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Japan's Hottest Summer Festivals (That Aren't Obon)

The Japanese summer festival season has a lot more to offer than obon. Learn more about the various food and fun-filled events that are held throughout Japan every summer.

Summer is my favorite season in Japan. There are so many unique and joyous things the heat brings: kakigori, cicadas, humidity so thick it’s a choking hazard, and the cacophony of “atsui ne”s being among my most treasured. Something in the air (besides the oppressive mugginess) lets you know summer has arrived—and so has festival season.

The Japanese summer festival season has a lot more to offer than obon. An estimated 80,000 shrines exist in Japan (at least according to Wikipedia) and many of them have their own summertime celebration featuring games, yatai, performances, and more. I was invited to share a few of the best I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy in some form or another. Enjoy!

Tenjin Matsuri (July 24 and 25) 

Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri is a celebration of Sugawara no Michizane, a Heian-era scholar, poet, and politician. Posthumously referred to as “Tenjin,” he is now revered as the Shinto deity of learning.

The festival features a parade during which Tenjin is ceremoniously carried (more symbolically than literally) through the city streets before returning to Osaka Tenmangu, the holy place where his spirit is enshrined. 

The Tenjin Matsuri has everything I look for in a Japanese festival—fireworks, yatai, parades, jinbei, yukata, hordes of drunk people. It also features thousands of performers and the largest boat procession in the country on its second day, which is when the main parade takes place. 

About a million people attend annually, so my friends and I used to claim a spot the day before. (Thankfully, people in Japan are kind enough to respect such behavior. You’d never get away with something like that at Mardi Gras.) On festival day, we would arrive bright and early to our spot near the river to enjoy the revelry until well after dark.

Daimonji Matsuri (August 16)

Speaking of Japan’s hottest festivals, another favorite of mine is Kyoto’s Daimonji Matsuri. The event is known officially as Gozan no Okuribi, but people rarely call it that. 

Daimonji Matsuri features mountainside bonfires constructed in the shape of kanji that are so large you can see them glowing for miles and miles. A total of five bonfires are lit throughout the night representing varying concepts—one embodies sacred Buddhist teachings while another depicts a sailing ship.

Though it’s origins are dubious, scholars speculate the festival is ancient. I like to imagine that on a sweltering summer afternoon some person of yore thought to themselves “It’s just not hot enough!” and thus the concept was born. The actual meaning is far better, though—the fires are lit to send off the spirits of people’s deceased loved ones, who return to the afterlife at the end of the obon season.

Mitama Matsuri (July 13-16)

Unfortunately, I never made it to Mitama Matsuri. I did visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, however, which is where the event takes place. Close enough?

Yasukuni Shrine is dedicated to Japan’s military dead. Though a lovely place, it is also considered controversial because some of WWII’s most notorious war criminals are enshrined there. I happened to make my own visit on the anniversary of the country’s WWII surrender and the vibe was unlike anything I’d experienced in Japan. Anti-nuclear weapons activists protested across from nationalists loudly spewing hate speech, while most people were just trying to pay their respects to loved ones who perished in war. 

During Mitama Matsuri, 20,000 lanterns light the shrine for four days straight. Like most events rooted in Shinto, there are dances, processions, and theatrical performances aplenty. Oddly enough (for Japan at least) there is also apparently a very large police presence at the festival since it takes place at such a contentious venue. 

Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri (Second weekend of September)

The Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri is not for the faint of heart. Mammoth danjiri (intricately built wooden carts) are paraded down the streets of Kishiwada, a city about an hour south of Osaka, at breakneck speeds. Rather than slowing down to turn a corner, the brave men and women pulling the heavy carts floor it, performing dangerous turns known as yarimawashi. Meanwhile, a daredevil of a man is dancing atop each danjiri as if not fearing for his life. 

While the spectacle is usually nothing more than thrilling, danjiri have toppled over and crashed, reportedly resulting in spectators and participants getting injured or even killed over the years. 

The second time I attended, I managed to snag a front-row spot right outside of Kishiwada Station. It was exhilarating. Who knew fearing for your life could result in such a good time?  

Local Festivals

Some of the best summer festivals I attended in Japan were small events that I discovered either because local friends invited me or I stumbled upon them by pure happenstance. These intimate events are plentiful and provide all the fun without the suffocating crowds. If only festival season was as seemingly endless as Japan’s matsuri!

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Article featured in this issue:
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
June 27, 2020

No, we don't mean Christmas. For many Japanese Americans, the food, friendships, and frivolities found at cultural festivals across the country make summertime the most wonderful time of the year.

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