Japan’s Timeless Festivals Provide Fascinating Insights Into the Country’s Past – Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

TOKYO–()–One of the many traditions preserved in Japan over centuries is the holding of local festivals – “matsuri” in Japanese. These are typically boisterous and colorful events that bring local communities together; they normally incorporate ceremonies around shrines and temples where local residents pray to the gods for peace and protection from natural disasters, and perhaps express their thanks for a successful harvest. Many matsuri feature colorful floats held aloft by groups of young revelers dressed in loincloths or happi festival coats. Many of Japan’s festivals date back centuries, each of them reflecting the history and culture of the local area.

As a result of the COVID pandemic, many of Japan’s festivals have been scaled back or postponed during the past two years. However, many of the communities hosting them are making strenuous efforts to protect their traditions and keep their festivals alive. Some of the festivals are well known internationally, while there are many lesser-known festivals that will charm future visitors from overseas.

Aomori Nebuta Matsuri is one of the most famous summer festivals, a six-day event in the Tohoku region that regularly attracts more than 3 million visitors. Nebuta are floats bearing giant paper lanterns often featuring images of mythical figures, kabuki actors or even TV characters. More than 20 floats are carried through the streets by hundreds of haneto dancers. The unique point of this festival is that as long as someone is wearing a haneto costume—they are available for rental—they are welcome to participate in the parade. A surefire way to create vivid memories of your trip!

In 2016, UNESCO added 33 Japanese float festivals to its Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity list. They each showcase the diversity of local cultures and the collaborative efforts of members of their respective communities to keep traditional practices alive.

One of them is the Chichibu Yomatsuri night festival. This is held every year on December 2 and 3 and has been celebrated for more than 300 years at Chichibu Shrine in Saitama prefecture

, 90 minutes from Tokyo by train. The festival’s highlight is on the second night, when six massive floats decorated with lanterns are paraded up Dango-zaka hill, encouraged by hundreds of excited onlookers. The huge firework display that follows lights up the clear winter sky, drawing huge cheers.

The Karatsu Kunchi festival is held in the seaside city of Saga in Kyushu in November. Kunchi is a word in the Kyushu dialect meaning “autumn festival” and this is one of the biggest such event, usually attracting around 500,000 visitors. The three-day festival dates back 400 years and celebrates bountiful harvests. 14 huge floats made between 1819 and 1876 featuring mythological lions, samurai helmets and folklore characters are paraded around the city. Believed to be some of the world’s largest displays of dry-lacquered art and crafts, the six-meter-tall floats weigh five tons and need at least 200 people to carry them!

Many communities operate museums introducing their festivals, so visitors can learn about their history and the stories behind the floats and performances. There are also a number of movies covering Japan’s festivals, including some created by JNTO; it is hoped these will inspire future visitors with their vibrant visuals and sound.

Please visit the JNTO website where you will find information on many other of the festivals taking place around Japan!

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