Japan’s Best Festivals (Matsuri)

Japan has more festivals (matsuri) than almost any other country in the world, and Japanese festivals – in all their color, tradition, and exuberance – are often spectacular.

The celebrations themselves vary widely depending on the occasion, and often involve spirited processions of participants vigorously chanting, dancing, and bearing massive, intricately-decorated omikoshi (portable shrines) or floats.

If you want to see Japan at its liveliest, a high-energy matsuri is the place to do it!

The best Japanese festivals: Awa Odori in the Koenji neighborhood of Tokyo.

In addition to their striking bursts of color and energy, Japanese matsuri are rich in tradition – and, as if all of this weren’t enough, festivals in Japan are also one of the best places to sample an incredible array of unique, casual, and seasonal Japanese foods.

Unlike in many other parts of Asia, street food is not very prevalent in Japan, but at matsuri you’ll find the streets lined with yatai (food stall) after colorful yatai, offering a remarkable array of healthy – and not-so-healthy – festival snacks.

The best Japanese festivals: Hanazono Shrine Festival in Shinjuku, Tokyo

The Best Japanese Festivals: Our Favorite Matsuri

Japan has too many wonderful matsuri to include in one list.

Below we feature what we consider the best Japanese festivals, including Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri, Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri, Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri, and the Awa Odori festival in Tokushima.

The best Japanese festivals: a neighborhood festival in Tokyo

But it’s important to bear in mind that some of the most entertaining matsuri are unsung festivals held in small neighborhoods throughout Japan.

Festivals take place year-round throughout the country, with many of the most famous in summer. Japan’s summer is hot and muggy (read more about the seasons and weather in Japan), and the sultry weather lends itself well to the rambunctious atmosphere at many matsuri.

List of Japanese Festivals (Matsuri) in 2017

Below is a list of our favorite festivals taking place throughout Japan in 2017.

For more about all of these festivals, make sure to read our profile on each of them below!

  • February 6-12, 2017: Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival), Sapporo, Hokkaido
  • April 14-15, 2017: Haru no Takayama Matsuri (Takayama Spring Festival), Takayama, Gifu Prefecture
  • May 13-15, 2017: Kanda Matsuri, Kanda Myojin Shrine, Tokyo
  • May 15, 2017: Aoi Matsuri, Kamigamo Shrine, Kyoto
  • May 19-21, 2017: Sanja Matsuri, Asakusa Shrine, Tokyo
  • Month of July (July 17th), 2017: Gion Matsuri, Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto
  • July 24-25, 2017: Tenjin Matsuri, Tenmangu Shrine, Osaka
  • August 2-7, 2017: Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori Prefecture
  • August 12-14, 2017: Awa Odori, Tokushima (Shikoku Island)
  • October 9-10, 2017: Aki no Takayama Matsuri (Takayama Fall/Autumn Festival), Takayama, Gifu Prefecture
  • December 3, 2017: Chichibu Yomatsuri, Chichibu Shrine, Saitama Prefecture

Tokyo’s Best Festivals: Matsuri in Tokyo

Kanda Matsuri

May 13-15, 2017: Kanda Myojin Shrine, Tokyo

The Kanda Matsuri is one of Tokyo’s three most famous festivals. It only takes place in odd-numbered years (alternating with the Sanno Matsuri) and technically lasts an entire week, although the main parade occurs on the Saturday closest to May 15th, when over 300 people and 100 mikoshi march through the streets of central Tokyo.

Kanda Matsuri Tokyo Japan

Kanda Matsuri, Tokyo (photo by Xin Beltou CC BY)

This shinto festival began as a celebration of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory at the battle of Sekigahara and continued as a show of wealth for the new Edo period shogunate. Over time, the festival has come to represent prosperity for the residents as the parade of portable shrines, musicians, priests on horseback, and dancers process through the streets, blessing the locals.

The area of Kanda was the original central district of Edo (present-day Tokyo), and the residents of this area were known for being extra lively, so the parade is known for being energetic and festive. The parade ends at the Kanda Myojin Shrine which enshrines three deities: Daikokuten (the lucky god of wealth), Ebisu (the god of fishermen), and Taira Masakado (a revered feudal lord of the 10th century).

Sanja Matsuri

May 19-21, 2017: Asakusa Shrine, Tokyo

The Sanja Matsuri is another boisterous shinto festival and is held in the Asakusa district. It draws around 2 million visitors over three days and is considered the largest shinto festival in Tokyo.

Sanja Matsuri Tokyo Japan

Sanja Matsuri, Tokyo (photo by Guilhem Vellut CC BY)

It is held in honor of the three founders of the Sensoji Temple (who are enshrined in the Asakusa Shrine next door to the temple). As the story goes, these three founders dedicated their lives to Buddhism after catching a small statue of the Boddhisatva Kannon in the Sumida River while fishing one morning in the 7th century. The festival has possibly been around in some form for that long, but the shrine has only existed from 1649.

