Dancers in traditional costume including straw hats parade at the Awa Dance Festival. This dance is popular at many Japanese summer festivals.

Japan’s Summer Matsuri Festivals

It’s said there’s a festival every day somewhere in Japan. Each year, between 100,000 to 300,000 festivals called “matsuri”  burst across the country; some new, some over 1000 years old; from neighbourhood street parties to events seen by millions. July and August is fireworks season when matsuri blaze brightest.

Sosa City Gion Festival, Chiba Prefecture. Photo courtesy of Victoria Vlisides.
Sosa City Gion Festival, Chiba Prefecture. Photo courtesy of Victoria Vlisides.

Much of Japan battles humid heat through summer. Armed with battery-run or bamboo fans and wearable ice-packs, punters party in defiance. Follow the music, lanterns and food stall aromas to a photographers’ playground. Children catching goldfish with paper scoops. Shaved ice splashed with syrups bold as crayons. The frenzied flipping of yakisoba noodles.

A child dressed in traditional yukata plays kingyo sukai the goldfish scooping game at a summer matsuri festival in Japan
Kingyo Sukui, a popular game to win pet goldfish. Photo copyright Y.Shimizu/JNTO

People flaunt traditional cotton yukata robes. Men are austere in blue or grey but women are dazzling, taking tiny steps swaddled in vibrant prints, hair styled upwards with decorative pins. Join in, don a yukata, but careful guzzling that beer – the wrapped cloth makes bathroom visits a logistical challenge.

Four Japanese girls wearing colourful traditional yukata robes like a summer cotton version of a kimono at a summer matsuri festival
Travellers can buy or rent yukata robes to wear at summer festivals. Photo copyright Hiroshima Prefecture/JNTO

From writing wishes on paper to hang from bamboo poles (Tanabata festival) to dancing in straw hats to call ancestral ghosts (Awa Odori), customs vary across regions. The thunderclap of taiko drums loud enough to split the sky and the trill of flutes that mimics the cicadas’ chorus are the soundtrack of summer.

Dancers in traditional costume including straw hats parade at the Awa Dance Festival. This dance is popular at many Japanese summer festivals.
Awa Dance Festival, Tokushima City. Photo copyright JNTO

History of Japanese ”matsuri”

Matsuri come from ancient times when the Japanese were in awe of nature and spirits. Rituals grew to appease angry deities and ward off disasters like epidemics, typhoons and crop pests. Today, sweating men still parade elaborate portable shrines on wheels or shoulders, jerking to wake the sleeping gods inside. Once pampered with human hospitality, the divine are escorted back to their realm.

Large groups of men in traditional robes carry portable shrines at the Gion Yamakasa Festival. This is a common sight at Japanese summer matsuri festivals.
Gion Yamakasa Festival, Fukuoka City. Photo copyright JNTO

Culture thrives in the shrines’ intricate carvings and sumptuous fabrics. Matsuri nurtures Japanese art and craft. Massive carnival floats can take a year of preparation. Every locality has a rite devoted to rice-growing. The songs, steps and masks from old village harvest dances evolved into noh theatre.

People in traditional costume and straw hats plant rice into a wet field in front of a ceremonial stage with monks as part of a Japanese summer matsuri festival
Otaue Festival (Rice planting), Osaka prefecture. Photo copyright Sumiyoshitaisha/JNTO

Religious faith has weakened and the trend for larger festivals promoting tourism and entertainment grows. But the sacred and spectacle remain intertwined. Japan is a place where a fumigation company erects a tomb for white ants. Used sewing needles are honoured and laid upon soft tofu beds. Kami are the gods that live in everything, natural and man-made – trees, rocks, teapots, calligraphy brushes…

Priests ride a massive portable shrine on wheels in a parade for the Gion Festival in Kyoto. This is a popular Japanese summer matsuri festival.
Gion Festival, Kyoto. Photo copyright Q.Sawami/JNTO

Summer festivals blend Shinto, Buddhism and modernity in a salty, simmering soup. Cities are concrete saunas where asphalt releases warmth into the night, young and old mingle and inhibitions and social hierarchies melt away. There’s so much to capture and if you’re lucky, you might even glimpse a ghost or demon coming out to play.

Summer matsuri festivals in Japan feature lots of street food stalls often with lanterns
Getting outside to beat the heat, Tokyo. Photo courtesy of Victoria Vlisides

This story was originally published on Japan TravelThanks to Victoria Vlisides, Japan Travel and Japan National Tourism Organisation for the photos. 

Sources: Whelan, C., Kansai Cool, Tuttle Publishing, 2014
Festivals, Begin Japanology, (documentary), NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), 2009
Festivals, Japanology Plus, (documentary), NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), 2014

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