Astonishing natural vistas, modern cities, and impressively disciplined and friendly locals are just a few of the many reasons to visit Japan.
Whatever your reason, Japan is a country that undeniably has something to offer.
And if you want to experience deep-rooted traditions firsthand, there’s no better way than to plan a vacation around Japanese culture festivals.
Like any culture-rich country, Japan has a plethora of national and local festivals.
Any Japanese festivals list and itinerary can go so many ways if you’re planning to have a trip packed full of traditional experiences.
What Traditions Are Celebrated in Japan?
The traditions Japanese celebrate pretty much incorporates anything under the sun.
You will find different ways of celebrating various parts of the year, and each locality presents a sense of identity with its unique festivities.
Many traditions revolve around religion, and most of them incorporate the utmost respect for nature.
However, you will find several celebrations presenting the oddest of characteristics.
While these events provide amazing sights and activities for locals and tourists alike, you’ll also find the oddities quite surprising.
What Are Some Traditions and Holidays in Japan?
In Japan, the general term for “festival” is “matsuri.”
The most important national Japanese cultural festivals include Shogatsu, Hinamatsuri, Hanami, Hanamatsuri, Tanabata, and Obon.
Other national holidays are celebrated more on a small community or family level, including Seijin Shiki (Coming of Age Day) and Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3 festival).
Shogatsu encompasses all of the observances for the New Year.
Although it literally means January, Shogatsu typically lasts the entire first week of the New Year.
If you’re around for New Year’s celebrations in Japan, expect to get invited to family gatherings and trips to shrines and temples.
Hinamatsuri directly translates to Doll Festival.
On the 3rd of March, families celebrate and pray for the prosperity of their young girls.
You can find celebrations where young girls put on their best kimono as their families put out Hina dolls representing the royal court on tiered platforms.
One of the primary reasons anyone would want to visit Japan between the last week of March and the second week of April is the cherry blossoms.
Hanami stands for flower-viewing, and it signifies the Cherry Blossom Festival.
People converge in auspicious parks for excursions, picnics, and drinking parties under the blossoming cherry trees.
The annual Hanami is probably the most internationally famous festival in Japan.
While springtime brings people to see the cherry blossoms, the 8th of April also marks a time when locals celebrate Buddha’s birth.
Almost every image and statue of Buddha is decorated with many flowers.
Each one is then bathed as if it were a baby’s baptism.
Tanabata, also called the Star Festival, commemorates the story of two lovers represented by the stars Altair and Vega.
While some areas celebrate it on the 7th of August to coincide with its Chinese origins, the whole country typically holds it on the 7th of July.
During Tanabata, people write wishes on small pieces of paper and hang them on small bamboo trees.
People make floats out of the decorated bamboo trees and set them afloat with flames as offerings on bodies of water.
This event is truly an exceptional sight, not only for locals but also for visiting spectators.
The Tanabata Matsuri gets the largest and most famous celebrations in Sendai, Miyagi.
For many tourists, summer is not the best time to visit Japan.
The heat can be so intolerable that you’ll be craving cold dishes, and you’ll probably want to stay indoors with air conditioning.
Still, summer in Japan gives you the chance to attend the best Hanabi (fireworks) Matsuri.
The Japanese elevate fireworks to an art form, and the artisans creating them take their jobs pretty seriously.
Another Buddhist event in Japan is Obon.
During this time, the Japanese believe that the spirits of the dead return to this world to commune with their relatives.
You can find elaborate parades, dances, and lanterns for memorializing one’s ancestors in mid-August, although some observe it in mid-July.
Families visit their ancestor’s graves, bringing offerings to house altars, shrines, and temples.
Obon is probably the best time to find fireworks in Japan.
The Japanese believe that launching hanabi sends their ancestors back to the spirit world.
Furthermore, fireworks have always been an essential medium for warding off evil spirits.
Japanese Culture Festivals: The Bunka
One of the festivals common all across Japan is the Bunka.
Every year, younger generations play a big part in reliving the rich Japanese traditions in school.
The Bunkasai, which directly translates to “cultural festival,” is an annual open-day event where family and friends visit schools to view students’ artistic achievements.
In preschool and primary school, Japanese cultural festivals are referred to as Happyo-kai.
Bunkasai typically refers to the annual cultural festivals spearheaded by junior-high-school and high-school students.
Some universities also observe the Bunka in the form of the Daigakusai.
Do Japanese Schools Really Have Cultural Festivals?
While the Happyo-kai and the Bunkasai are mandatory for primary and secondary school students, the Daigakusai is optional.
The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology lists cultural festivals as an integral part of every school’s curriculum guidelines.
Cultural festivals in schools are special activities aiming to use the results of everyday learning to increase motivation among students.
