Immerse yourself in Japan’s rich Matsuri culture, where over 300,000 festivals are celebrated annually, ranging from small local events to grand Shinto Shrine gatherings. These Matsuri festivals come in different sizes and styles, ranging from tranquil and intimate to energetic and lively. Delve into this captivating culture and discover some of Japan’s unique and unusual Matsuri celebrations with our list of top five picks.
Saidaiji Eyō 西大寺会陽
Saidaijieyo Festival, also known as the Naked Man Festival, is one of Japan’s most eccentric festivals and has been designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Asset. Held at Saidaiji Kannonin Temple in Okayama City, the festival takes place on the third Saturday night in February each year.
The festival sees thousands of men don traditional loincloths known as “fundoshi” and participate in a race to obtain one of two sacred wooden talismans known as “shingi”. The talismans are thrown into the crowd by the temple priests, and it is believed that the men who successfully catch them will receive good fortune for the year ahead.
The race begins at 10 pm, with the participants lining up outside the temple in freezing temperatures. When the temple gates open, the men charge into the temple’s main hall to obtain the talismans. The competition is intense, with participants grappling and pushing each other in their quest to obtain one of the coveted shingi.
The festival’s origins date back over 500 years and are rooted in the belief that the power of the gods can be obtained by touching the naked bodies of other men. Although the festival has evolved over the centuries, it has remained an important event for the local community and is attended by thousands of spectators each year.
Aside from the main race, there are various other events and activities held during the festival, including traditional performances, food stalls, and games. The festival’s unique and bizarre nature has garnered attention from both locals and tourists, making it a must-see event for those visiting Japan in February.
When: The third Saturday in February
Where: Saidai-ji, Kannon-in temple in Okayama city, Okayama Prefecture
Kurama Fire Festival 鞍馬の火祭り
The Kurama Fire Festival is a unique and historic festival held in the mountain village of Kurama, Kyoto. This festival is part of the three strange festivals in Kyoto, along with the Yasurai Festival of Imamiya-jinja Shrine and the Ushi Festival of Koryu-ji Temple. The Yuki-jinja Shrine on Mt. Kurama is associated with Tengu legends, and a procession is carried out to recreate the relocation of a deity to Kurama.
The Kurama Fire Festival is one of Japan’s three major fire festivals, and it has been passed down for centuries as an annual celebration. During the festival, bonfires are set in various locations around the community, and participants carrying two kinds of halberds, ropes of portable shrines, and torches parade in the direction of the Sanmon (mountain gate). The festival is a magnificent display of pageantry, with mikoshi shrines, torches, and swords leading the way.
Tengu legends are an integral part of the Kurama Fire Festival. Tengu are legendary creatures in Japanese folklore, believed to be gods or yokai (supernatural creatures). They are said to have red faces, prominent noses, and wings that enable them to soar through the skies. Some believe they also take the form of yamabushi (mountain priests).
When: October 22
Where: Yuki Shrine, Kyoto 由岐神社
Honen Matsuri 豊年祭
The Honensai festival is a rare and unique event held annually on March 15th, where men who are considered to have bad luck participate in carrying a large portable shrine shaped like a male symbol made of Kiso cypress. The shrine is about 60 cm in diameter and over 2 meters long. The procession starts from Otabisho and moves towards the Tagata Shrine, where the participants pray for a good harvest, the nurturing of all things, and the prosperity of their offspring.
The festival has gained popularity among tourists from all over the world due to its unusual nature and significance. People come from far and wide to witness this fascinating festival, which brings a smile to everyone’s face. The atmosphere is filled with joy and excitement as the participants carry the shrine on their backs, dressed in traditional festival costumes.
According to an ancient Japanese poem, “The fields and mountains are all smiling at the Tagata Festival,” the Honensai festival is not just a local event but a celebration that transcends national borders and brings people together. The festival symbolizes the importance of fertility and the continuity of life, and it is a reminder of the traditional Japanese values that are deeply rooted in their culture.
