Summer in Japan means long days, humid nights and matsuri (festival) season. Matsuri run all year long but some of the most exciting ones happen between June and October, where events revolve around celebrating history and tradition, great food, dancing, drinking and, of course, the summer season. Each part of Japan has its own matsuri events, and each city celebrates a little differently. Here are three to tick off your bucket list.
Koenji Awa Odori, Tokyo
At the tail-end of August, around one million spectators gather in the food-stall-lined streets of Koenji district to watch 10,000 dancers (of around 200 teams) battle it out in Koenji Awa Odori, a festival and traditional dance competition. The celebration originates from the nation’s “Festival of the Dead” — also known as Bon — a Buddhist holiday (August 13–15 this year) on which the deceased are said to visit their relatives. Beginning centuries ago in Tokushima, Shikoku, it came to the streets of Koenji in 1957, as part of efforts to revitalize the neighborhood. In the last few decades, the festival has become one of the biggest events on the country’s summer calendar. When the sounds of the shamisen lute, wooden shinobue flutes, chimes and taiko drums reverberate through the area, this inner-city pocket is transformed into a party scene 400 years in the making.
Hojoya Festival, Fukuoka
The Hojoya Festival is decidedly more laid-back. Locals don their summer yukata, or traditional robes, and visit a setup of over 500 vendors, plus a stage — offering everything from snacks to carnival games — at Hakozaki Shrine. The event began as a shrine ritual, where people paid their respects to the earth’s living creatures. But in its 1,000-year history, the ritual has turned into an occasion for people to give thanks for plentiful harvests and pray for success in their careers.
Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri, Osaka
Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri is not for the faint of heart. The event, held in Kishiwada, in Osaka Prefecture, sees elaborately crafted and decorated multi-ton danjiri wooden carts — by the best local carpenters — being dragged through the city at breakneck speed. As this happens, carpenters and neighborhood representatives ride atop the carts, dancing and leaping while trying not to tumble off. The festival was spearheaded by a local feudal lord in the early 18th century. Contrary to its intensity, the processions are actually a prayer for abundant harvests in the coming year.
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of Smile magazine.