There are plenty of games and food to be enjoyed and the festival itself is known for being quite wild. The streets are flooded with flute players, taiko drummers, and people chanting. On Sunday, at the height of the festival, three mikoshi, each with the spirit (kami) of one of the founders, are energetically carried throughout the streets before being laid back in their place of rest at Asakusa Shrine. The louder the chanting and music, and the more roughly the mikoshi are shaken, the more good luck that is bestowed upon the neighborhoods they pass.

Kyoto’s Best Festivals: Matsuri in Kyoto

Aoi Matsuri

May 15, 2017: Kamigamo Shrine, Kyoto

Also sometimes referred to as the “Kamo Matsuri,” this ornate, elegant festival processes from the Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines in the north of the city. The participants are dressed in the elaborate style of the the aristocratic Heian period, with some who travel on horseback or in ox-drawn carriages, while others walk playing Heian court music.

The Heians were a romantic bunch who revered art, literature, music, and especially personal beauty. Men and women powdered their faces and women of the court wore “twelve-layered robes” — multi-layered silk kimono that represented seasons, flowers, animals or other elements of nature. These could weigh more than 20 kilograms!

Aoi Matsuri Kyoto Japan

Aoi Matsuri, Kyoto (photo by Japanexperterna.se CC BY)

This festival actually predates the Heian period and possibly began in the 6th century when Emperor Kinmei began delivering offerings on horseback to the Kamo Shrines in order to ward off natural disasters. Historical texts say that this ritual was repeated annually, and eventually grew into an elaborate procession during the height of the Heian period (794-1185). The festival is so-named due to the hollyhock (aoi) that adorns the costumes and carriages of the participants, once thought of as a good luck charm against natural disasters.

At each shrine, the Imperial Messenger (who leads the procession on horseback) and the High Priestess (the Saio-Dai) perform various rites before continuing on in the procession. In ancient times the priestess would have been a princess of the Imperial family, but in modern times, a different Kyoto-ite is chosen each year to represent the priestess.

The stately and gorgeous procession begins at the Imperial Palace at 10:30 am, and finally arrives at Kamigamo Shrine at about 3:30 pm. In addition to the parade, there are some equestrian races and events in the days before.

The best Japanese festivals: Gion Matsuri, Kyoto

Gion Matsuri

Month of July (July 17th), 2017: Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto

The Gion Matsuri is considered Japan’s most famous festival, and possibly the largest as well. It has a long history and lasts the entire month of July, culminating in a parade of floats (the “Yamaboko Junko”) on July 17th. “Yamaboko” refers to the two types of floats: the smaller yama floats and the gigantic hoko floats. The hoko can be several stories high (up to 25 meters), carrying festival participants, and weigh as much as 12 tons. Despite their massive size, they use no engines to move them, and they use no nails in their construction.

The events are mostly held opposite the Gion geisha district, across the Kamo River. Although there are events throughout the month, the main festivities occur on the day of the parade (July 17th) and the three evenings before (the yoiyama evenings). During the days of yoiyama, the streets are closed and packed with people enjoying the festival food stalls, performances, traditional music and costumes, and possibly even spotting the elusive geiko — as geisha are called in Kyoto. This is a chance to enjoy the impressive floats up close that are on display in the streets, and a rare opportunity to see Kyoto-ites really let loose!

Gion Matsuri Kyoto Japan

Gion Matsuri, Kyoto (photo by Nullumayulife CC BY)

The festival has been around since 869 when the emperor began making offerings to the gods of the nearby Yasaka Shrine to ward off a spreading epidemic. It grew over the years to showcase the incredible craftsmanship of the residents of Kyoto and the areas nearby. As such, in the yoiyama evenings before the parade, families open the entryways of their homes to the public for a glimpse of their precious family heirlooms, during the coinciding Byobu Matsuri (“Folding Screen Festival”).

The floats are elaborately decorated with gorgeous tapestries and paper lanterns, and the larger hoko floats require around 40 people to pull them through the streets. Though the July 17th parade is the main event, there is a slightly smaller parade (with fewer floats) on July 24th as well. The July 24th parade has its own yoiyama nights of revelry preceding the parade, so there are lots of chances to party in the streets with the people of Kyoto.

Best Festivals (Matsuri) in Other Parts of Japan

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival)

February 6-12, 2017: Sapporo, Hokkaido

Every February the city of Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city, is host to the annual Sapporo Yuki Matsuri. One of the world’s great winter celebrations, the Yuki Matsuri is renowned for its massive and awe-inspiring ice and snow sculptures.

Attracting more than two million visitors every year, the Snow Festival has been celebrated since 1950. The painstaking effort and creativity that goes into each of these sculptures can be enjoyed by day, and are even more magical in the evenings when they are beautifully illuminated.

