Matsuri, or festivals, are held all over Japan. They’re lively, fun, entertaining, and a great way to experience Japanese culture. Are you thinking of checking out a Japanese festival when you visit Japan? Here are the words to know before you go!
1. Matsuri (祭り)
The Japanese word for festival is matsuri (祭り), or when used with the honorable “O” is Omatsuri (お祭り). Matsuri are Japanese festivals, and have been held in Japan for thousands of years.
2. Jinja (神社)
The Japanese word for shrine. Traditionally, matsuri were first held in and around Shinto shrines to honor the deity of that shrine. To this day, many Japanese festivals still do revolve around a specific shrine; however, matsuri in Japan have now involved to a large variety of festivals, and do not always include a shrine.
3. Kami (神)
Kami is the Japanese word for “god”. Each shrine is dedicated to a specific kami. According to Shinto tradition, there are eight million kami in Japan.
4. Mikoshi (神輿)
An important element of many traditional matsuri is the procession of the mikoshi (神輿). Mikoshi are beautiful, elaborate, portable shrines that are carried through the streets surrounding the Shinto shrine. It is believed that the shrine’s diety is contained within the mikoshi itself during the festival period, and this procession through the streets is the only time of the year when the kami leaves the shrine.
5. Dashi (山車)
Many festivals also feature large, elaborately decorated floats called dashi (山車). These massive structures cannot be carried, but are instead pulled through the town, accompanied by drum and flute music that is played by people sitting on the floats. Often, dashi are covered in lanterns that are lit at night.
6. Kagura (神楽)
Kagura (神楽, かぐら), which literally means “god-entertainment”, is a type of traditional music that has been played in Japan for centuries as an offering to a deity. Kagura is often performed at Shinto matsuri and other events revolving around Shinto shrines, and it typically includes elements of folk dance, song, costumes, masks, and musical instruments.
7. Taiko (太鼓)
These traditional Japanese drums are commonly played at festivals. They are quite large and therefore result in a resonating booming sound. When played together in a group, the sound is much like thunder.
8. Yatai (屋台)
Almost all matsuri, traditional or not, will have street food and entertainment in the form of colorful pop-up stalls called yatai (屋台) that line the streets leading up to the main festival venue. These festival stalls come in a variety of types and colors, and are also known as demise (出店) or roten (露店).
9. “B-Grade” Gourmet (B級グルメ)
The yatai stalls at Japanese festivals offer a wide selection of famous Japanese street foods, such as Takoyaki (fried octopus balls), yakitori (焼鳥, skewered grilled chicken), and Yaki soba (焼きそば, fried noodles). Popular desserts include candy apples, chocolate-dipped banana, and kakigori (かきごおり, sweet-flavored shaved ice).
10. Haru-matsuri (春祭り)
There are a number of matsuri specifically dedicated to appreciating the peak of each season. Haru-matsuri (春祭り) are held across Japan to announce the arrival of Spring. In the springtime in Japan, there are hundreds of cherry blossom viewing festivals all across the country, along with other festivals celebrating the blooming of flowers such as wisteria, iris, and plum blossoms.
11. Sakura (桜、さくら)
Cherry Blossoms, called sakura (桜) in Japanese, are considered by the Japanese to be one of the national flowers of Japan (along with Chrysanthemums). When the sakura bloom for just a few weeks in the Spring, people all across the nation flock to popular cherry blossom spots to throw hanami parties and celebrate with cherry blossom festivals. If you visit Japan during cherry blossom season, be sure to seek out a sakura festival in your area!
12. Hanami (お花見)
During Japan’s cherry blossom season, it is custom for people to gather in couples or groups to have picnics and drink beneath the blossoms. This is called o-hanami (お花見) in Japanese.
13. Natsu-matsuri (夏祭り)
Summer in Japan is a season bursting with natsu-matsuri, or “summer festivals”, especially at night when the air cools down. Most of the festivals in the summertime are held outdoors, for the favorable weather allows visitors to enjoy the celebrations both during the day and the nighttime. Natsu-matsuri are characterized by city-wide street dances, people wearing yukata (ゆかた), and impressive fireworks displays.
14. Tanabata (七夕)
Tanabata (七夕), also known as the “star festival”, takes place on the 7th day of the 7th month of the year. According to a legend, the two stars Altair and Vega, which are usually separated from each other by the milky way, are able to meet on that day only. People celebrate Tanabata by writing wishes on a piece of paper and hanging it on a bamboo tree. Colorful Tanabata festivals are held across Japan in early July and August.
15. Yukata (浴衣)
Yukata (浴衣) are the summer version of kimono, a traditional piece of Japanese clothing. It is quite common for people to come to summer festivals wearing colorful yukata. The robe is usually made of cotton or synthetic fabric, and is worn wrapped around the body and fastened with a sash called an obi.
16. Hanabi (花火)
Fireworks, called hanabi (花火) in Japanese, have a long history in Japan and are a fundamental part of Japanese summers. Hundreds of firework shows are held every year across the country, mostly during the summer holidays in July and August. If you visit Japan during the summertime, seeing hanabi is a must!
17. Obon (お盆)
Obon (お盆) or just bon (盆), is a Japanese Buddhist holiday dedicated to honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors. These days, this Buddhist-Confucian custom has become a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. It is believed that this is when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. The festival of Obon lasts for three days in the middle of August.
