Matsuri Mania: Celebrating Japan's hottest traditional festivals
Traditional festivals in Japan, also known as matsuri (祭り), are often spectacular, filled with colour, exuberance, and tradition. If you want to experience Japan at its liveliest, a high-energy matsuri is where it’s at! With so many different matsuri held in Japan every year, each varies based on the size and occasion—some having been around for centuries and some that are modern.
But one thing in common is that they are all events that are popular and worth checking out. The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO Singapore) is currently promoting matsuri as their featued theme, and through this they are introducing four categories of matsuri: “Unchanged for Centuries”, “Light and Fire”, “Parade and Dance”, and “Join and Participate”. Let’s take a quick peek at four of our picks of these exciting festivals.
1. Unchanged for Centuries: Aoi Matsuri, Kyoto Prefecture
(Image credit: Kyoto Convention & Visitors Bureau)
Known as one of the three most important festivals in Kyoto Prefecture (京都府 Kyōto-fu), Aoi Matsuri (葵祭) is a historic matsuri held at Kyoto’s most important and oldest shrines: Kamigamo Shrine (上賀茂神社 Kamigamo-jinja) and Shimogamo Shrine (下鴨神社 Shimogamo-jinja), where they are collectively known also as Kamo Shrine (賀茂神社 Kamo-jinja). The origins of the festival trace back to the rites performed to appease the gods and prayers of a bountiful harvest in the mid-6th century. The name of the matsuri also derives from the Aoi (葵 Hollylock) leaves that are pinned to the participants' hats, clothing, and carts.
If you have the opportunity to visit the festival grounds, you can look forward to watching reenactments, shinto rituals, and horse riding performances. The main event is host to the grand parade which happens on the 15 May annually with hundreds of participants dressed in Heian Period (794–1185) clothing who form processions and make their way to the respective Kamo Shrines, performing rites and making offerings at each shrine.
Aoi Matsuri Festival / Kamo Festival (葵祭・賀茂祭)
Festival period: 15 May (Annually)
History: Established around 1,500 years ago
Address (Kyoto Imperial Palace): 3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-0881
Access: 5-minute walk from Imadegawa Station (今出川駅)
2. Light and Fire: Hifuri Shinji Matsuri, Kumamoto Prefecture
(Image credit: kumamoto pref.kumamon)
Every mid-March, the lively Hifuri Shinji Matsuri (火振り神事祭り) is held at Aso Shrine (阿蘇神社 Aso-jinja) in Kumamoto Prefecture (熊本県 Kumamoto-ken), which is one of Aso’s oldest shrines. With over 2,000 years of history, this holy ritual of fire-swinging is designated as one of Japan’s Important Intangible Folk Cultural Properties. This Shinto ritual is held to to pray for the upcoming harvest’s fertility as well as to celebrate the marriage of two kami (神) or divine spirits: Kunitatsu-no-Kami (国龍神 The Divine Spirit of Agriculture) and a princess god who both reside at the shrine. Thanks to this ritual also, the shrine has come to be known as a power spot for marriage because it worships a divine couple.
When the torches are lit and swung around, swirling rings of flames create a mesmerising sight to behold. There is even a special hifuri that you can participate in and it is recommended for those who want to experience the matsuri in a sacred atmosphere, or for those who want to share a special experience with their loved ones.
Hifuri Shinji Matsuri (火振り神事祭り)
Festival period: Mid-March
History: Established around 2,000 years ago
Address (Aso Shrine): 3083-1 Ichinomiya-machi Miyaji, Aso, Kumamoto 869-2612
Access: 20-minute walk north from Miyaji Station (宮地駅)
3. Parade and Dance: Hyuga Hyottoko Natsu Matsuri, Miyazaki Prefecture
(Image credit: Miyazaki Prefecture)
Have a jolly good time at the Hyūga Hyottoko Natsu Matsuri (日向ひょっとこ夏祭り Hyuga Hyottoko Summer Festival) held in August every year! This matsuri is held in view of thousands of spectators right in front of Hyugashi Station (日向市駅 Hyūgashi-eki) in Miyazaki Prefecture (宮崎県 Miyazaki-ken). This matsuri is a two-day festival about the devotion to a rich harvest and prosperous business. With more than 2,000 dancers and 70,000 spectators in attendance, the matsuri is based on the Nagata no Hyottoko Odori dance (永田のひょっとこ踊り), which is designated as an intangible folk cultural property of Hyuga City (日向市 Hyūga-shi).
