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Fireworks, dance, and matsuri: A guide to Japan’s top summer festivals

Fireworks, dance, and matsuri: A guide to Japan’s top summer festivals

Welcome to the world of Japanese summer festivals (夏祭りnatsu matsuri)! Summer in Japan is an exciting time to visit because the summer calendar is filled with unique festivals that you can only experience in Japan. 

 

From July to August, almost every weekend is jam-packed with a dazzling variety of festivals, from firework festivals to cultural festivals with parades of floats and portable shrines (神輿 mikoshi). Traditional dances like bon dances (盆踊りbon odori) are popular during the obon (お盆) week in August when Japanese families gather to commemorate their ancestors. 

 

As there are so many summer festivals in Japan, we have put together a festive guide to the top summer festivals for you to immerse in Japan’s summer celebrations. Get ready to enjoy food and games stalls, rich culture and customs, vibrant dance and music, and spectacular fireworks shows! 

 

1. Aomori Nebuta Festival (Aomori Prefecture)

Aomori Nebuta Festival.jpg

Image credit: ©JNTO

 

Nebuta festivals are synonymous with summer and are celebrated throughout towns and cities in Aomori Prefecture (青森県 Aomori-ken). One of the Three Great Festivals of the Tohoku Region, Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り Aomori Nebuta Matsuri) is the most famous Nebuta festival and the pride of Aomori. 

 

The star of the festival is the Nebuta, which refers to huge and dramatic lantern floats decorated with mythical and historical characters, such as deities, kabuki (歌舞伎) actors, and samurai warriors. The floats are masterpieces by Nebuta artisans who bring them to life using wire frames, washi (和紙 Japanese paper), and lots of light bulbs and paint. 

 

The festival atmosphere is riveting with animated haneto (ハネト) dancers chanting “Rassera! Rassera!” to the cacophony of festival tunes. The multi-day summer festival comes to a climax with an entertaining maritime show of the Nebuta floats parading on water and fireworks! Find out more about the Nebuta festivals here

 

Don’t miss out on the other two great summer festivals as well–Akita Kanto Festival (秋田竿燈まつり Akita Kantō Matsuri) and Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕祭り Sendai Tanabata Matsuri)–when you are in Tohoku in early August! Check out this guide to more summer festivals in Tohoku. 

 

Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り)
Festival dates: 2–7 August
Address: Aomori City Centre
Nearest station: Aomori Station (青森駅)
Access: 10-minute walk from Aomori Station 
Admission fee: Free (Paid reserved seats to be booked in advance)

 

2. Nagaoka Fireworks Festival (Niigata Prefecture)

Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association 

 

Fireworks (花火 hanabi) are an integral part of summer and nothing welcomes summer festivities better than kaleidoscopic fireworks illuminating the clear summer skies. Be awed by large-scale firework displays at Nagaoka Fireworks Festival (長岡まつり大花火大会 Nagaoka Matsuri Ōhanabi Taikai). One of Japan’s Three Great Firework Festivals, this festival has a long history dating back to 1946, when it was first held to pray for war victims and express hopes for peace. 

 

This mainstay summer festival in Niigata Prefecture (新潟県 Niigata-ken) takes fireworks to the next level. Over 20,000 fireworks are launched during this pyrotechnics extravaganza.  It is famed for fantastical firework designs shaped like chrysanthemum flowers and gigantic fireworks that create a beautiful illustration of light flowing gracefully like a waterfall into the Shinano River, the longest river in Japan. Learn more about the Nagaoka Fireworks Festival here

 

Can’t get enough of fireworks festivals in East Japan? Join one of the other great firework festivals, the Omagari Fireworks Festival (大曲の花火), a national fireworks competition in Akita Prefecture in late August. 

 

Nagaoka Fireworks Festival (長岡まつり大花火大会)
Festival dates: 2–3 August
Address: Banks of the Shinano River, Nagaoka City
Nearest station: Nagaoka Station (長岡駅)
Access: 30-minute walk from the Nagaoka Station
Admission fee: Free (Paid reserved seats to be booked in advance)

 

3. Awa Odori (Tokushima Prefecture)

Image credit: photoAC

 

Awa Odori (阿波踊り) is one of the biggest and most visually stunning summer dance festivals in Japan. “Awa” is the feudal name of Tokushima Prefecture (徳島県 Tokushima-ken) and “odori” means dance. Every year in summer, Tokushima City (徳島市 Tokushima-shi) is transformed into a huge dance stage for over a million dancers and visitors. Experience sensory overload as you watch dance groups called ren (連) perform to upbeat music in colourful costumes. 

 

The female dancers (女踊り onna odori) don fan-shaped braided hats (編笠 amigasa) and dance elegantly with choreographed steps while the male dancers (男踊り otoko odori) break into energetic moves with their paper lanterns (高張 takahari). For the best views, buy tickets for the spectator stands (舞場 enbujo) and sit back and enjoy the mesmerising procession of dancers. Participate in the Awa Odori fun and sing along to the traditional song, Awa Yoshikono (阿波よしこの), with the famous line: “The dancers are fools and the watchers are fools. If both are fools, then why not dance?”

