Every town, city and village either has a unique festival or a unique version of a national festival.

In ancient times, there were two main festivals each year: a New Year's festival in the spring in which people prayed for good harvests and kimono-clad girls planted rice and danced while musicians played; and an autumn festival after the harvest in which shrines with symbols of gods were paraded through the streets on the shoulders of men. Festivals to ward off disease were sometimes held in the summer, the time of the year when epidemics most often occurred.

There are three nature-viewing celebrations in the Japan each year. “Yuki-mi”, or snow-gazing, is enjoyed in February with warm sake and a pleasant view of new-fallen snow in a garden. “Tsuki-mi”, or moon viewing, is done on a clear evening in autumn. And, spring is ushered in with “hana-mi” (the "honorable flower viewing party" of the newly arrived cheery blossoms).

Hitachi Furyumono, a festival float and puppet play in Ibaraki Prefecture, the Gion Festival’s yamahoko parade, the Toshidori folk god event of Koshikijima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, and the Aenokoto event to make offerings to the rice paddy god of the Okunoto region of Ishikawa Prefecture were added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2009.


Good Websites and Sources: Japan Atlas click map of Festivals ; Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive and ;Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Articles ; ; Penis and Vagina Festivals ; Good Photos of Penis Festival at Japan-Photo Archive ; Japanese Festivals and Celebrations ; Academic Work on Matsuri, Festival and Rite in Japanese Life ;JNTO Calendar of Events JNTO Calendar of Events ; JNTO Festivals List JNTO Festivals List ; Japan Visitor Japan Visitor ; Book: “Great Festivals of Japan” by Hiroyuki Ozawa (Kodansha International, 2000).

Famous Matsuri : Nebuta Matsuri Nebuta; Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Good Photos on Yokohama Living ; Kanto Matsuri (Pole of Lanterns Festival) in Akita City Kantou;Blog Report and Photos ; Tanabata Star Festival Sendai City Sendai City ; Blog Report and Photos Awa Odori Dance Festival Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Photos


“Matsuri”, a Japanese word that means “to entertain” and “to attend to,” is used to describe both festivals and worship at Shinto shrines. It also implies respect, duty, and willingness to listen to and serve “kami” (‘spirits" or "gods”) and bring their power to everyday life. Most matsuri give honor and thanks to the kami associated with the shrines used in the festival.

Matsuri are usually religious occasions that allow parishioners of a local shrine to commune with the god of that shrine and wish for a plentiful harvest. They usually feature purification rites, offerings, sharing of food, rituals carried out by priests and a procession of mikoshi — portable shrines carried by parishioners of the shrine — and decorated floats whose aim is to bring the attention of the gods to the needs of the people.

Mikoshi-carrying festivals are held throughout Japan in the autumn. Describing one such event, a travel writer wrote: "The shrine teetered at the top of the steep staircase as its porters struggled with fear and the very real possibility that it could crash and slide out of control down the steps and into the fire. Suddenly the mikoshi careened downwards, for a few seconds apparently out of control, but was soon brought to a halt by the struggling heaving porters."

The Danjiri Matsuri is the wildest festival in Osaka. Held in September, it feature teams pulling huge mikoshi, weighing up to 4 tons, with ropes through the streets with a couple of nasty turns that sometimes sends men fly off the mikoshi or causes the mikoshi to go out of control. The largest mikoshi are pulled by teams consisting of more than 100 people. In the past people have been killed.

Hote Matsuri, A Typical Matsuri in Japan

March 10, Hote Matsuri in Shiogama, Miyagi- is a 300-year-old festival that heralds the arrival of spring in the Tohoku region. It is organized by Shiogama Shrine in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, and is known as an event to help prevent fires, as the shrine is dedicated to the god of fire control and prevention. Last year's festival was held the day before the Great East Japan Earthquake. [Source: Akira Anzai, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 2012]

“Featuring a mikoshi portable shrine weighing 1 ton, the parade started at Shiogama Shrine at about 12:30 p.m. About 300 parade participants, including mikoshi carriers and children, walked around the city on a 14-kilometer route and returned to the shrine shortly after 8 p.m. The highlight of the parade is when the mikoshi makes a precarious descent down 202 steep stairs inclined at a 30-degree angle. It took 16 mikoshi carriers 15 minutes to walk down the steps, after which the audience, which had been watching with baited breath, burst into huge applause.