In primary and secondary schools, cultural festivals are a requirement for graduation.
Famous Local Festivals
Local festivals are a way for towns and cities to put their best foot forward and present their identity to the world.
These events attract tourists worldwide, and they open up a window into Japanese culture and society.
The following compilation is a must-see Japanese festivals list from which you can build an itinerary for your next cultural visit to the country.
Kanda Matsuri and Sanno Matsuri
Although it began in the Edo period, the Kanda Miyojin Shrine area remains a central district in present-day Tokyo.
The Kanda Matsuri takes place only during odd-numbered years to commemorate Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory in Sekigahara.
It alternates with the Sanno Matsuri during the even-numbered years, commemorating the guardian deity of Tokyo at Hie Shrine.
The Sanja Matsuri is a boisterous event in the Asakusa District of Tokyo held on the third weekend of May.
It draws around two million tourists throughout the weekend.
In fact, many consider it the largest and most extravagant Shinto festival in Tokyo.
The Gion Matsuri takes place in Kyoto in July and is dubbed the mother of all Japanese festivals.
Extravagant floats, enjoyable street dances, and with pretty much something different happening each day for the whole month, the Gion Matsuri is a true spectacle.
Kyoto was once the capital of Japan, and it boasts 1,300 years of historical importance.
If you want to see old Japan in its most vibrant state, visit the Gion Matsuri.
If Jukkasjarvi rebuilds its world-renowned ice hotel annually, Sapporo has been making gigantic ice sculptures since the 1950s.
Sapporo is the largest city in Hokkaido, the northernmost main island of Japan.
Hokkaido has a semi-continental climate, which means it has an abundant supply of snow.
Yuki Matsuri stands for Snow Festival, and it began with local high school students making six sculptures out of snow and ice.
Today, the Yuki Matsuri has become the most famous festival in Japan north of the capital come wintertime.
Tohoku Sendai Matsuri
In addition to the Tanabata Sendai Matsuri, the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori and the Kanto Matsuri in Akita comprises the Great Festivals of the Tohoku Region.
The Nebuta Matsuri is tightly knit with the Tanabata celebrations.
It features enormous lantern floats in a street parade with drums, musicians, and dancers.
On the other hand, the Kanto Matsuri boasts participants displaying impressive feats of balancing bamboo poles with several rows of lanterns.
Osaka features both a land and river procession during the Tenjin Matsuri, hosted by the Tenmangu Shrine in July.
During the river procession, spectators can enjoy the vibrantly illuminated boats and the fireworks display reflecting off the river.
Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri
The Kishiwada Danjiri Maturi happens in the city of Kishiwada, Osaka.
It features heavy wooden floats dragged by participants running around the city streets at high speeds.
A festival highlight is called the Yarimawashi, which involves cornering the moving float at high speeds.
The Awa Odori is Tokushima’s remarkable adaptation of the Obon Odori, a dance to celebrate the return of one’s ancestors to earth.
Locals prepare a vibrant and colorful dance parade that attracts over a million tourists to Shikoku, a remote island with not much year-round tourism.
Kochi Yosakoi Matsuri
The Kochi Yosakoi is a slightly different dance festival also occurring on the island of Shikoku.
While the Awa Odori features much more traditional dances, the Kochi Yosakoi brings fun and excitement with lively, fast-paced dances.
If you head south to Fukuoka, you can experience one of the other large festivals in Japan.
Attracting two million people, the Hakata Dontaku begins with the Hakata Matsubayashi procession, followed by the Dontaku parades and the Dontaku Flower Marching bands.
In Nara Prefecture, locals set fire to the Wakakusa Mountain as they launch fireworks into the night and let visitors enjoy the fiery spectacle.
The Wakakusa Yamayaki takes place on the 4th Saturday of January, with the involvement of Todaiji and Kofukuli Temples and Kasuga Shrine.
As if burning whole mountains weren’t enough, the Japanese engage in a raucous festival celebrating genitalia.
The Kanamara Matsuri is the Festival of the Steel Phallus, a whole day of setting sexual repression aside and praying for fertility among young couples.
How Many Festivals Does Japan Have?
There is no accurate way of counting how many festivals exist in Japan right now, as much of the data gets lost in translation.
With about 100,000 Shinto shrines and 80,000 Buddhist temples, Japan has a bazillion avenues for traditional celebrations.
In addition to the numerous religious festivals across the country, many events commemorate many things related to daily living and the Japanese lifestyle.
A rough estimate of the number of traditions and festivals is probably sitting around 300,000 unique events.
You can have an overdose of experiences with Japanese culture festivals all year round, but you can surely enjoy them better by learning the language.
Sure, all of your wonderful trips will bring you immersive sights.
However, a strong command of the language will elevate your experiences to a whole new level.