 

Read this article to learn more about the art and history of Awa Odori at the Awa Odori Festival Hall. 

 

Awa Odori (阿波踊り)
Festival dates: 12–15 August
Address: Tokushima City Centre
Nearest station: Tokushima Station (徳島駅)
Access: 10-minute walk from Tokushima Station
Admission fee (if any): Free (Paid reserved seats to be booked in advance)

 

4. Yosakoi Festival (Kochi Prefecture)

Image credit: photoAC

 

Another famous summer festival in the Shikoku Region (四国) is the Yosakoi Festival (よさこい 祭り Yosakoi Matsuri) in Kochi City (高知市 Kōchi-shi), Kochi Prefecture (高知県 Kōchi-ken). Yosakoi is a festive dance and is actually an old Japanese word that loosely translates to “come at night”.

 

Yosakoi dance is fun to watch as the dancers move joyously with naruko (鳴子) or wooden clappers to the rhythm based on folk songs like yosakoi bushi (よさこい節). An interesting element of Yosakoi dance is that the dancers can be creative with their costumes, choreography, and even music by combining traditional songs with contemporary music like pop and rock songs. The highlight of the festival is a boisterous dance competition where teams compete with their best practice and some even dance with elaborately decorated music truck (地方車 / じかたしゃ jikatasha). 

 

Many Yosakoi festivals are celebrated throughout Japan and another well known festival is the Yosakoi Soran Festival (よさこいソーラン祭り) that takes places in Sapporo City, Hokkaido in June. 

 

Yosakoi Festival (よさこい 祭り)
Festival dates: 9–12 August
Address: Kochi City Centre
Nearest station: Kochi Station (高知駅)
Access: 10-minute walk from Kochi Station
Admission fee: Free (Paid reserved seats to be booked in advance)

 

5. Okinawa Zento Eisa Festival (Okinawa Prefecture)

Image credit: ©Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau

 

Okinawa (沖縄) is a paradise in summer with balmy weather, blue skies, pristine beaches, and eisa (エイサー), a traditional folk dance that celebrates the obon festival. Eisa is Okinawa’s sound of summer and eisa festivals pop up all over the island. Eisa dancers play drums of different sizes and move energetically to the infectious rhythm of the drum sounds. 

 

One of the largest festivals is the Okinawa Zento Eisa Festival (沖縄全島エイサー祭り  Okinawa Zentō Eisā Matsuri). Held in Okinawa City’s Koza Sports Park (コザ運動公園 Koza Undō-kōen), this festival celebrates the end of summer, and various youth and community groups from different parts of Okinawa perform eisa dances during the festival. 

 

The festival culminates in a fireworks show and a big dance party where everyone would dance the kachashi (カチャーシー), a Okinawan folk dance, and sway their hands in the air. Join the locals and enjoy the dances, festival food, and lots of Orion beer, Okinawa’s signature brew at the Orion Beerfest event that is organized in conjunction with the festival. Want more eisa? Join the other major eisa festival, the 10,000 Eisa Dancers Parade (一万人のエイサー踊り隊 Ichi Man'nin no eisā odori-tai), that takes place in Naha City (那覇市 Naha-shi) in early August. 

 

Okinawa Zento Eisa Festival (沖縄全島エイサー祭り)
Festival dates: Late August
Address: Okinawa City Stadium, 2-1-1 Moromizato, Okinawa-shi, 904-0032
Access: 500-metre walk from Okinawa Minami Bus Interchange (沖縄南インター)
Admission fee: Free (Paid reserved seats to be booked in advance)

 

Tips to enjoy summer festivals in Japan

Image credit: photoAC

 

Summer festivals are popular in Japan so here are some parting tips for you to become a pro festival-goer.

 

  1. Book accommodations early as hotels near the big festivals’ venues fill up quickly.
  2. Make use of Japan’s efficient public transportation to get to the festival sites. Visit the festivals’ websites and/or social media pages for the most updated travel advisories. 
  3. Check if the festivals sell tickets for special viewing spots for the shows like dance parades or firework displays. Buy the tickets early to secure the best spots to enjoy the festival in comfort.  
  4. Experience the festivals like locals by donning yukata (浴衣) and joining the activities and dance. 
  5. Include smaller scale community festivals in your summer festival-hopping trip to enjoy more local experiences and less crowds. 

 

All in all, attending a summer festival is one of the best ways to get the most out of a Japanese summer. Want to experience Japan’s best summer festivals at the comforts of your home? Get together with your friends and family and enjoy a curated box of summer and festival-themed snacks with JAPAN RAIL CLUB’s “Summer Hanabi” Omiyage Box

 

Header image credit: Aomori Prefecture

 

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