Although similar events are held throughout Japan, the spectacular New Year’s Parade of Firemen has over 100 fire engines and helicopters participating, along with as large-scale fire-fighting and emergency drills. The main attraction is the ladder stunts. Men dressed as firemen of the Edo Period (17th-19th Centuries) perform circus-like acrobatic stunts on top of bamboo which tower over the heads of the men supporting them. These demonstrations have been held since then to warn people of the dangers of fire.
Grass Burning on Mt Wakakusayama
Rising 342 meters above sea level, Mt. Wakakusayama, also known as Mt. Mikasayama, was formerly a volcano. Burning up the entire hill, this New Year event is held every year on the fourth Saturday of January. The origins of this event are said to lie in a dispute over the boundaries of Kofuku-ji Temple located in Nobori Oji-cho, Nara City and Todai-ji Temple, which is famous for its Great Buddha statue in Zoshi-cho, also in Nara City. The boundary dispute got out of control and when an official acted as mediator in 1760, Mt. Wakakusayama, the very center of the conflict, was set ablaze. According to other explanations, the mountain was burned to drive away wild boars or to exterminate harmful insects.
Sapporo Snow Festival
Rows of small and large snow statues are on display at three sites in Sapporo City during this festival, which is visited by two million people including overseas tourists. Odori Park which serves as the main venue is located in the city center, and a space extending 1.5km transforms into a snow museum. International Square (Nishi 11 chome, Odori) becomes the stage for the International Snow Statue Contest and every year more than 10 teams compete from all over the world. As this is a park, you can drop by whenever you like. The lit-up snow statues are so beautiful (-22:00). Moreover, the ice sculptures displayed at the Susukino Site, which is also a famous nightspot district, create a truly fantastic world. Here, you will discover unique works with Hokkaido delicacies such as crab, cuttlefish and salmon frozen inside the ice, which are fun to look at.
Setsubun Lantern Festival
At Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara, each of the more than 3,000 lanterns in the precincts are lit up three days a year, namely on February 3rd (Setsubun Mantoro) and August 14th-15th (Chugen Mantoro) , between 19:00 and 21:30 for the summer event and 18:00 amd 20:30 for the winter event. This is an event which has continued for 800 years and most of the lanterns have been donated by ordinary citizens with the exception of a handful which had been dedicated by samurai warriors in the Warring States Period. Such scenery lit only by candlelight takes you back into bygone days of no electricity and is full of mysticism. The reflections of the light on the river surface and the vermilion buildings of the shrine strike a beautiful harmony.
Setsubun is the day preceding risshun that is the first day of spring according to the old Japanese calendar, or the so-called lunar calendar. On the day of Setsubun, there is the custom of throwing roasted soybeans while chanting “In with Fortune! Out with Evil” in order to prevent evil ogres from entering one’s house. It is believed that the ogres are warded off by throwing beans, and that good fortune will then come to one’s home. On this day, events with entertainers and athletes are held at shrines all over the country. According to Japanese tradition, if you eat the same number of beans as your age, you will enjoy a year of good health
Naked Festival at Saidai-ji Temple
One of the three most eccentric festivals of Japan. Nine thousand men wearing only loincloths struggle fiercely with one another over a pair of lucky sacred sticks measuring 4 cm in diameter and 20 cm in length, thrown into the crowd by the priest from a window 4 m up. Anyone who luckily gets hold of the shingi and thrusts them upright in a wooden measuring box known as a masu which is heaped with rice is called the lucky man, and is blessed with a year of happiness. The other lucky items are bundles of willow strips, and although 100 of these are thrown into the crowd, it is not an easy task to catch them.
Dancers called tayu, flute-players, drummers, players sounding bells known as kane and singers form groups of 10-30 members which parade through the city. Every year, over 30 groups including children’s groups wearing colorful costumes participate in this event. This is a festival praying for a rich harvest, and in the old days the dancers used to carry farm tools called eburi when performing their dance. Enburi, the name of this festival, is believed to have derived from this eburi.