Sculpture at Yuki Matsuri Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido Japan

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (photo by A is for Angie CC BY)

There are festivities in a few different areas of the city, but most of the sculptures are in Odori Park, in the heart of the city. Aside from the snow architecture, the Snow Festival features a variety of events for young and old, including concerts, an international snow sculpting competition, culinary happenings, snowball fights, snow slides, ice bars and much more.

Advance planning to attend is absolutely essential, as Sapporo fills up months in advance with snow-loving travelers from around the world.

More reasons to visit Japan in winter!

Takayama Matsuri (Spring and Autumn Festivals)

April 14-15 (Haru) & October 9-10, 2017 (Aki), Takayama, Gifu Prefecture

These festivals are considered some of the most beautiful festivals in all of Japan, in part because of their backdrop — the historic town of Takayama in the Northern Alps.

The picturesque Takayama is referred to as “the Kyoto of the Hida Mountains,” and the craftsmanship of this area has long been known. The artisans of this region display their skill in spectacular yatai (this word can refer to parade floats, as well as food stalls), dating back to the 17th century, which are constructed with intricately carved wood, lacquer art, detailed metal work, woven textiles, and fully moving giant marionettes (karakuri ningyo). The wheeled floats are masterpieces, but the real treat is watching the daily performances of the puppets, moved by dozens of strings and push-rods, operated from inside the float by a master puppeteer.

The best Japanese festivals: cherry blossoms in Takayama

The festivals take place twice a year — in April, to pray for a great harvest after planting season, and in October, to give thanks for the crops that have been harvested.

The Spring Festival (Haru no Takayama Matsuri) is held in southern Takayama at the Hie Shrine. The Hie Shrine is also known as “Sanno Shrine,” so this festival is sometimes called the “Sanno Matsuri.” The Autumn Festival (Aki no Takayama Matsuri) is held in northern Takayama around the Hachiman Shrine, and is therefore also known as “Hachiman Matsuri.”

Both festivals are similar and showcase about a dozen gorgeous yatai as well as an evening procession (yomatsuri) that occurs on the first evening of the festival. When dusk falls, the floats, led by costumed dancers and musicians, are lit with hundreds of lanterns and pulled through the streets of Takayama, traversing the iconic red bridges of the many rivers running through the town.

Tenjin Matsuri

July 24-25, 2017: Tenmangu Shrine, Osaka

The Tenjin Matsuri (“Festival of the Gods”) is an exuberant celebration that takes place at the end of July in lively Osaka. The height of the festival is on the second day when 3,000 people, dressed in costumes from the 8th-12th centuries, process through the streets, and then all board torch-lit boats that continue up the Okawa River. The evening ends with a spectacular fireworks display over the river and the flaming boats.

The best Japanese festivals: Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka

The festival celebrates Sugawara no Michizane, a poet and scholar from the Heian period who is deified at Tenmangu Shrine. During the procession, this patron god of art and education is paraded in his mikoshi alongside participants who include lion and umbrella dancers, musicians, goblins on horseback, and many, many more.

The denizens of Osaka are known for knowing how to party, and eat well, and this festival is pure fun. Despite being a highly traditional festival that has over 1,000 years of history, most festival-goers are just happy to be enjoying the festive summer atmosphere, hopping from food stall to food stall, beer in hand.

Nebuta Matsuri

August 2-7, 2017: Aomori Prefecture

Each night of the Nebuta Matsuri, the streets come alive with vibrant, three-dimensional lantern floats, which are constructed with washi (Japanese paper) over wire frames and lit from the inside. The large floats depict imposing gods, warriors, kabuki actors, animals, and even TV celebrities, and are pulled through the streets, weaving and pivoting for the spectators.

Unlike some festivals that only hold a parade once or twice during its celebration, the Nebuta Matsuri holds a parade all six days of the festival. The parades are held every evening, with the exception of the last day, when the parade is held in the afternoon.

The best Japanese festivals: Aomori Nebuta Matsuri

Aomori’s spectacular Nebuta Matsuri (photo by chrisliang82 CC BY)

Accompanying the impressive floats (which can take up to a year to build) are groups of dancers called haneto, taiko drummers, flutists, and other musicians. All festival-goers are welcome to join in the lively procession dancing, provided they wear the traditional haneto costume (readily available throughout the city).

Awa Odori

August 12-14, 2017: Tokushima (Shikoku Island)

Awa Odori (Awa Dance) is a matsuri that originated in rural Tokushima (formerly known as Awa Province). It began in the 1580s, when the feudal lord of Awa held a giant celebration at the opening of Tokushima castle.

The attendees of the celebration, after drinking throughout the night, began a rhythmic, drunken dance while musicians played to a simple syncopated beat. This became a lively annual event.

