Japanese festivals: What is a Matsuri?

A matsuri is a traditional festival which celebrates Japanese deities through dances, shows, parades and processions. This religious festival most of the time comes with yatai, games and drinks and take a very lively turn. Matsuri are organised all year round and all over Japan.

What’s a matsuri?

In English, matsuri (祭り) is most of the time translated by festival. This translation, associated to the festive side of it, might mislead many people when it comes to the origins of matsuris. Matsuris take their roots in shintōism. Originally, they were organised to celebrate a shrine’s divinity (神 kami) and even though religion remains the main motive for organising those matsuris, some of them are more season oriented, like the paddy harvest or sakura blooming. Though many rituals linked to religion remain, matsuris have evolved along with Japanese society and the importance of religion among Japanese people. Nowadays, most of these events are just perceived as local festivities even if the religious essence at the origin of each matsuri is usually well-known. No matter where and when you are in Japan, there is always a matsuri to enjoy.

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Oldest matsuris in Japan

Matsuris appeared during the VIIIth century and the oldest one, still held since then, supposedly would have appeared during Nara period and would have taken place every year since 752. It’s the “Omizutori”, also called Shuni-e, and is held every year between March 1st and March 14th through a ceremony, which is said to purify and enhance prosperity in the country. Legend says spring cannot start without the ceremony having been held.

Matsuris according to seasons

Because matsuris have become a more and more common practice, it’s not odd, nowadays, to see festivals with no religious connotations. For example, in spring, during sakura season, many matsuris are held in order to enjoy cherry blossoms while munching on Japanese snacks. But it doesn’t stop there. In summer, many matsuris come along with fireworks. They are called “hanabi taikai” and one of the most popular ones in Tokyo is Sumidagawa’s hanabi taikai, near the Sky Tree. In winter, one of the most famous matsuris is held in Sapporo, in Hokkaido. It’s “Sapporo Yuki Matsuri”, which lasts eight days and where many visitors come to admire snow sculptures and ice statues.

Japanese festivals: What is a Matsuri?

Traditional parades and processions during Japanese festivals

Each matsuri is unique and distinguish itself from others through its history, its rituals and dances. Joining one, you can not only immerse yourself into that one-of-a-kind atmosphere that Japanese streets take on during a matsuri, but also live from the inside an ancient and rampant tradition that is still part of Japanese people’s daily life.

If you’d like to see a matsuri a bit more “muscular”, you can head to a festival where participants carry a mikoshi (portable shrine) and a dashi (float). Those are carried around the city with a relic of the divinity honored on that day inside the mikoshi. If you feel like it, you can try to join the parade and carry the mikoshi yourself!

Mikoshi shrine in Takadanobaba, Tokyo

But, if you’d like to enjoy a matsuri more relaxed, you can enjoy one of the numerous awa-odori festivals where a whole procession of dancers while proceed while dancing, singing and playing music right in front of your eyes. You got it, there’s a matsuri for each type of person and there are the right place to be to discover the most traditional aspects of Japanese culture.

Awaodori in Kagurazaka

Commonalities to all matsuris

Even if each matsuri is different in itself, all of them have something in common. First of all, you will never see a matsuri without food and drinks sold in small stalls (yatai in Japanese) located everywhere along the matsuri. Usually sold for a few hundred yens, these snacks and drinks are made so that they can be taken and consumed as you continue your own procession through the matsuri and the activities it offers. Another tradition during Japanese festivals, especially in summer, is to go there wearing a yukata, a light summer kimono.

Bon odori in Takadanobaba, Tokyo

Matsuris you should see

As mentioned previously, there are matsuri all year round in Japan. However, some of them stand out compared to most matsuri because of their scale or their form. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of must-see festivals if you’re in Japan:

  • Kanda, Sanja and Sannō Matsuri (Tokyo): these three festivals are held in May and June and are the three biggest shinto festivals in Tokyo. Impressive parades and processions!
  • Mitama Matsuri (Tokyo): Mitama Matsuri takes place in Yasukuni shrine in July every year. Held during o-bon, it offers an impressive display of 30,000 lanterns set up for the time of the matsuri.
  • Gion Matsuri (Kyoto): this masturi, originally held to “prevent” natural and sanitary disasters in the region in 869, happens every year in Gion district, in Kyoto and is composed of a great parade of floats (one for each of Kyoto’s districts). It’s one of the biggest festivals in Japan and usually takes place towards the middle of July.
  • Snow festival (Sapporo): also called “yuki matsuri”, this festival lasts for about a week in Sapporo and travelers as well as locals can enjoy ice and snow sculptures in several places around the city.
  • Wakakusa yamayaki (Nara): this festival, quite mysterious, consists in setting fire to Mount Wakakusa in Nara, at the beginning of January. The origin of this matsuri is said to be either because of old conflicts between the main temples of Nara or to repel bears away from the city.

Matsuris are also often organised for seasonal events. Thus, if you happen to be in Japan during spring, try to check what sakura matsuri there could be around you, as they are usually held between mid-March and the beginning of April. The same thing applies during fall with momiji season.

Take part in a matsuri while studying in SNG

With SNG, you can learn Japanese and discover Japanese culture while living in Tokyo. Get the chance to enjoy the most traditional Japanese festivals with us, such as setsubun, o-bon, awaodori and you can even take part in an omikoshi! We’re located in the center of Tokyo, in Shinjuku. Contact us now!