18. Bon-Odori (盆踊り)
Obon has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, called bon-odori (盆踊り). The biggest bon-odori festivals, like the one in Gujo in Gifu Prefecture, involve the entire city dancing obon dances down the streets through the entire night.
19. Odori-matsuri (踊り祭り)
Odori-matsuri (踊り祭り) are dancing festivals that are typically held in the warmer months all across Japan. They are lively, colorful street parades with all kinds of traditional dance, music, and costumes. The biggest Odori-matsuri feature thousands of dancers, and attract hundreds of thousands of spectators every year.
20. Aki-matsuri (秋祭り)
With all of the natural beauty occurring in the season of fall, the autumn brings with it wonderful seasonal festivals all across Japan called Aki-matsuri (秋祭り). These “fall festivals” typically revolve around rituals praying for bountiful harvests, full-moon viewings, and most importantly: walking beneath the colorful fall leaves!
21. Kōyō (紅葉)
Autumn in Japan brings with it spectacular scenery of vivid orange, red, and gold splashed across the landscape. Japanese actually has a word to describe the leaves changing colors in the fall, and that is kōyō (紅葉). Kōyō season is a very special time in Japan, as people gather in the country’s top fall foliage spots, as well as famous temples, shrines, and gardens, to appreciate the beautiful leaves.
22. Fuyu-matsuri (冬祭り)
Winter in Japan is a season of short days, illuminated nights, frosty weather, and of course the holiday season! Therefore, the majority of fuyu-matsuri (冬祭り), or “winter festivals” in Japan tend to be snow festivals (called yuki matsuri 雪まつり), ice festivals, illuminations, or New Years festivals.
23. Illumination (イルミネーション)
Illumination (イルミネーション) displays are incredibly popular in Japan, especially during the winter season. The long, dark nights make the winter months incredibly popular for extensive LED illuminations displays, which can cover entire streets, castles, and even towns. Illuminations are also referred to by the Japanese people as “light ups” or raito appu (ライトアップ) in Japanese.
24. Oshougatsu (正月)
As the New Year Oshougatsu (正月) holiday is the most important family holiday in all of Japan, there are always a large number of New Year Festivals taking place throughout the country at the end of December and beginning of January.
25. Hatsumōde (初詣)
Hatsumōde is the Japanese custom of visiting a Shinto shrine at the start of the New Year. For the first few days of January, all across Japan, people flock to shrines and temples to ring in the New Year and pray for health and blessings.
26. Hi-matsuri (火祭り)
Fire festivals, or hi-matsuri (火祭り) in Japanese, are a common type of festival that have been held in Japan since ancient times. Although there are many types of Japanese festivals, hi-matsuri in particular are incredibly beautiful, powerful, and lively. The biggest fire festivals draw thousands of people every year.
27. Shishi-mai (獅子舞)
This is a traditional lion dance set to a lively musical accompaniment. It is believed that Shishi-mai first originated in India, and was brought to China, then to Japan. Shishi-mai dances were traditionally performed during New Years, but gradually extended to other celebrations and festivals as well. The lion dances are said to drive away evil spirits.
28. Kabuki (歌舞伎)
Traditional classical Japanese dance-drama that is sometimes performed at Shinto festivals. Kabuki theatre is known for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers. Today, shrines across Japan hold occasional kabuki performances – some of which are listed as special cultural heritages. Most notably are the festivals which host special “children’s kabuki”, as there are only 8 in all of Japan.
29. Oni (鬼)
An oni is a demon. Oni are typically evil creatures, and Japanese people traditionally attempted to drive them out with festivals and rituals. Today, oni still remain a common element in many matsuri festivals. In some festivals, people wear oni masks so others can taunt and symbolically repel them, and in other festivals, men dressed as oni will attempt to scare children for good luck.
30. Tengu (天狗)
A tengu is a long-nosed goblin. This Japanese mythological creature is often an important element of festivals. Sometimes people will dress up as tengu as part of a ritual, and other times the masks are worn in a more comedic, light-hearted way.
31. Hadaka Matsuri (はだか祭り)
Although hadaka matsuri (はだか祭り) is referred to as a”naked festival”, the festival participants aren’t actually naked – they’re wearing white loincloths! Hadaka matsuri date back thousands of years, as they’ve been held in Japan since ancient times. Japan’s hadaka matsuri are easily the most fun, lively, and rowdy festivals in all of Japan! The festivals usually come with some sort of competition, fight, race, and lots of drinking!
32. Wasshoi! (わっしょい！)
When you attend a particularly lively matsuri, you will probably hear people carrying the mikoshi or even people in the crowds all chanting, Wasshoi! (わっしょい！) The famous word is commonly used at festivals all across Japan. According to an article by Akita International University, “Wasshoi” is said to have developed in the Edo Period, originating from the phrase “Wajo Dokei”, meaning ‘to unify peoples’ hearts together and be full of enjoyment’. This “Wajo Dokei” was shortened to “Wajo”, then changed to “Wakasho” (meaning ‘to carry harmony’), and then finally changed to “Wasshoi”, meaning ‘to stay with harmony’.
Regardless of its exact original meaning, people use the word today to unite in shouts of joy and encouragement during a matsuri festival. When you go to a Japanese festival, be sure to join the crowds and let out a loud “Wasshoi!”