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 word matsuri (祭り), which means festivals in Japanese, originally derived from “祀り(matsuri)”, which has the same pronunciation but means enshrine or worship, and ancient people used this word to show their respect for gods in nature. The fundamental concept is called Animism, which is from Japanese religion shinto that regards the existence of deities everywhere in nature. 

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:

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 occurred, 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, great harvest for the year. The famous festival with this purpose is Kinen-sai which is held in Ise Grand Shrine. These festivals are held in early spring before the farming season, and 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 received damages from insects in summer. People believed these damages as divine punishments and started the festivals to propitiate the deities. The most famous festivals 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. 

4. Revitalize the town 

Sapporo Snow Festivals in Hokkaido and sakura (cherry blossom) festivals all over Japan 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. 

5. 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.

Traditional festivals in Japan

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

2 .Kanda Festival (Tokyo)

Kanda Festival is a popular summer festival which is held at Kanda Myojin Shrine in Tokyo every two years. It is said that the origin of the festival is deeply associated with Tokugawa Ieyasu, who established the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled the entire country from 1603 to 1868. He is believed to visit the shrine before heading to battles with enemies or other warriors. 

Shinko-sai  is the highlight of the festival which features a stunning parade by 500 participants dressed in traditional Japanese garments. Enjoy watching them marching through the metropolitan city with mikoshi, portable shrines and taiko, Japanese drums! 

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

New Festivals in Japan

1. Sapporo Snow Festival (Hokkaido)

Sapporo Snow Festival is a symbolic winter festival held in Sapporo, the largest city in Hokkaido since 1950. It attracts more than 2 million visitors every year from around the world. Highlight of the festival is a number of giant snow and ice sculptures displayed at three main sites at the heart of the city! Immerse yourself in the majestic white world while taking memorable pictures with beautiful snow statues. 

Sapporo Snow Festival

2. Echigo Tsumari Art Field (Niigata)

Some festivals now play a significant role to revitalize the local economy. Echigo Tsumari Art Festival is one of them, which started in 2000 aiming for continuous growth of the region through a new, lively festival organized by modern artists and local community. Visitors can explore impressive outdoor art works and exhibitions which create a unique scenery in harmony with surrounding nature, including untouched mountains and traditional rice fields! One of the biggest international art festival Triennale is held every three years in this area.     

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If you need some help to organize your trip to Japan, you should definitely check out our private tour including English guide. We’re glad to help you make your trip to Japan a safe, comfortable, and unforgettable memory!

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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Writer’s profile

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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