Tokushima is located on Shikoku Island, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, to the south and west of Osaka and Kyoto. Shikoku is a beautiful and rugged island with few people, green mountains and valleys, onsen and fishing villages in spades. Despite its relatively remote location, the annual Awa Odori attracts over a million visitors from all over Japan.

It features fantastic traditional costumes, a dynamic-yet-stylized dance, singing and chanting, and pulsating instrumentation. The procession is comprised of teams of dancers, and each team has their own unique costumes and spin on the traditional dance. The atmosphere is party-like and the dance is called the fool’s dance. (The lyrics proclaim that “the dancers are fools, and the people watching are fools. Since everyone is a fool, why not dance!”).

The best Japanese festivals: Awa Odori in Koenji, Tokyo

If you can’t make it all the way to Tokushima, you can check out the newer Awa Odori held in Tokyo. This incarnation has been around since the 1950s when it was started by migrants seeking to recreate a slice of home in Tokyo. The Tokyo version, which also draws over a million visitors, takes place in Koenji, a great neighborhood just west of Shinjuku, known for its livability, good bars and restaurants, vintage clothing stores, and live houses.

Chichibu Yomatsuri

December 3, 2017: Chichibu Shrine, Saitama Prefecture

One of the top three float-festivals in Japan, this night festival (yomatsuri) showcases six house-like floats covered in countless lanterns. The floats can weigh up to 20 tons but run purely on man-power. At the (dangerous!) climax of the parade, the floats are pulled to the top of a slope, and the night ends in a gorgeous two-hour fireworks display, a rare treat in Japan in the wintertime.

Chichibu Yomatsuri Japan

Chichibu Yomatsuri (photo by Kaori Hilton CC BY)

The intricately carved floats are so massive that during the day, they double as stages for kabuki performances. During the parade, the floats are accompanied by taiko drummers and flute players, as well as mikoshi from the 2,000-year-old Chichibu Shrine.

Due to its close proximity to Tokyo — about an hour and a half away — this festival can get quite crowded. Come early to enjoy the performances, parade, fireworks, and of course, the dizzying array of festival food and treats.

Honorable Mentions: Other Great Festivals

There are so many amazing festivals, it’s a truly difficult and subjective task to narrow them down to the few best. Here are a couple more famous festivals loved by many:

Omizutori

March 1-14, 2017: Todaiji Temple, Nara

Also called “Shunie,” this is actually a Buddhist repentance ritual in which every evening after sunset, priests carrying burning torches climb up to the balcony of Nigatsudo Hall at Todaiji Temple. The spectacular falling embers grant the attendants below a safe year ahead.

Kanamara Matsuri

April 2, 2017: Kanamaya Shrine, Kawasaki

The infamous “Festival of the Steel Phallus” (more simply referred to as the “Penis Festival”) is held just southwest of Tokyo and draws giggling tourists from all over. Expect to find the most unusual mikoshi, candy, and trinkets, all modeled after symbols of fertility. The festival is a light-hearted, fun affair, and charitably donates its proceeds to AIDS/HIV research.

Kanto Matsuri

August 3-5, 2017, Akita Prefecture

In the “Pole Lantern Festival,” performers balance giant bamboo poles strung with lanterns, while drummers and other musicians play alongside. There are daytime events as well, but the main highlights are the night parades held each evening in which the lanterns are all lit with candles before the performers show off their balancing skills.

Nagasaki Kunchi

October 7-9, 2017: Suwa Shrine, Nagasaki

This festival celebrates the Dutch and Chinese influence in the region, with five to seven neighborhood districts participating with various dance performances (such as Chinese lion dances) and large floats (many in the shape of a ship). Though the main performances have paid seating, there are some free-seating events held throughout the city.

Jidai Matsuri

October 22, 2017: Heian Shrine, Kyoto

The “Festival of the Ages” takes you back in time through Kyoto’s thousand-year-reign as the capital of Japan. If you are at all interested in Japanese history, this is the parade for you. Over 2,000 samurai warriors, Heian court princesses, Edo geisha, and many other historically significant people process from the Imperial Palace to the Heian Shrine in this faithful reenactment of Kyoto’s glory.

The best Japanese festivals: Awa Odori, Koenji, Tokyo

Japan’s Best Festivals: Additional Matsuri Resources

We hope our post on our favorite matsuri in Japan has been helpful!

For even more information on festivals throughout Japan, we also recommend the excellent Japan-Guide’s overview of festivals in Japan, and the useful Japan Atlas’ guide to Japanese festivals.

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About Vanessa Miller

After studying Japanese in college, I moved to Japan. During my nearly five amazing years in Tokyo, I was always exploring – ducking down narrow Tokyo alleyways in search of tiny bars and izakayas, and seeking hidden onsen in the countryside. Even after years of living in Japan – my second home – I find it to be so rich with mystery, and I’m thrilled to be able to help others experience this amazing place.