10 Wonderfully Weird Japanese Festivals to Look Forward in 2019

  • Because normal festivals are overrated; because life is too short to be doing the same old stuff. Fortunately, Japan’s inventive and unique culture simply knows no bounds! Japanese people find reasons to celebrate the things that are usually taken for granted in Western societies with festivals, or more commonly known as “matsuri.” Since hanami season is over in most regions of Japan, here’s a rundown of some of the coolest and most unique festivals that you can look forward to for the rest of 2018!

    1. Crying Sumo Festival (Naki Sumo Matsuri)

    When: April 27, 2019 10:00 AM — 5:00 PM
    ※Note that the event date is estimated and subject to change. This page will be updated once the organizers confirm the scheduling.
    Where: Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo (also held in other areas)

    No, they are not making babies fight sumo style (at least not literally); the babies fight by crying! The baby that cries the fastest, the loudest, and the longest wins! But why do the difficult ones win?

    This 400-year-old tradition was inspired by the phrase “naku ko wa sodatsu,” which means “crying babies grow.” It is believed that a baby who cries a lot will grow up healthy and happy. Some also believe that a loud cry from a baby brings prosperity and scares away bad spirits.

    The Crying Sumo contest consists of two sumo wrestlers facing each other in a sumo wrestling ring, each holding up a less-than-a-year-old baby, and doing their utmost best to make their assigned baby cry. They make loud noises, wear scary masks, and make weird faces to coax the baby to cry. The competition is judged by a sumo referee and has a registration fee of more or less 15,000 yen (amulet and small gift included), which shows that Japanese people take this event seriously.

    Asakusa’s Crying Sumo Festival Website *Automatic translation available

    2. Nabe Kanmuri Festival

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    When: May 3, 2019 (May 3 every year)
    Where: Chikuma Shrine, Maibara, Shiga

    This “pot-wearing” festival held every 3rd of May by the Chikuma Shrine in Shiga Prefecture is a procession along the shore of Lake Biwa. It features 8-year-old girls in red and green Heian clothing, wearing a “nabe kanmuri” or paper mâché pot helmets. This festival symbolizes the townsfolk’s offering of food (hence the pot) to the gods in exchange for good fortune.

    There’s also a popular belief that the pot is a symbol of a young woman’s purity. According to legend, it was a common practice for women long ago to worship at the shrine wearing the same number of pots on their heads as the number of men they have had relations with (good luck to the players!). A line from one of the poems in The Tales of Ise from the Heian period (794 to 1185) clearly references it: “I wish the festival of Chikuma in Omi would arrive soon, so I could see the number of pots on a heartless lady’s head.” Because of this, the Nabe Kanmuri Festival is considered to be one of the oldest festivals in Japan and a Maibara City Intangible Folk Cultural Asset.

    Nabe Kanmuri Festival Website *Japanese only

    3. Asakusa Sanja Festival

    When: May 17 to 19, 2019
    Where: Asakusa, Tokyo

    Held in the historic suburb of Asakusa, this event, which honors the three founders of the Senso-ji Temple, is one of the biggest and wildest festivals in Tokyo. It features one of the largest mikoshi (portable shrine) parades (more or less a hundred) in the country and performances by geishas, craftsmen, actors, and artists.

    What makes this festival unlike others is the participation of tattooed yakuza (mafia) members who once a year openly do a rare show of strength and being one with the community by disrobing and showing their full-body tattoos to take part in the festival processions.

    Asakusa Sanja Festival Website

    4. Solo Sumo Festival (Hitori Sumo Matsuri)

    When: June 18, 2019 (May 5 on the old lunar calendar)
    Where: Oyamazumi Shrine, Omishima, Ehime

    Every year on the 5th of May of the old lunar calendar at Oyamazumi Shrine on the island of Omishima, an epic battle ensues with the fate of the year’s harvest at stake. Watch a lone sumo wrestler persevere in a fierce fight with air… Or the presumed deity of the rice plant. It is believed that if the deity triumphs, the harvest would be bountiful that year. Luckily every year, the deity wins with 2 wins, 1 loss.

    Oyamazumi Shrine Website

    5. Belly Button Festival (Hokkai Heso Matsuri)

    When: July 28 to 29, 2019
    Where: Furano, Hokkaido

    A belly, belly funny festival!