Performers are dressed in red and white kimono (着物), white obi (帯) with mameshibori (豆絞り) cloth on their heads, all while adorning various face masks such as the hyottoko (火男 man with puckered lips), okame (おかめ smiling woman with red cheeks), and the kitsune (狐 fox). These joyous performers move to the rhythm of instruments played that makes the crowd burst into laughter. If you’re attending this festival, you can have a go at the dances by participating in one of the dance classes offered at the festival. You can even bring home a hyottoko mask from one of the yatai (屋台 shop stands)
Hyuga Hyottoko Natsu Matsuri (日向ひょっとこ夏祭り)
Festival period: Early August
History: Established in 1984
Address (Hyūgashi Station): 1 Uemachi, Hyuga-shi, Miyazaki 883-0044
Access: 2-minute walk to the square in front of Hyugashi Station
4. Join and Participate: Hida Furukawa Kitsunebi Matsuri, Gifu Prefecture
(Image credit: Hida City Tourism Association)
Be part of the divine Hida Furukawa Fox Fire Festival (飛騨古川きつね火まつり Hida Furukawa kitsune-bi Matsuri)! This autumn matsuri is held in late September in Hida City (飛騨市 Hida-shi), Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県 Gifu-ken). This festival sees the revival of the old fairytale—Fox’s Wedding—where the city is enveloped in a magical and mystical atmosphere. The wedding procession of the matsuri solemnly passes through Hida City, after which a fantastic wedding ceremony is held at the wedding venue. It is believed that those who observe the procession are blessed with a bountiful harvest, safety in their homes, and prosperous business.
As one of the festivals that you can join, there are two ways to participate. One of which is that regular festive-goers can wear fox make-up and participate freely, while the other is to join a group known as the kitsune-gumi (狐組). As a member of this group, you will help to liven up the festival. On the day of the event, members will have fox make-up applied while dressed in tomesode (留袖 kimono having patterns woven only on the lower half).
Hida Furukawa Fox Fire Festival (飛騨古川きつね火まつり)
Festival period: Fourth Saturday of September (Annually)
History: Established in 1990
Address (Okura Inari Shrine): 8-35 Furukawacho Kataharacho, Hida, Gifu 509-4222
Access: 8-minute walk from Hida-Furukuawa Station (飛騨古川駅)
Take part in the festivities with Japan by Japan’s AR Campaign by JNTO!
(Image credit: Japan National Tourism Organization)
Excited to experience these different summer festivals? Take part in JNTO Singapore’s exciting Nebuta AR Campaign! In collaboration with JAPAN RAIL CAFE and KDDI Asia-Pacific’s Augmented Reality (AR) technology, you can now celebrate one of Tohoku’s greatest summer festivals in the palm of your hands.
Here’s how to use the AR system in place:
- Go to any location in Singapore where you would like to take a photo with the AR Nebuta.
- To use the AR, scan the QR code above where you will be directed to the AR system.
- Follow the steps shown, be creative, and snap a photo!
Then, don’t forget to upload your photo entry on Instagram with the hashtags “#jbyjfestival” and “#japanrailcafe” as you will not only receive a free gift at JAPAN RAIL CAFE when you pay the cafe a visit, but you can also qualify for JNTO’s Lucky Draw Contest where you will stand a chance to win prizes from ANA—including a pair of return flight tickets to Japan—and Shikoku.
Here’s how to participate in JNTO’s Lucky Draw Contest:
- Follow our official Instagram account @visitjapansg
- Upload your AR NEBUTA photo(s) on your Instagram account with two required hashtags: #jbyjfestival and #japanrailcafe. Also, remember to set your Instagram account for public viewing so our system can pick up and display your uploaded photos.
- Check out the photo gallery below to see if your photo(s) has been successfully registered. It might take a few hours for photos to be reflected. Post as many as you can to increase your chances of winning the prizes!
Terms & conditions apply.
With plenty of unique festivals being held all over Japan—both big and small—there is bound to be one to catch when visiting the various regions and prefectures of Japan. Also, what better way to immerse in the culture than to be part of these historical festivals? If you would like to find out more, check out JNTO’s list of festivals here.
Header image credit: Hida City Tourism Association