In Japan, you may have chanced upon crowds in yukata, seen rows of street food (even bought from them!), or wondered at a slow procession in ornate costumes. That may have just been a matsuri (祭), a local festival.

But what is MATSURI (祭)?

Contrary to popular belief, a matsuri is not only held in the summer but is traditionally related to the season it is held in. While summer festivals are the most popular and well known, festivals are actually held throughout the year! Following its roots in the Shinto and Shinto-Buddhist beliefs, some festivals also celebrate the seasonal solstices and harvests.

Sanja Matsuri
Sanja Matsuri” by Yoshikazu TAKADA is licensed under CC BY 2.0

However, each festival has a different meaning and celebration theme, so no two festivals are the same! These festivals are also location-specific, meaning that you can only experience them at certain areas in Japan.

Sendai Tanabata Matsuri or The Star Festival

{6 – 8 August}

During this festival, the whole city of Sendai is decorated with many ornaments made from bamboo and paper. These decorations represent prayers for good health, prosperity, good harvests, and academic success.

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri or Sapporo Snow Festival

{2nd week of February}

The Sapporo Yuki Matsuri is a week-long festival happening in the month of February. Teams from all over the world compete for the best statue in the International Snow Statue Contest. You definitely have to be there to appreciate the beauty of these gigantic snow sculptures.

Hadaka Matsuri or Naked Festival

{3rd Saturday of February}

Who wouldn’t want to watch wet, nearly naked men wrestling in the cold for a pair of sticks? This festival is almost illegal except it’s a 500 year tradition, and is celebrated all over Japan with different variations on the third Saturday of February. The lucky person who manages to grab the sticks is said to receive good luck for a year.

Naki Sumo Matsuri or The Baby Crying Festival

{29th April}

Every year on a particular day in April, at the Sensoji Temple, a festival is celebrated for babies. Sumo wrestlers hold the babies in the air and scare them into crying, and the infant winner is one who cries the longest and loudest. This ritual is believed to ward off evil spirits and keeps the children in good health. Parents can bring their babies to the contest of their free will, so you could even participate if you want!

Akutai Matsuri or The Cursing Festival

{3rd Sunday of December}

When December comes, 13 priests of the Atago Shrine in Ibaraki will parade around the shrine grounds in tengu (天狗, “heavenly dog”) get-up and be verbally abused, or robbed by the visitors. No, they are not masochists if that’s what you are thinking. This ritual is conducted for good luck for the upcoming year, or perhaps for anyone who wants to release their pent up frustration…

So… what goes on at Japanese festivals and how to enjoy?

1. Watch some performances at the matsuri!

You may catch some exciting performances, or a procession of people clad in ancient costumes.

Photo by tak_orange is licensed under CC BY 2.0 
下町七夕祭り” by nAok0 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

2. Try some food.

You’ll be spoiled for choice, from savoury food like yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki and yakitori to sweet snacks like choco-banana, kakigoori (かき氷, shaved ice) and, best of all, dango (だんご, rice dumplings).

Stalls of food
Stalls of food” by George Alexander Ishida Newman is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

3. Wear yukata and mingle with the crowd. 

Amp up the atmosphere by dressing up in Japanese summer wear. Or, see if you can spot people in traditional matsuri wear.

Mai at the local festival
Mai at the local festival” by Big Ben in Japan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

4. Play some games. 

From shooting games to yoyo-tsuri (yo-yo fishing), there are many prizes to be won!

SAKURAKO - TAKINO night festival.
SAKURAKO – TAKINO night festival” by MIKI Yoshihito is licensed under CC BY 2.0

5. Go with family and/or friends! 

Possibly the best part is to enjoy the time spent with your loved ones.

Marine Lantern Festival in Odaiba 2016
Marine Lantern Festival in Odaiba 2016” by Dick Thomas Johnson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Enjoy your Japan matsuri!

*Header image by 工房 やまもも is licensed under CC BY 2.0




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