Japanese festivals, otherwise known as "Omatsuri" are perhaps the easiest and most authentic way to completely immerse yourself in Japanese culture. These festivals are not specific to one holiday or topic, Omatsuri's across the country range from Cherry Blossom festivals to even more bizarre ones such as the Penis Festival in Yokohama meant to celebrate fertility.
Omatsuri's originated thousands of years ago as a way to honor Shinto gods and are still typically carried out in association with a specific shrine today. There is also no specific time frame for when these festivals can occur, with festivals such as the Snow Festival in Sapporo taking place in the peak of winter. However, the majority of them happen in the late Summer or the early Autumn, with many taking place during the Obon holiday in August.
Bon Odori is a traditional dance perfomed at Omatsuri's during the Obon holiday. There is no specific Obon dance, with over a thousand different variations. This dance is meant to welcome back spirits believed to come back to visit during the holiday. There is no need to learn these dances beforehand, simply follow the moves of the "Daihyo" standing in the tower. Participation in Bon-Odori is encouraged! See out previous article on Obon for more information and Abi's video below for a first-hand experience!
Depending on the festival you are at, there may be a parade! Here, you might see "Mikoshi," which is a small portable Shinto Shrine carried by "Hanten." This Mikoshi is used to temporarily carry the God around the festival. You might see the "Hanten" swaying the Mikoshi around, this is meant to amuse the God carried inside.
In addition to the Mikoshi, there is the "Taiko-dai" which is a heavier portable shrine that is used to carry around the God. These floats might be carried by participants, similar to a Mikoshi or they may be pulled by the individuals instead. Inside there is typically a person hitting a Taiko drum in unison with the men below.
In the summertime there will often be fireworks associated with Omatsuri's. The word "Hana" means "flower" which is reflected in the brilliant floral-like displays against the night sky. This is a staple of Japanese Festivals and a must see, if you get the chance!
Despite the different nature of festivals you will most always find "Yatai." "Yatai" are street booths stalls that sell sweets, savory foods, toys and even carnival-like games that you can play. The variety of Yatai are perhaps one of the best things about visiting Omatsuri's
Different Kinds of Festivals
Its impossible to list all of the festivals in Japan but here are a few popular ones that you might be able to visit!
Natsu-matsuri is a general term used for Summer festivals. People often wear "Yukata" to these festivals which visually, are similar to Kimono's but are instead made with lighter fabric to combat the summer heat.
Obon is holiday which celebrates the annual return of ones deceased ancestor's spirits. There are Obon specific "Natsu-matsuri" that take place during the week long holiday with activities such as the much talked about "Obon-odori." See our article on Obon
Tanabata is a holiday that takes place on the 7th day of the 7th month of the year. This holiday is celebrated by writing ones wish on a piece of paper and hanging it on a piece of bamboo. These bamboo become wonderful collective displays of a communities dreams and ambitions. Tanabata festivals are not limited to one day but can take place from July to August.
Sapporo Snow Festival
The Sapporo Snow Festival is a unique festival in Hokkaido, Japan. It typically takes place in early February and features massively intricate snow sculptures. These displays are usually a part of a Snow Sculpture Contest with winning sculptures ranging from famous athletes to even famous castles. If you're a winter person, this is a must visit festival. Check out @kojimochi 's experience below!
Oshougatsu (New Years)
The Japanese New Year is perhaps the most important holiday in all of Japan. Most people will have December 29th to January 3rd off from work where they will spend time with their family. The new year marks a completely fresh start where people are encouraged to leave the troubles of last year behind. With religious connotations there are a number of festivals that happen surrounding the celebration of the new year.