1. Kanda Matsuri (神田祭) in Tokyo
This is one of Tokyo’s three most famous festivals, along with the Sanno Matsuri and Fukagawa Matsuri. It takes place in mid-May in odd numbered years, alternating with the Sanno Matsuri, which is held in even numbered years.
Kanda Matsuri originated during the Edo Period. Tokugawa began to rule the country from Edo (present-day Tokyo), and the festival was celebrated as a demonstration of prosperity under the new regime. At the time, the Kanda Matsuri and the Sanno Matsuri were the only two festivals that were allowed to pass through the Edo Castle grounds. Both were originally held annually, but after competition grew incredibly intense, they were eventually ordered to be held in alternating years.
Today, Tokyo’s Kanda Matsuri consists of numerous events held over an entire week, and is attended by millions of people. The highlights are a day-long procession through central Tokyo on Saturday, and parades of portable mikoshi shrines by the various neighborhoods on Sunday.
When: Middle of May on the even-numbered years
Where: Kanda Myojin Shrine, Tokyo
2. Tenjin Festival (天神祭) in Osaka
This is another one of Japan’s three greatest festivals, held every year at Osaka Tenmangu Shrine, which is located in the heart of Osaka City. It originated back in the 10th century, in the year 951, as a celebration dedicated to Sugawara Michizane, the Japanese deity of scholarship and learning. The two-day festival features a lively procession through the city, with musical performances and dancers. The main event of the festival takes place on the second day, with a procession of boats on the river and massive fireworks as the grand finale.
When: Middle of May on the even-numbered years
Where: Tenmangu Shrine, Osaka City
3. Gion Festival (祇園祭) in Kyoto
Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri is counted as one of three greatest festivals in Japan. This traditional festival began in 869 as a religious ceremony to appease the gods during the outbreak of an epidemic. Gion Matsuri is centered around the Yasaka Shrine, the famous shrine in the Gion area. The festival actually takes places over the entire duration of July, but the main ceremonies take place on July 17th (Sakimatsuri) and July 24th (Atomatsuri), marked with a grand procession of floats.
When: Every year in July
Where: Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto City
4. Sapporo Snow Festival (札幌雪まつり)
This is a famous ice-sculpture festival held annually in Sapporo, Japan, over the course of seven days in February. This is one of the largest and most distinctive winter events in all of Japan, as every year, it draws an astounding about 2 million people. During the festival period, the main venues of Odori Park, Susukino, and Tsudome are filled with over 400 snow and ice sculptures varying in size – some are the size of people, and others, as big as entire buildings. An International Snow Sculpture Contest has been held at the Odori Park site since 1974, and teams from various regions of the world all come to participate.
When: Early February
Where: Ōdōri Park in Sapporo City, Hokkaido
5. Nebuta Festival (ねぶた祭り) in Aomori
This is one of the biggest Japanese festivals held in Aomori Prefecture. The festival features gigantic floats called “Nebuta”, as well as a procession of brave warriors and dancers called “Haneto”. The giant floats are actually constructed from washi (Japanese paper), all meticulously handcrafted by the locals. The event features a number of other little celebrations, but the parade is the main draw. This festival attracts over 3 million people every year. On the final night of the festival, instead of a parade, there is a spectacular fireworks display.
When: August 2-7
Where: Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture
6. Awa Odori (阿波おどり) in Tokushima
This is Japan’s largest and most famous traditional dance festival, which takes place on the streets of Tokushima City in the summer. This festival attracts more than a million people to gather and unite in a series of fun, traditional dances. The event typically also features traditional costumes such as kimonos and straw hats, and hours of energetic singing, dancing and chanting. Whether you are dancing or just watching, it is a truly incredible and entertaining sight!
When: August 12 – 15
Where: Tokushima City, Tokushima Prefecture
7. Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri (岸和田だんじり祭り)
The Danjiri Matsuri is a harvest festival that is held to pray for a good autumn bounty. They are held all over Japan in the fall, but the most famous one takes place in Kishiwada, South Osaka. The Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri is a fun, powerful celebration, and also known for being quite dangerous. A danjiri is a traditional Japanese wooden float decorated with carvings and lots of ornaments. The wooden floats are made in the shape of a shrine or temple and are pulled through the streets on the festival days. The majority of the floats weigh over 3000 kg and are pulled by an enthusiastic team of up to 1,000 people. All the floats represent a different district of the city, with each districts pride being at stake as each team is competing for victory!
When: Mid September
Where: Kishiwada City, Osaka Prefecture
8. Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival (湘南ひらつか七夕まつり)
Japan’s biggest tanabata festival is the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival. A Tanabata Festival is a traditional annual event in Japan, which celebrates legend of the once-a-year meeting of two lovers who are separated by The Milky Way. The Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival attracts over 3 million visitors every year. During the festival, the streets are decorated with loads of colorful, gigantic tanabata ribbons and banners, and hundreds of stalls selling traditional festival snacks and drinks. Hiratsuka City is in Kanagawa Prefecture and can be accessed within 1 hour from Tokyo.
When: July 6-8
Where: Hiratsuka, Kanagawa
9. Saidaiji Eyō Hadaka Matsuri (西大寺会陽 はだか祭り)
Naked festivals are held in dozens of places throughout Japan every year, usually in the summer or winter. The most famous festival is the Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri held at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, where the festival originated over 500 years ago. Nearly 10,000 men wearing only traditional loincloths called fundoshi first purify their body with cold water, and then battle to grab a pair of sacred sticks (called shingi) thrown from the top of the temple. Whoever catches the shingi will be regarded as the “lucky man” and blessed with a year of good luck and happiness.
When: Third Saturday of February
Where: Saidaiji Temple, Okayama City, Okayama Prefecture
10. Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival (博多祇園山笠)
The Hakata Gion Yamakasa (博多祇園山笠) is one of the most interesting and vastly popular festivals in Japan. It is held every year during the first half of July and features an incredible race on the morning of July 15. In the race, seven neighborhoods of Fukuoka’s Hakata district compete by pushing massive, beautifully decorated festival floats along a 5-kilometer race through the city. Almost one million spectators gather to watch this classic annual festival, which is centered around Kushida-jinja Shrine. The festival is believed to be over 770 years old and was designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan in 1979. Aside from the main day, smaller events run for two weeks prior to the race.
When: Smaller celebrations from July 1-14, main day is July 15
Where: Kushida-jinja Shrine, Hakata District of Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Prefecture