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Every city, town and village in Japan has at least one matsuri (festival) a year. Matsuri fall into two broad categories - smaller matsuri in rural areas, usually held in spring or autumn and based around the rice-growing cycle; and extravagant matsuri held in large towns or cities, often in summer and with a lot of interpersonal activity. In the post-war period this division has become more pronounced with the big matsuri becoming 'events' and attracting TV cameras and tourists from around the country and the world. Matsuri have their origins in ancient Shinto rituals and beliefs. Important elements include purification, offerings to the gods - such as rice, sake or fruit - and contests or games held on the day. The latter can get out of hand, even to the point of violence, but this is considered part of letting one's hair down for the day. Most community matsuri have omikoshi, or portable shrines which are carried from house to house or shop to shop to bestow good fortune on all.

Awa odori dancers Awa odori drummer
Dancers and musician at the Awa Odori in Nakano, Tokyo

For the foreign visitor, a chance encounter with a small, local matsuri can be a good time to get some nice, intimate photos. But the big festivals are always full of spectacle and sure to provide some exciting photo opportunities. Some of the highlights are:

Sanja Matsuri
Sanja Matsuri

Nebuta Matsuri
Nebuta Matsuri

Awa Odori
Awa Odori

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 spectacular backdrop.

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.

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