Honensai festival is a unique and rare experience that is worth witnessing. It not only offers an insight into the cultural traditions of Japan but also brings a sense of joy and happiness to all who attend.
When: March 15
Where: Tagata Shrine in Komaki City, Aichi Prefecture
Yāya Matsuri ヤーヤ祭り
The Owase Shrine’s annual festival, known as the Yaaya Matsuri, is a vibrant and distinct celebration that takes place in Owase city, Mie Prefecture. Although it is often referred to as the ‘Hadaka Matsuri’ or the Naked Festival, it is the raucous shouts of young participants that gave rise to its name. This traditional festival has been held for over 500 years and attracts crowds of tourists and locals alike.
During the Yaaya Matsuri, participants dressed in white clothes carry lanterns and vigorously collide with one another while navigating through the narrow streets. The intense energy is heightened by the sound of taiko drums and flute music played by other townspeople. The night is alive with excitement and revelry as the festival-goers make their way to the harbor to complete the ritual.
The highlight of the event is the ceremonial cleansing, where the men plunge into the frigid waters of the Owase Bay. This act of purification is believed to bring a good harvest and protect the fishermen from danger. The water is said to have special powers, and the cleansing is seen as a symbolic act of renewal.
The Yaaya Matsuri is a unique and fascinating celebration that showcases the deep cultural traditions of Japan. The festival not only entertains but also serves as a reminder of the importance of community and connection to nature.
When: February 1-5
Where: Owase Shrine, Owase City, Mie Prefecture
Namahage Sedo Festival なまはげ柴灯まつり
The Namahage Sedo Festival is a sightseeing event combining the Shinto ritual “Sedo Festival” held on January 3 at Mayama Shrine in Kitaura, Oga City, and the traditional Namahage event, which started in 1964 and is held at Mayama Shrine on the second Friday, Saturday and Sunday of every February.
The festival begins with the “Yu-no-Mai (dance of a hot water bath),” in which an exorcism ritual unique to the Oga region is dedicated under the light of a bush lantern burning in the square on the grounds of Mayama Shrine, and the “Chinkama Matsuri,” an old traditional ritual of standing up a hot water bath.
In the Kaguraden, there will be a reenactment of the “Namahage of Oga,” a traditional event held on New Year’s Eve in various parts of Oga City, the “Namahage of the Village,” featuring Namahage from various parts of Oga with different masks and costumes, and a performance of “Namahage Taiko” drums, which have become an established local entertainment.
The “Namahage Dance” choreographed by the late Akita-born contemporary butoh dancer Desai Ishii and composed by his son, composer Ishii Kan, is also a powerful performance in front of the fire lit by bush lanterns.
At the end of the festival, the sight of the Namahage descending from the snow-covered mountains, holding torches over their heads, is a fantastic sight. The festival reaches its climax when the Namahage descend from the mountain and parade through the precincts of the shrine, which are filled with spectators.
The priest offers gomamochi (rice cakes), which are burned with firewood, to the Namahage, and the Namahage returns to the gods deep in the mountains.
Together with the Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival, the Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival, the Hachinohe Enburi Festival, and the Iwate Snow Festival, this is one of the “Five Major Snow Festivals of Michinoku” that add color to the Tohoku winter.
When: The 2nd Friday, Saturday and Sunday of February
Where: Shinzan Shrine, Oga city Akita Prefecture
Japan’s rich culture is celebrated through various festivals held throughout the year, each with its unique traditions and customs. From the Saidai-ji Eyo Naked Festival to the Kurama Fire Festival, and the Honensai Festival, each event showcases the diversity and vibrancy of Japan’s festival culture. These five festivals, in particular, have gained worldwide recognition for their unusual and exciting traditions, attracting thousands of tourists from around the world to witness the festivities firsthand. So if you’re looking to experience something truly unique, make sure to add one of these festivals to your bucket list!