Held every year throughout July, but marked by a grand parade on the 17th and 25th in Kyoto, Gion Matsuri is probably the most famous festival in Japan. It draws crowds from all over to celebrate and photograph this spectacular event. Dating back to the year 869, it was a festival to appease the gods, after a widespread epidemic struck Japan. It has been held almost uninterruptedly every year since then.
Gion Matsuri features 23 grand floats, each more than 20m tall and weighing a staggering 12 tons. These beautiful creations are then moved along the streets in a joyous parade by sheer manpower.
Another festival that’s dedicated to the deities, Aoi Matsuri, occurs in Kyoto May 15th. Much like Gion Matsuri, it also has its origin in a disaster: in the year 571, a succession of heavy rains and high winds ruined crops and started a country-wide epidemic. Only after the Emperor himself made offerings to the deities did these disasters subside.
To commemorate this event, a large procession of people, dressed in traditional garments, is held between the Imperial Palace and the Kamo Shrines. The annual ritual also includes an equestrian archery performance and traditional shrine rites.
From May 19th to the 21st, Sanja Matsuri draws the crowds to Tokyo. The festival is held to honour the three founders of Sensoji Temple, and features almost a hundred portable shrines paraded around the surrounding neighbourhoods to bring them good fortune and prosperity.
Held in Yokote, Akita Prefecture, this is a different kind of festival with plenty of charm. On February 15th and 16th of every year, countless small snow houses called kamakura, resembling igloos, can be found across the city acting as altars for the deity of water.
As you stroll the streets of Yokote in the evening, you’ll find ample stands offering rice cakes and amazake – a warm, almost alcohol-free rice wine – in exchange for an offering to a nearby kamakura.
When it comes to snow-themed festivals, the Sapporo Snow Festival in February is the most recognisable event in Japan. Throughout Sapporo, small to enormous snow sculptures are on display while a wide variety of snow-themed activities like skating and snow rafting, are held in designated areas.
New Years is an important celebration for the Japanese. During this time, you’ll find many events around the local hot spots. But beware of the hangover, because the next day is all about Hatsumode. This is the first visit to a local shrine or temple in the new year to give thanks for last year’s blessings.
A few days after New Years is Seijin Shiki, or Coming-of-Age day. This day celebrates those who passed the age of 20 and are from now on regarded as adults. Festivities include Coming-of-Age ceremonies in local city offices throughout japan, plus an after-party among family and friends.
The most popular (and by far the most photogenic) festival across Japan is hanami, or cherry blossom viewing. Cherry blossoms are cherished by the Japanese as symbols of hope and humility. The first blossoms appear first in Kyushu around the end of March and continues down to Hokkaido in mid-May.
When the cherry trees start to blossom, the locals gather their friends and family to enjoy a picnic under the trees by day. By night, beers, sake and even karaoke sets are brought along for cheerful and often rowdy parties.
Held on various days between July and August, depending on the region, Tanabata is also known as Star Festival. With roots in the Chinese Qixi Festival, it celebrates the legend of a pair of star-crossed lovers, separated by the Milky Way, who are allowed to meet just once a year.
During the festival, children and adults write their wishes on strips of coloured paper and hang them on bamboo branches outside their homes, at temples and shrines, or other significant places. They then pray hard their wishes will come through on this, the seventh day of the seventh month.
Whether you’re a photography enthusiast or casual travel snapper, learn to capture the spectacle from pro photographer and mentor, Richard I’Anson.
With so much to see and do in Japan, we’ve picked 10 of the most exciting activities to do on your trip to experience it like a local.