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Fire, Flowers and Phalluses: Ten Festivals in Japan

Japan Tokyo Kyoto Festivals
by Turner Wright Apr 8, 2010
4th of July fireworks and St. Patrick’s Day parades just can’t hold a candle to some of the festivals Japan puts on year after year.

Where else can you find (environmental issues aside) an entire mountainside lit on fire for the entertainment of locals or a giant wooden penis carried through the center of town as though it were a mystical totem? Here are some of the best and craziest matsuri in the land of the rising sun.

Gion Matsuri, Kyoto

Arguably the best of the best, the Gion Matsuri is held in Kyoto during the month of July, emanating from the small neighborhoods and eventually spreading Downtown. On the 17th, there is a massive parade in which specially designed floats (Yamaboko Junko) are carried from Yasaka Shrine to the Otabisho.

Snow Festival, Sapporo

Come for the re-creations of famous buildings around the world, stay for Ishiya hot chocolate and singing in an ice karaoke bar, not to mention grabbing a day at the slopes before or after the main event. The Snow Festival on the northern island of Hokkaido is divided into three parts: the massive sculptures in Odori Park downtown, the ice art in Susukino, and the kids’ area, Satoland, featuring a maze, slide, and obstacle course.

Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori

Nearly every city in Japan has its own Tanabata festival to honor the time when the stars Altair and Vega are closest together (August 7th). In Aomori, the farthest north one can get on the main island, the people celebrate with huge lantern floats featuring characters from Japanese and Chinese culture.

Ohara Matsuri, Kagoshima

Not enough tourists are willing to make the trek down to this southern capital for a city-wide dance festival, but I say if the awesome hot springs aren’t enough for you, enjoy entire streets full of eight-year-olds spinning in specially-designed kimono to the beat of the Taiko. This festival starts with a dance procession from the central train station and finishes with small performances in the central park.

Yaedake Cherry Blossom Festival, Okinawa

Many sakura enthusiasts start their journey northward as the first flowers bloom on the island of Okinawa. In January or February, the first cherry blossom festival of the year is celebrated with food and drink under the flowering trees. Nothing too spectacular, but plenty to draw crowds and give spectators bragging rights as being among the first to see these beautiful pink pedals, the subject of so many haiku.

Tono Matsuri, Tono

Another under-appreciated festival in rural Japan, the Tono Matsuri is the best place to see yabusame, or horseback archery. Trained riders will go at top speed alongside the crowd and perform pinpoint-accurate targeting with a traditional bow.

Hadaka Matsuri, Okayama

Three thousand men in loincloths jumping into a freezing river, fighting for the honor of receiving another splash of cold water.

There are quite a few of these “naked festivals” in Japan, but the most famous of them is held in Okayama, where the festival originated. In case you were curious, the struggle of these men to reach the shrine is symbolic of a time when a man was unwilling to play the role of the head priest. As a result he was mobbed. Why this particular ritual has to be performed in loincloths is anyone’s guess.

Playing with Fire

So many choices when it comes to Japanese setting their landscapes and air ablaze. The Sagicho Matsuri in Omahachiman is well known for its fire dancers. The umbrella-burning festivals in Kagoshima and Kanagawa are certainly unique. Perhaps the most prominent in the country is the fire festival of Mount Aso, culminating with the burning of the field down the slope of this super volcano to form the largest Chinese character in existence.

Hounen Matsuri, Komaki

Ah, yes: what list would be complete without a festival featuring a giant wooden phallus? Despite the obvious sexual implications, most of these Japanese matsuri are intended to celebrate fertility and a rich harvest. In Kanamara, people can enjoy souvenirs, flags, banners, even food with a phallic theme.

All of the above

Why choose to travel for any particular festival when you can get a taste for all of them in the heart of Tokyo? At the Furusato Matsuri, regional representatives showcase their matsuri. There will be floats, portable shrines, food stalls, insanely long poles supporting lanterns (courtesy of the Akita Kanto Matsuri), and plenty dressed as samurai. You don’t need to go far to get it all.

Community Connection

Meet MatadorTravel community’s Japan experts, read about destinations in the country and find ideas to help you plan your trip on Matador’s Japan Focus Page.

Want to order and eat sushi like a pro? You’ll want to read more Turner Wright, then. How to Order Sushi Like a Ninja might surprise you if you thought you knew all there was to know about sushi.

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