10 Best Festivals in Kyushu 

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Misty Fujii is a Canadian who moved to Osaka, Japan in 2019 and married her Japanese sweetheart. In 2022 they had a baby and moved to Fukui for the clean country air. She is a DJ who teaches English part time and writes in order to share Japan with the world. She gets excited about collecting vintage vinyl records, food of all countries, travelling and renovating her traditional Japanese house.

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Enter the vibrant world of Kyushu, Japan’s southern island, where traditions come alive in a whirlwind of colors, dances, and tempting street food. In this land of lush landscapes and warm-hearted locals, festivals are more than just celebrations; they’re a way of life. Join us on a journey through the ten best festivals that define the spirit of Kyushu, offering a glimpse into the heart and soul of Japanese culture. From centuries-old rituals to modern-day revelries, Kyushu’s festivals promise unforgettable experiences that will leave you enchanted and eager for more. So, grab your festival gear, and let’s dive into the electrifying world of Kyushu’s top celebrations! 

1. Hakata Dontaku Festival

フェレス, CC BY-SA 2.1 JP DEED via Wikimedia Commons

Fukuoka transforms into a riot of color and tradition for the Hakata Dontaku Festival. This epic celebration during Japan’s Golden Week holiday draws a staggering two million spectators as tens of thousands bedecked in vibrant, traditional garb flood the streets of Fukuoka to dance their hearts out. Dating back to 1179 A.D., this festival’s roots lie in Matsubayashi, a New Year’s ceremony. Over the years, it evolved and reinvented itself, finally adopting its current name in 1962, inspired by the Dutch word “zondag” (holiday).

Matsubayashi is now an integral part of Hakata Dontaku, where people dressed as good luck deities ride horses to temples and shrines. The festivities culminate in a parade where everyone dons disguises and wields rice scoops called shamoji before gathering in a public square to dance the infectious Dontaku Odori. This delightful tradition of dancing with rice scoops traces back to a housewife who, caught in the rhythm of the festival, put her dinner preparations on hold to join the revelry, trusty rice scoop in hand.

When: May 3-4

2. Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival

otsukarekun, CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED via Flickr

Here’s an extraordinary festival! Hakata Gion Yamakasa in Fukuoka is a must-see in early July. Seven Hakata district neighborhoods compete in a thrilling five-kilometer race, but here’s the twist: they drag massive ornate floats. The colossal kazariyama floats, once thundering at over ten meters, used to be used, but now they serve as eye-catching displays. 

Participants race with sleeker kakiyama floats, around five meters tall and one ton in weight. These wheel-less floats are dragged along the streets, using water to reduce friction. At 4:59 a.m., teams kick off the race in thrilling five-minute intervals, navigating tight corners and broad avenues for a heart-pounding 30-minute showdown. Join in with thousands of cheering fans to see this unforgettable spectacle. 

When: July 15

3. Nagasaki Kunchi

Buckle up for Nagasaki’s cultural extravaganza, the Nagasaki Kunchi! This festival happens annually and is a 400-year-old fusion of Chinese and Dutch influences woven into Nagasaki’s rich history. The name “Kunchi” nods to the lunar calendar, marking the ninth day of the ninth month. Dazzling dance performances and shows take center stage, with different city districts strutting their stuff. 

Expect a mix of traditional Japanese dances, dragon dances with a Chinese twist, and gravity-defying floats. Some acts bring serenity, and others crank up the wild factor. Unfortunately, getting paid seats is like nabbing a shooting star for foreign tourists due to rapid sellouts. But don’t sweat it! You can still peek at the action in non-ticket areas, though they fill up fast. Look out for free performances that pop up citywide, like at Kamome Hiroba Plaza near Nagasaki Station. Dive into this cultural showcase with schedules at tourist info desks and hotels. 

When: October 7-9

4. Karatsu Kunchi

colin, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED via Flickr

In Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, fall kicks off with a bang! Since the Edo period, they’ve celebrated the harvest with the Karatsu Kunchi Festival, a three-day extravaganza in early November. Witness colossal floats called hikiyama parading through town, culminating in a grand procession from Karatsu Shrine to Nishino Beach.

These floats? Mind-blowing. From samurai helmets to mythical sea creatures and dragons, there are 14 jaw-dropping designs. They’re so exquisite they’ve earned UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status! With half a million festival-goers in tow, snagging a hotel room in the city can be a real challenge, so plan ahead! This epic celebration lines up perfectly with the Saga International Balloon Festival. Double the fun in Saga, don’t miss it! 

