Start planning your festival tour in Japan
The Japanese adore celebrations and have a calendar full of them. Japan's festivals, like the coming of age celebrations or the cherry blossom, happen over a number of days and are embraced nationwide. Pick a large city, like Kyoto or Tokyo, and you’ll get to see explosive fireworks and feast on freshly cooked street food with the locals. Conversely, opt for a peaceful location on the Nakasendo Highway for a more intimate festival atmosphere.
What makes Japanese festivals and Carnivals so special?
Festivals in Japan are known as Matsuri, and many are a truly special, and often spiritual experience. Many take traditions from Buddhism or the Shinto religion, and others are simply an appreciation of the arts and nature. Centuries of tradition shape the way Japan’s festivals are celebrated, and customs often differ from region to region.
The most iconic festivals and carnivals to experience in Japan
Japan is an enchanting vacation destination throughout the year, but festivals in Japan are often so intriguing, it’s worth planning a trip around one. The display of color and accompanying shows offer rare experiences, and fascinating insight into Japanese traditions. Here are some to consider.
Celebrate Japanese New Year's Eve, O-Shogatsu
Japanese New Year is a brilliant festival to attend. Taking place on 1 January every year, the occasion is marked by a temple bell, which is rung at midnight, each clang signaling the removal of trouble, or ‘bonnou’. In Kyoto, it’s the Chion-in temple bell that will sound, a bell so huge that no less than ten monks have to operate the wooden beam that rings it.
Mark coming of age at Seijin Shiki
The second Monday of January marks the transition from teen years to adulthood for those who have turned 20 during the previous year. At this traditional festival, women wear fur wraps and silk kimonos while men adorn the short, open-hanging haori kimono. Many people rent these outfits, as they can be quite expensive, and you’ll see them attending ceremonies across cities and towns throughout Japan.
Marvel at the Sapporo Snow Festival
Sapporo city sees a transformation at the beginning of each February. Sculptor and artist teams from all over the world descend on the city’s main street and build massive ice and snow sculptures. Each year has a different theme, and festivals in the past have centered around films such as Star Wars.
Be wowed by cherry blossom during Hanami season
When the buds bloom, there are hundreds of carnivals in Japan across the country. Cherry blossoms, with their fragile pink clouds of flowers, are synonymous with Japanese spring. Join families for a picnic under tree boughs at the nearest park, and feast on street food from nearby stalls, with snacks such as cherry blossom-scented dumplings, chocolate bars, and beer.
Bless your ancestors’ souls in Obon
In August, Buddhists believe their ancestors come visiting from the spirit world. During Obon, families spend time taking walks and visiting temples in remembrance of those who have departed. Each Japanese region has its own version of the Obon carnival, though they all usually involve elaborate fireworks displays. Combine this festival with a Mount Fuji climb for a perfect Japanese vacation.
Tips for visiting one of Japan's festivals and carnivals
Make reservations well in advance for popular celebrations like the Sapporo’s Snow Festivals and the Hanami season. Find out about the special delicacies that are made for specific events, too, and visit local stores to pick up these snacks. Japan has an efficient railway system, so it’s easy to get around during whichever festival you choose.