“For mikoshi carrier Hitoshi Suzuki, 42, it was the fourth time he had participated in the festival. According to Suzuki, only people who are experienced carrying mikoshi across flat terrain are chosen to help carry the portable shrine during the Hote Matsuri. "When I first joined the parade, I was so nervous my legs wouldn't stop shaking. The only things on my mind were whether I could successfully help carry the mikoshi and whether the audience would enjoy the parade," he said.

Aomori Festival

Major Festivals in Japan

Gion Matsuri in Kyoto in mid-July is one of Japan's most famous festivals. First held in A.D. 869, it features a procession of 32 yamaboko floats supported on large wooden wagon wheels and pulled by teams of men, with musicians playing traditional Gion-bayashi music. The largest floats are the size of houses and are pulled by teams of 70 men. Some carry a complete a gong and flute orchestra and have a 60-foot-high halberd-shaped masts.

The Nebuta Matsuri held in Aomori in early July is one of the three great summer festivals of northern Japan. It features huge lit-up, paper-mache figures (nebuta) pulled on floats through the streets at night. The celebration is believed to have been inspired by the ritual of floating paper lanterns down rivers during the Tanabata Festival on July 7th.

The huge floats carry the images if historical figures and mythological creatures. The largest ones are nine meters wide, seven meters long and five meters tall and weigh four tons. They are made on wheeled chassis and take local artisans around three months to complete About 20 floats, illuminated from the inside, are paraded each day of the festival along the 2.3-kilometer parade route. They are maneuvered by teams operating poles attached to the sides of the floats and directed by sensumochi (fan wavers). Each float is followed by a troupe of dancers made up of local people and tourists. Clad in cotton kimonos and floral headgear, they dance and revel to traditional music made by drummers, pipers and cymbal players.

Japanese Float Festival

Describing a float festival in Tokyo, Ryuzo Suzuki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Konchikichin-no-konchikichin, konchikichin-no-konchikichin..." With festive musical accompaniment, revelers clad in happi coats pulled a dashi float about eight meters tall along the streets of central Tokyo. The float was affiliated with Akasaka Hikawa Jinja shrine in Minato Ward. It is thought in the Edo period (1603-1867) and the Meiji era (1868-1912), the shrine had 13 dashi that paraded grandly through the surrounding areas. [Source: Ryuzo Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 2012]

At this year's festival, a special dashi from the shrine, carrying a figure of Prince Yamato Takeru (popularly known as Yamato Takeru no Mikoto), son of Japan's legendary 12th emperor, Keiko, appeared in the streets for the first time in 100 years. The prince is said to have played a leading role in stabilizing ancient Japan. In one story, he caught his enemies off guard by dressing as a serving maid at their drinking party.

After being displayed at the Ark Hills commercial complex in the ward, the dashi departed for the shrine after noon. It took about 4-1/2 hours for the float to traverse the three-kilometer course to the shrine. As it had to pass under power lines and pedestrian bridges on the way, the dashi's height was occasionally adjusted by moving the prince figure inside it. People held up electric cables with special poles to allow the float to pass.

Two other dashi and a mikoshi portable shrine joined the float on its journey to the shrine. The dashi was built in the Edo style. Among other things, this means the height of the three-tiered body is adjustable because dashi of that period needed to be able to pass through the gates of Edo Castle, according to historians.

Strange Festivals in Japan

Eyo Matsuri Naked Festival is held at Kannonin Temple in Saidaiji in Okayama in late February. It features hundreds of nearly naked men in loin clothes, fighting, scrambling, pushing and shoving one another to try to retrieve a pair of shingi (lucky wooden sticks) that are tossed to them in the courtyard of the temple at midnight by temple priests. The festival has been held since 1504 and is believed to have its origins in the Nara Period (710-784). Despite the cold temperatures thousands of loinclothed men splash in the temples freezing purification pool before attempting to catch the sticks. Whoever touches the sticks, it is said, gets good luck for the coming year and can be sold for cash. While the men scramble for the sticks women egg them on by beating drums. In 2003 a crowd of 9,000 men showed up and two men were trampled and still unconscious several days later.

The Omizu-tori Water Drawing Festival held at Todaiji Temple in Nara in March features monks running around the balcony of the Nigatsudo Hall with flaming six-meter-long, 40-kilogram torches made of bamboo and cedar needles. The monks thrust the torches outward from the balcony, showering the crowd below with sparks and embers. The sparks and embers that fall on the festival goers is said to purify them.

During the “mame-maki”, a ceremony held in February to welcome spring, packets of sacred soybeans are thrown into the air and scattered around the home to ward off evil spirits. In a ceremony called “hari-kuyo” broken sewing needles are given a final resting place in a tofu-filled pan placed on a Shinto alter.