When: November 2-4

5. Tobata Gion Yamagasa

Fukuoka’s top summer fest, the “Yamagasa,” dates back to the Edo period. Featuring four star-studded floats from Tobihata Hachimangu Shrine, Sugawara Shrine, and Nakabaru Hachimangu Shrine, these aren’t just floats – they’re tangible treasures, adored as “Chochinyama.”

This epic tradition began when Fukuoka faced an epidemic, and prayers to Susano-o, a major god in Japanese mythology, brought salvation. The floats shine with vibrant flags by day (nobori yamagasa) and transform into radiant lantern spectacles by night (chochin yamagasa). Guided by 80 pullers and the rhythm of gongs and drums, they chant, “Yoitosa, Yoitosa!” Every July, over 200,000 festival-goers flood Tobata for this cultural extravaganza! 

When: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday around the 4th Saturday in July 

6. Hojoya Festival

そらみみ, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED via Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to the Hojoya Festival, one of Hakata’s big three festivals, celebrating life and autumn’s bounty for over 1,100 years. This grand event features the “Divine Procession” or “Gojinko,” held every two years, where about 500 local parishioners engage in a lavish procession on September 12th and 14th, preserving Edo period traditions.

But that’s not all – the festival’s grandeur extends to over 500 stalls lining the one km-long path to the sea from the main shrine, making it one of Kyushu’s most magnificent festivals. Don’t miss this vibrant celebration of life and culture! 

When: September 12-18

7. Ohara Festival

yuko, CC BY 2.0 DEED via Flickr

Get ready to groove in Kagoshima’s biggest annual bash every November, featuring traditional dance parades, taiko performances, and more. This lively festival first kicked off in 1949, celebrating Kagoshima’s municipalization, and it’s been a crowd-pleaser ever since. Thousands gather in the downtown Tenmonkan area to dance to traditional tunes, including the iconic ‘Ohara-bushi.’

Local volunteers, from community members to company employees and students, decked out in traditional kimono, tabi, and straw hats, form dance teams that steal the spotlight. And watch for the charming ‘flower trams’ adding to the festive vibes. Join the party on the second day, where the main event starts in the morning, with dancing galore and complimentary shochu to keep the spirits high. Visitors can even join in the dance if they’re up for it. Kagoshima knows how to throw a festival!

When: November 2-3

8. Yanagawa Sagemon Hina Doll Festival

Have you heard of Girl’s Day in Japan? Yanagawa, the charming canal city of Fukuoka Prefecture, knows how to stretch the joy of the Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri) into a two-month-long extravaganza that’s a must-see! It starts with a magical parade, where local girls transform into princesses and ride through town on whimsical ox carts. 

But the fun doesn’t stop there! A month later, on the third Sunday of March, the festivities move to the city’s picturesque canals, adding a watery wonder to the mix. And while you’re in town, take the chance to peek at the impressive Hina doll displays and hanging sagemon decorations gracing local businesses, restaurants, and the Ohana Villa. Yanagawa’s Doll Festival is a whimsical celebration that floats through your heart! 

When: February 11-April 3

9. Wasshoi Million Summer Festival

Carlos Madrazo, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s crank up the summer fun in Kitakyushu with the Wasshoi Hyakuman Summer Festival! Born in 1988 to celebrate the city’s 25th birthday, this festival may be relatively young, but it’s all about crafting timeless traditions.

With 1.5 million festival-goers, a rainbow of colors, and the “Hyakuman Odori” parade of 10,000 people dancing their hearts out. But that’s just the beginning! Brace yourself for the “Natsu Matsuri Daishugo,” where floats and portable shrines from every corner of the city unite in celebration. Make sure to experience the YOSAKOI vibes at four different venues. With even more events popping off at Katsuyama Park and River Walk Kitakyushu, these two days are bursting with summer excitement!

When: First Saturday and Sunday of August 

10. Hita Gion Festival

Dive into Hita’s summer buzz as the beautifully adorned Yamahoko floats gracefully parade downtown. Inspired by Kyoto’s Gion Festival, it radiates “Small Kyoto of Kyushu” vibes. It proudly holds the National Designated Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property title. Hita Gion Festival, born in 1714, shines as one of Oita’s top three Gion Festival locations, sharing the limelight with Nakatsu and Usuki. 

Nine floats, including the towering 10-meter Heisei Yamahoko, showcase classic themes like the Eight Dog Chronicles, Battle of Dannoura, and the Thunder God as they roll through the streets. Keep an eye out for enchanting hanging curtain decorations trailing behind, featuring phoenixes, lions, dragons, giraffes, and black tortoises. Don’t miss the renowned “Hayashi” musical accompaniment, with over 50 melodies setting the procession’s vibrant tempo. It’s an animated celebration where folks of all ages channel their energy into this unforgettable event! 

When: July 21-22

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