Whenever I hear that someone is going to Japan I get so excited for them and want to share advice about all the wonderful things to do there. One thing I would recommend to all visitors is to try to check out a festival (matsuri/祭り) while you’re there. All throughout the year there are various festivals all over the country. Wikipedia has quite a comprehensive list of all the festivals, but there are lots of local festivals to be found, too.
Today, I’m going to introduce the three most memorable festivals I have attended in Japan:
1. Oni Matsuri (Toyohashi)
The Oni Matsuri (鬼祭り) takes place in Toyohashi (near Nagoya) every February 10th and 11th. Toyohashi is not a normal tourist destination, and this is quite a local festival, but it’s worth checking out if you happen to be in the area. Toyohashi is accessible from Nagoya by JR or Meitetsu trains.
The main idea of the festival is that there is a red demon and a blue/green demon (demon is “oni” in Japanese) and a long-nosed goblin (tengu) who chase each other all over the town. Finally the red demon and long-nosed goblin meet at Akumi Kanbe Shinmeisha Shrine. They have a sort of battle, which culminates in a powder fight. Bags of white powder are thrown everywhere, and we can all join in the scrum. If you’re lucky enough to collect a bag of powder, you will be healthy for the coming year.
I’ve been twice (2010 and 2011) and it rained both times. It was also very cold while waiting around. My advice, if you do go there, is to wear old clothes, cover your camera up so it doesn’t get ruined, bring an umbrella and bring some pocket hand warmers (“kairo”).
2. Yuki Matsuri (Sapporo)
I’m so glad I made it to this famous festival while I was in Japan (in 2009), as it was one of those experiences I know I’ll never forget. I really had to think about whether or not to go, as it was quite expensive to fly from Nagoya to Sapporo, in Hokkaido. However, it was worth every penny.
The Yuki Matsuri (雪祭り / Snow Festival) happens every year in February. The next festival will be the 63rd, and it’s from 6th – 12th February, 2012. You can find out more on the official website.
The festival is spread out over three areas of Sapporo, and includes snow sculptures, ice sculptures, snowman building, and lots more! I loved the snow sculptures, which were absolutely massive! They looked amazing at night too.
Of course, Sapporo is freezing at that time of year, so make sure to pack your snow boots and ski jacket. I found that it was quite tiring stomping around in the snow and ice, so make sure to take plenty of breaks and try the local cuisine (which is delicious!). A bit of “soup curry” should warm you up when you start to feel the frostbite. 😉
3. Honen Matsuri (Komaki)
You know the saying “only in Japan”, well that applies quite nicely to this festival! The Honen Matsuri (豊年祭) at Tagata Shrine, in Komaki (near Nagoya), is certainly unique. It’s a fertility festival which has turned into a bit of a “gaijin-trap” (I wondered if there were actually more non-Japanese there than Japanese!). A lot of people go there just to laugh and point (and drink), and I went (in 2009) simply out of curiosity.
The festival itself is actually a little dull, if truth be told. Large phallic objects are paraded slowly through the streets, and that’s about it. The fun part of the festival comes from posing for photos in suggestive positions, and finding some interesting food and souvenirs.
The Honen Matusri happens on March 15th every year. Scroll down on this website for detailed instructions on how to get to the shrine. It’s worth attending, if only for a giggle.
For more information about events and festivals in Japan, please check out the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) website: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/attractions/event.