What is Japanese Festival, Matsuri?

bon odori in japan Events

Festivals are something that we all love, enjoy, and look forward to. Each county boasts a range of unique and exciting festivals which are strongly associated with its history and tradition. Japan is also home to impressive festivals, and some of which have a long history of hundreds of years since ancient times. Here we introduce the history and how it all started, and the purpose of festivals in Japan with a list of famous ones that you can join!    

Origin of festivals in Japan

From ancient times, festivals have been strongly associated with people’s lives in Japan. The Japanese word for festivals, matsuri (祭り), originally derived from “祀り(matsuri)”, which has the same pronunciation but means enshrine or worship. Matsuri used to be a ritual for thanking gods and deities in nature. The fundamental concept is called Animism, which is from the Japanese religion shinto that regards the existence of deities everywhere in nature.
Many of the traditional festivals come from these rituals, for example, before the farming season, they carry out the festivals to pray for a good harvest of the year, and in the harvest season, festivals take place to appreciate the year’s successful harvest. 

festival masks

Purposes of festivals in Japan 

According to some archeological perspective, Japanese festivals back in ancient times can be divided into two categories based on the purposes: To pray for a good harvest and to ward off the evil spirits. But in later times, more festivals take place with new purposes.

1. Pray for a good harvest

It is easy to imagine that ancient people significantly relied on the result of harvest every year to maintain their lives. Once severe natural disasters occur, it could cause serious damage to crops and farm products, which eventually threaten their lives. To prevent these situations, people carried out festivals to pray to the deity of harvest for a steady and great harvest for the year. The famous festival with this purpose is Kinen-sai which is held at Ise Grand Shrine in February. Other festivals to appreciate the year’s harvest are held in autumn, which are known as Niiname-sai.

2. Ward off the evil spirits, disaster and plague 

Especially during summer, festivals are held to ward off any bad influences throughout the country. Often plague was spread, people suffered from typhoons and flood, and their farm was damaged by pest insects in summer. People believed these damages were caused as divine punishments and started the festivals to propitiate the deities. The most famous festivals based on this purpose are the Gion Festival in Kyoto and the Tenjin Festival in Osaka.

3. Serve as a memorial service for ancestors 

Many summer festivals are held during Obon season, which is the traditional event in August to honor the spirits of ancestors in Japan. It is believed that the spirits of ancestors will return home during that time. Obon festivals often involve bon-odori, a dancing performance which originated from the ritual to welcome and console the souls. The famous obon festivals are Gozan Okuribi and Awa Odori.

4. Pray for a stable, peaceful nation

During ancient times, people repeatedly suffered from deadly diseases as well as political conflicts. Some festivals played an important role to reduce these anxieties among people and encourage them to hope for a peaceful nation under a stable government.

5. Revitalize the town 

There are relatively new festivals such as Sapporo Snow Festivals in Hokkaido and sakura (cherry blossom) festivals all over Japan which are held to attract tourists and revitalize the area. Also seasonal flower festivals can be seen such as hydrangea festivals during the rainy season in Japan for the same purpose.

Three biggest festivals

1. Gion Festival (Kyoto)

Gion Festival is a symbolic summer festival which is held every July in Kyoto. It boasts a history of more than 1,000 years, and is loved as one of the most popular traditional festivals in Japan. A range of events take place throughout July, which allows visitors to enjoy different experiences every day. The highlight of the festival is Yamahoko (山鉾), giant floats gorgeously decorated with traditional ornaments which attracts about 160,000 people to watch them pass through the streets.  

Gion Matsuri
Z3144228, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2 .Kanda Festival (Tokyo)

Osaka is home to Tenjin Festival (天神祭) which takes place from July 24th to 25th every year. It is believed that the festival was originally started in 951 to enshrine Sugawara no Michizane, a notable scholar back in the Heian Period (794-1185). More than 1.3 million people flock to enjoy the historic festival offering memorable events taking place around Osaka Tenmangu Shrine which is dedicated to him. What you shouldn’t miss during the lively festival is the boat procession which starts at 6pm on July 25th. About 100 boats carry beautiful portable shrines down the Okawa River, which creates stunning scenery along with an impressive fireworks display.

3. Tenjin Festival (Osaka)

Osaka is home to Tenjin Festival (天神祭) which takes place from July 24th to 25th every year. It is believed that the festival was originally started in 951 to enshrine Sugawara no Michizane, a notable scholar back in the Heian Period (794-1185). More than 1.3 million people flock to enjoy the historic festival offering memorable events taking place around Osaka Tenmangu Shrine which is dedicated to him. What you shouldn’t miss during the lively festival is the boat procession which starts at 6pm on July 25th. About 100 boats carry beautiful portable shrines down the Okawa river, which creates a stunning scenery along with an impressive fireworks display. 

Tenjin Matsuri Boat
Midori, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Seasonal Festivals in Japan 

Otaue Rice Planting Festivals 

Early summer in June, Otaue Matsuri, the rice planting festivals are held in Japan. Three famous rice planting festivals take place in Chiba, Mie and Osaka. It’s a shinto ritual to pray for a good harvest where women in traditional costumes sing while rice planting and dance with traditional instruments such as shakuhachi flute and taiko drum.  

Otaue rice planting festival

Fireworks Festivals 

Many fireworks festivals are held in summer. Nagaoka Fireworks Festival in Niigata is one of the great fireworks festivals in Japan where you can enjoy dynamic fireworks displays that attract about one million visitors for 3 days. If you are looking for a fireworks festival in Tokyo, Sumida River Firework Festival is a great option. It’s one of the most popular summer festivals in Tokyo where 20,000 colorful fireworks will light up the sky. If you want to watch the fireworks in a good spot, you’ll have to go to the river bank early to save a spot.
These fireworks festivals take place in a hope to ward off evil spirits but some festivals, for example Nagaoka Fireworks Festival, carry out praying for world peace or recovery from natural disasters. 

Nagaoka Fireworks Festival

Snow Festivals 

The most known and popular snow festival is Sapporo Snow Festival in February. This symbolic winter festival has been held in Sapporo, the largest city in Hokkaido, every February since 1950. The highlight of the festival is a number of giant snow and ice sculptures displayed at three main sites at the heart of the city. Other snow festivals take place especially in the Tohoku region, the northern area of Japan. At Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival and Sounkyo Onsen Hyobaku Festival, you will see impressive natural ice creations of frozen waterfalls  illuminated at night.
You can also enjoy kamakura snow huts in Akita prefecture where you can enjoy dining inside the snow hut!

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Festivals in Japan play a key role to connect people and preserve valuable traditions down to the next generations. Some modern and unique festivals have also contributed to creating big opportunities for tourists to visit to revitalize the area.
Hope you will have some fun and learn the Japanese traditions through festivals in Japan!

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Miho Shimizu is a Japanese freelance writer settled in Shizuoka with her husband and two rabbits. Fascinated with travelling at the age of 18, she has spent most of her long holidays exploring incredible spots around Japan. Also love to listen to music, draw, and read novels over a cup of green tea.

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