The 3 Biggest Summer Festivals of Japan

  • Matsuri are conducted year round in Japan and are celebrated for many different reasons. Originally matsuri were religious celebrations to pray to the Gods for a good harvest or to ward of disasters such as earthquakes or fire. Today matsuri are still widely celebrated across the whole of Japan but are more than just religious celebrations. Each individual matsuri reflects the history of that area, town or city and has developed a carnival like feel with food stalls and games. Summer is sweltering in many parts of Japan but matsuri still continue, here are a few which are celebrated in the summer months in Japan’s largest cities.

    Sanno Matsuri- Tokyo

    Sanno Matsuri originated during the Edo period of Japanese history which ran from 1603-1867 and is one of the largest matsuri in Japan. At this time of year the Shogun allowed people to enter the grounds of Edo Castle. Sanno Matsuri is a parade through the streets of Tokyo originating just outside the Tameike-sanno station at Hie-jinja shrine on the Ginza and Namboku Lines. The parade involves around 300 people in ancient costumes with instruments such as drums and bells, horse riders and even people dressed as the legendary forest yokai called Tengu. Tengu are a bird like yokai and they are depicted by a red mask with a very long nose.

    The main aspect of the parade are the carrying of mikoshi- or portable shrines. Mikoshi are shrines in which the Shinto gods, kami, are carried around the city. Hie-jinja enshrines the kami which protects Tokyo. One aspect of this matsuri is to cleanse yourself of any sins you have committed. To do this simply hold a doll while walking through a thatch ring and your sins will go into the doll! If you do this you can spend the rest of the year being happy and at peace with yourself.

    Dates: June 7th to June 17th on even numbered years.

    Gion Matsuri- Kyoto

    Gion Matsuri is easily the most famous festival in all of Japan and takes an entire month to celebrate! The origins of Gion Matsuri are truly impressive, it has been celebrated without a single missed year since 869, that is over 1000 years! This festival was originally to appease the kami after an outbreak of disease, and the practice is still continued of having a sacred children be the messengers for the kami. There are two main parades during Gion Matsuri, which are done on the 17th of July and the 24th of July, although events continue through the whole month of July for Gion Matsuri. If you have seen the mikoshi of Tokyo in a parade you will be stunned by the vast size of those involved in the Gion Matsuri parade. Some of the floats weigh over 12 tonnes and are over 20 meters tall! Unlike in other Matsuri, these floats cannot be carried due to their immense size so they are wheeled around. In the nights running up to the parades, the streets of Kyoto are closed and are lined with food stalls, drink stalls and even games! If you want to see the mikoshi on their journey, the main happening takes place on the 17th of July starting from Yasaka Shrine.

    If you are in Kyoto a little early to witness the parades themselves, you can still see something impressive. On the days proceeding the food stalls, you can go and watch the floats being built! In line with tradition, no nails are used in the construction of the floats- this is truly evidence of the details and care that is paid to these floats.

    Dates: Each July; main attractions 10th – 17th.

    Tenjin Matsuri- Osaka

    Tenjin Matsuri is held to celebrate Sugawara-no-Michizane who lived from 845-903. Sugawara-no-Michizane is deified as Tenamn Tenjin and is known as the patron kami of art and of learning. Tenjin Matsuri is known as one of the three great matsuri in Japan, and has a history of over 1000 years. Unlike Sanno and Gion Matsuri, the celebrations at Tenjin Matsuri are done both on land and on water! During this festival, Sugawara-no-Michizane is transported through the city and the crowd is entertained by traditional Japanese arts such as Noh. The first day of this matsuri is spent in preparation for the second, where prayers are given for the safety of the city of Osaka, and many drums are sounded. On the 25th, the parade begins, where Sugawara-no-Michizane is taken around the city. At around 6pm after the parade has walked for a time, all the shrines and floats are put onto boats and floated out on Okawa River. Now this is the truly exciting part of Tenjin Matsuri! There are over 100 boats involved in the procession, some are lit on fire to illuminate proceedings, some have noh or bunraku performances on, and some are full of powerful rowers. Along the banks of Okawa river food stalls and games are set up, so festival goers can enjoy themselves more. The matsuri culminates in a spectacular firework display before the mikoshi makes land once more and is returned to the shrine.

    Dates: 24th and 25th of July

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