Sapporo Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri) - early February. Odori Park in Sapporo is the
venue for an incredible array of huge and elaborate snow and ice
sculptures. The festival is a major tourist attraction that brings millions of visitors
from across Japan and abroad.
Kamakura Festival - February 15-16th. In Yokote City, Akita Prefecture, children
build kamakura - small igloos with an altar to the Shinto water gods.
Hakata Dontaku Festival - May 3-4. Citizens dressed as the Seven Deities of Good
Fortune parade the streets of the hakata district of Fukuoka.
Kanda Festival - mid-May (every odd-numbered year). Alternates with the Sanno Festival.
About 200 omikoshi are paraded to honour the deities of the Kanda Shrine in Tokyo.
Sanja Festival - third weekend of May. About 100 omikoshi are paraded through
the streets around Asakusa Shrine in Tokyo. There are also many
geisha and other costumed participants.
Sanno Festival - June 10-16th (every even-numbered year). Alternates with the Kanda Festival.
Honours the deities of the Hie Shrine in Tokyo. The main festival day is June 15.
Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival - July 1-15th. A major festival that welcomes the arrival
of summer in the southern city of Fukuoka sees colorful kazari-yamakasa floats paraded through
the streets. Huge excitement is generated when the kaki-yamakasa are raced in the Oiyama on the
final day. The festival dates back to the 13th century when a priest was carried through the
city spraying holy water along the way to rid the city of an epidemic.
Tanabata Festival on July or August 7th was originally a celebration based on a
Chinese legend. The stars representing the Weaver Princess (Vega)
and the Cowherd (Altair) were lovers who could only meet on the
seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Its proximity
to Obon meant that it became neglected in some areas but adopted
by others. Sendai, for example, has a famous Tanabata Festival
on August 7th.
Gion Festival - July 17th. The most significant festival in Japan. The most
famous Gion Matsuri is the one sponsored by the Yasaka Shrine
in Kyoto. Actually this is a one-month festival which reaches
a climax on the 17th when there is a parade of giant wheeled floats
called hoko or spears. These represent 66 tall spears erected in 869 in Kyoto
as part of a ritual to protect the city from an epidemic. Each
hoko carries a band of musicians who play a kind of music called
gion-bayashi. Smaller yama or mountain floats carry
life-size figures of famous people.
Tenjin Festival - July 24-25th. Together with Kyoto's Gion Matsuri and Tokyo's
Kanda Matsuri, this festival in Osaka is considered one of the "big three" in Japan. It is
thought to date back to the mid 10th century. The main events take place in the evening on
the Okawa River, involving about 100 boats and with a fireworks display providing a
Aomori Nebuta Festival - August 1-7th. Giant floats are paraded through the city of
Aomori in the evening with musical accompaniment. On top of the
floats are colorful, illuminated papier-mache nebuta, figures
of warriors, kabuki actors or other famous people. On
the last night, the nebuta are cast out to sea. This reflects
the festival's origins whereby people threw paper images into
the river to cast out fatigue, illness or bad luck - anything
that might interfere with a successful harvest.
Awa Dance (Awa Odori) - August 12-15th. In the city of Tokushima, groups
of dancers follow a route along the main streets doing a variation
on the Bon Odori. There is also a smaller version of the dance
in Nakano, Tokyo.
Nagasaki Suwa - October 7-9. Also known as O-kunchi, this festival features
dragon dances and umbrella-topped floats.