Log Riding Festival

Onbashira is a festival held in May every six years at Suwa Taishi Shrine in Suwa, near Nagano that features the spectacular log-riding ritual. Symbolizing the collection of pillars to build a shrine, the festival has five parts: 1) transporting the logs 12 kilometers from a mountain slope; 2) riding the logs down the hillside; 3) parading the logs through the streets; 4) transporting them across the Miyagawa River; and 5) erecting the pillars inside the three shrine compound . The last festival was held in 2004.

The log riding event is known as Kiotoshi. The logs come from fir trees and are quite large. They average 17 meters in length and weigh around 11 tons. Riding them down the steep hill is quite dangerous not only for the people riding on the logs but also for the “minders” who try to guide them and the thousands of spectators that gather on the hill to watch. People have been seriously injured, even killed in the event.

Eight logs in all are decorated and dragged with thick straw ropes and let loose on the slope. Records of the festival go back to the 8th century and no one is sure of its origin or original purpose People drink a lot of sake and chant and blow trumpets when the logs come down. During the river crossing stage, men wearing only loincloths pulls the logs with ropes from one side to the other. The ritual is purifies the logs.

The Onbashira festival was held in April 2010. Eight huge logs were harvested to replace the sacred columns at the four corners of the two compounds of the Shimosha (lower shrine) of Suwa Grand Shrine in Nagano Prefecture. About 20,000 spectators looked on when three of the logs were slide down the 90-meter-long slope. Kiotoshi (log rolling) is regarded as an opportunity for men to display their courage.

In May 2010, two men died after falling 10 meters when a log — 17 meters long and three meters around — was being raised with four ropes and three wires. Another man was slightly injuries. An investigation found that one of the wires broke and that is believed to have been the cause of the accident.


Kite Fighting Festival

Shirone Takogassen is a huge five-day kite fighting festival held along the Nakanokuchi river bank in Shirone, Niigata Prefecture in early June. Over 300 years old, it is said to be the world’s largest kite fight. About 300 kites take part. They are made from bamboo and washi paper and can be as large as 23-x-17 feet and weigh as much as 50 kilograms. Each kite has a unique design that has in some cases remained unchanged for three centuries. Tsugaru kites are often decorated with well-known historical figures. Many have ukiyoe-style pictures. The rope is made at great expense from hemp.

Teams from Shirane compete against teams from nearby Akikatamaru village. In a typical fight one kite from Shirone is raised on one side of the river and a second kite from Akikatamaru is raised on the other side of the river. Teams of 30 to 50 men run along the river bank, pulling the kites towards one another. The teams the severe the other’s line — usually in just a few minutes — is the winner. Seven matches are held with seven groups from each town. The number of battles won and the amount of time the kites stay aloft determines the overall winner.

Describing one fight Tatsuya Sakamoto wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “Giant Kites waged a dynamic air battle...Their lines became entangled with one another high above the 80-meter-wide stream before plunging into the water. Participants then yanked on the 130-meter-long lines with all their might in what quickly became a giant tug of war.”

Festivals with Sexual Elements in Japan

Matsumoto festival
Onda Matsuru is a rice-planting festival held in in Asukamura in Nara early February that climaxes with a sexually-explicit skit that has drawn large crowds in recent years. The event starts when two men — one dressed as a long-nosed Tengu goblin and the other as an old man — enter. They prance around to the rhythm of drum beats, lead a man dressed as a cow through a field, and perform rituals meant to enrich local rice paddies. When they return Tengu makes love to his new bride Otafuku ( a role played by a man) following instructions provided by the old man. The display is quite convincing. At one point the Tengu wipes papers on his wife’s thighs and throws them into the crowd. People try hard to grab the paper which is supposed to bring about the birth of healthy kids. The festival used to obscure and lightly attended but Internet chatter about the sex has brought large crowds.

The Dosjin Festival is a phallus festival held at the Utsukushigahara Onsen in Matsumoto in late September. It is named after a pair of deities called 'dosojin' that can be found on stone statues in this region. During the festival women dress up in costumes of giant penises and walk through the streets while wild merry making goes on. Matsumoto is regarded as the center, or the navel, of Japan. During the 'Naval Festival' people dress up in costumes that reveal only their naval.

Image Sources: 1) Ray Kinnane 2) Aomori government3) Ray Kinnane 4) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 5) Hector Garcia

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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