8 of the best: Japan’s must-see festivals

Each year Japan plays host to over 300,000 ‘matsuri’ (festivals). Some celebrate traditional themes like the season, a deity or historical event. Others, like the 400-year old ‘Crying Sumo’ Nakizumo Festival in Tokyo, where gargantuan wrestlers hold babies to see which one will cry first, are examples of Japan at its quirkiest. Here’s our top picks.

UENO SAKURA MATSURI, TOKYO

For a brief two weeks starting late March, Tokyo’s Ueno Park is magicked into a pink wonderland of cherry (sakura) blossoms. Towards the National Museum and around Shinobazu Pond, are more than 800 cherry trees dripping in glorious pink blooms. Sakura season is also a chance to take part in that most Japanese of traditions – hanami – the act of flower viewing. Expect music, food and ‘sake’ (drink) and a celebration that continues long into the night with hundreds of lanterns lighting up the night sky.

Where: Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo
When: Late March-early April

GION MATSURI, KYOTO

It’s Japan’s biggest street party – a month-long festival with geisha performances, community events, shopping and food stalls. Mid-month is when the drawcard Yamaboko Junkō parade takes place – a procession of thirty two floats, each more ornate than the last. The three days of Yoi-events preceding the parade are no less special, with parties and Byōbu Matsuri – the Folding Screens Festival – when some of Kyoto’s wealthiest kimono merchants open their homes to the public. Don your yukata or kimono and join in the fun.

Where: Gion District, Kyoto
When: 1-31 July

TENJIN MATSURI, OSAKA

Expect fireworks and lots of them. Osaka’s summer festival is a spectacle that takes to the street and water and culminates in a spectacular 90-minute fireworks display above Osaka Castle. Celebrating the patron god of learning and the arts, there is theatre, kagura music and a street procession of local shrines carried aloft by thousands of performers wearing imperial dress. The procession on Okawa River is no less impressive – a criss-crossing parade of more than 100 shrine boats, traditional Dondoko rowing boats and stage boats where noh theatre and bunraku puppet shows are performed.

Where: Temmangu Shrine and surrounds, Osaka
When: 24-25 July

AWA ODORI, TOKUSHIMA

Put on your dancing shoes. This 3-day dance festival – Japan’s largest – is an upbeat, toe-tapping extravaganza. Traditional folk dancers and musicians swarm the streets, singing and chanting to the strains of taiko drums, lutes, flutes and bells –– and spectators can join in at night. Its origins lie in the Festival of the Dead celebrations of the twelfth century, when Buddhist priests danced to welcome the spirits of ancestors and vestiges of this still remain – no samurai can take part and there is no dancing allowed on temple grounds.

Where: Tokushima City, Shikoku Island
When: 12-15 August

TAKAYAMA SPRING & AUTUMN MATSURI, TAKAYAMA

Twice a year, this tiny village is transformed into one of Japan’s more beautiful festivals. Celebrating spring and autumn, thousands flock to watch the procession of sumptuous seventeenth-century floats, some containing karakuri ningyo – mechanical dolls that move and dance – as they’re pulled through the narrow streets of its Old Town. It’s a jubilant celebration, made more special by the historic location, nestled in the foothills of Gifu’s mountainous region.

Where: Old town, Takayama, Gifu
When:  Spring Festival 14-15 April & Autumn Festival 9-10 October

SUMIDA RIVER FIREWORKS FESTIVAL, TOKYO

Summer in Tokyo means the chance to witness one of Japan’s oldest and best fireworks displays. Dating back to the 1700s when fireworks (and fire) were used to ward off evil spirits, today it’s a popular celebration of summer. For one night only in late July, thousands gather in parks and on the river banks to watch the sky light up as tens of thousands of shooting rockets explode in a dazzling flurry of synchronised flower bursts, coloured fountains and sprays.

Where: Sumida River, Tokyo
When:  Last Saturday in July

SAPPORO WINTER FESTIVAL, SAPPORO

Japan’s biggest celebration of winter is a jaw-dropping spectacle. More than 200 massive ice and snow sculptures, at night flooded with colour and animated projections, transform Odori Park and downtown Sapporo. There are snow slides too. Started in 1950, when a group of local high school students put on an exhibition of sculpture in the park, today the festival draws over two million visitors. Don’t miss the popular International Snow Sculpture Contest which showcases the craftsmanship of sculptors from around the world.

Where: Odori Park and surrounds, Sapporo, Hokkaido
When:  5-11 February

KANDA MATSURI, TOKYO

Monks on horseback, giant floats, traditional dress and music are just some of the pageantry at Tokyo’s bi-annual festival – held one weekend in May every odd year. Celebrating happiness and prosperity, it’s a joyous event that starts early morning with a blessing and continues well into the night. Day two is no less spectacular – with a procession of portable golden shrines from the 108 parishes in Tokyo, including a 3.75-tonne golden “sengan mikoshi” shrine so heavy, hundreds of shrine bearers are needed to carry it on their shoulders.

Where: Kanda Shrine, 2-16-2, Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
When: 13-14 May 2017