    Taking the idea of being the center and belly button of Hokkaido, Furano City has created a unique festival in 1969 that turns the belly button (“heso” in Japanese) into hilarious stomach art. Using paint, special costumes, and props, dancers turn their chests and stomachs into faces with the belly button as the mouth. They then proceed to compete through their energetic belly dancing, enough to give the belly dancers in the Middle East a run for their money.

    Belly Button Festival Website

    6. Silent Bon Festival (Muon Bon Odori)

    When: early August
    Where: Otamachi, Tokai, Aichi

    From the picture, this may look like a regular festival; out there, though, it looks like its full of loonies dancing with no music. What is going on?! It’s a silent festival and every single one of its attendees is actually in a smashing party on their own phones.

    The Bon Festival first became silent in 2009 as a result of complaints from some crabby locals, who attributed their not being able to sleep to the festival sounds. So town officials had to get creative and made the festival a silent one.

    Now, people young and old dance together to traditional Japanese music being transmitted by FM transmitters to the wireless earphones that are distributed to the participants.

    If you find yourself in Aichi around August, join in the loony dancing!

    Tokai City Sightseeing Website

    7. Shukatsu Festival

    When: September or December
    Where: Ota City Industrial Plaza PiO, Tokyo (also held in other areas)

    While death is a topic that most people avoid, Tokyo’s Shukatsu Festival reminds participants of its unpredictability and actually teaches them how to properly prepare for it.

    Stemming from the idea of “Kazoku ni meiwaku kaketakunaindesu,” which roughly translates to “I don’t want to give my family inconvenience,” this festival is geared towards people who want to decide and plan on a lot of things while they are still alive. During the two-day festival, participants can listen to Buddhist lessons and lectures on psychological preparation, lay down on coffins, learn what to do with their belongings, and write down their last will and instructions to families and friends. They also get to sample makeup products and hair options from vendors. Oh, there’s nail art, too!


    8. Paantu Festival

    When: early October
    Where: Miyakojima, Okinawa

    Paantu is a centuries-old festival that is celebrated on the island of Miyakojima, Okinawa three times a year, with the highlight in October or November, to cleanse the island and ward off bad luck. Men dressed as “paantu” – evil spirits covered from head to toe with mud and foliage – run around the island chasing children and adults alike and throwing mud at them. It is said that those touched by a paantu will have good fortune for the coming year.

    It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a local or a tourist, if your house is brand new, or your car has just been washed – everything will get covered in mud.

    Miyakojima City Website *Japanese only

    9. Laughing Festival (Warai Matsuri/Nyu Matsuri)

    When: October 13, 2019 (the Sunday before Health and Sports Day every year)
    Where: Nyu Shrine, Hidakagawa, Wakayama

    The Laughing Festival, also known as Warai or Nyu Festival, hosted every year by Nyu Shrine is a Prefectural Cultural Event with over 200 years of history. It is a festival celebrated to bring good luck through laughter and good cheer.

    Legend has it that the local deity Niutsuhime-no-mikoto arrived late for a meeting attended by deities all over the land. The other deities laughed at her; embarrassed, she locked herself in Nyu Shrine grieving. Wanting to cheer her up, the villagers gathered outside the shrine and laughed all together until the goddess came out. Their laughter restored the joy of the deity and this is how the festival came to be.

    Someone (usually the leader of the festival) dressed up as a clown leads the mikoshi, the dancers, and the other participants to the shrine; all shouting “warae, warae” (laugh, laugh) along the way. Once they arrive at the shrine, they all burst into laughter in front of the altar.

    Laughing Festival Website

    10. Cursing Festival (Akutai Matsuri)

    When: last week of December to January in other areas
    Where: Saishoji Temple, Ashikaga, Tochigi (also held in other areas such as Atago Shrine in Ibaraki)

    Once every year, visitors to some temples and shrines around Japan are encouraged to shelve their deference for a night of purgative cursing. At the Cursing Festival, also known as the Festival of Abusive Language or the Festival of Rowdiness, hundreds of worshipers make the trek up the mountain temple for almost an hour, shouting insults at the 13 priests dressed up as the mythical red-faced goblin called “tengu,” and trying to steal their offerings, which are said to bring good luck.

    The festival began over two centuries ago, during the Edo period, as a way of letting overworked factory workers blow off steam.

    Ashikaga’s Cursing Festival Website *Japanese only

    If you’re an adventurous soul who’s looking for something unique, go ahead, fly to Japan and take part in some of these festivals. They’re sure to give you an experience you will never forget. If none of them happen during your trip, look out for others – there’s got to be at least one happening nearby!

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