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Festivals - another side of Japan

19 September 2016

While every country has their festivals, Japan’s are particularly exciting for a foreign visitor. Here are our tips on the best ones to experience for yourself.

Japanese people gather on April 4th, 2010 in Maruyama Park in Kyoto, Japan to celebrate
The Maruyama Park in Kyoto is the most famous Hanami place in Japan © Sergii Rudiuk /

While every country has their festivals, Japan’s are particularly exciting for a foreign visitor. 

Not only can you mingle with the Japanese people when they are relaxed and enjoying themselves, but you also get to see their traditional culture first-hand. 

It’s certainly worth investigating whether you can time your journey to see this other side of Japan.

Hanami - The Cherry Blossom Festival

One of the most well-known festivals which is unique to Japan is Hanami, or the Cherry Blossom Festival. 

Rather than being a local affair, Hanami is very much a national festival which brings the entire population together as the people flock to the parks and rivers of the towns and cities, meeting with colleagues, friends and family to appreciate the flowering cherry blossom.

With its short flowering period the Cherry Blossom, while beautiful in its own right, is also symbolic of the impermanence of all things, a central idea within the Buddhist faith.

Its timing, toward the end of March and beginning of April, also makes it a Spring festival which reinforces the association with rebirth.  

The changing of the seasons

The changing of seasons is important in the culture of Japan.  In fact, it’s so important to them that a number of people I’ve met there were quite surprised to find out that we have four seasons as well: they thought it was a trait unique to Japan.

As Hanami is tied to when the sakura bloom, it does not fall upon a certain date.  Instead, the weather reports in late March include a section tracking the emergence of the blossom across the country. 

Generally, the southern areas of Japan are the first to see the flowers and a wave of pink moves north across meteorological maps until the entire country is celebrating the beginning of Spring.

As for where is best to appreciate the flowers, parks along waterfronts are always very popular and can be found in any city. 

While they may be crowded at times, particularly weekends, this can add to the spirit of the viewing. 

A change to normal routine!

In their day-to-day business the Japanese people can seem rather rigid with their emphasis on politeness and respect: The Cherry Blossom Festival can be a chance to see and meet the people of Japan in a less formal situation. 

That’s not to say every waterfront will be a wild party, but it’s another side of the people that you should look forward to seeing.

While Hanami is nationwide, certain areas are more renowned for the celebration.  Kyoto, the former capital and, in many ways, the spiritual heart of Japan is said to have some of the very best spots for viewing cherry blossom. 

A particular famous area is the Philosopher’s Walk.  Joanna Lumley said that “there’s something intoxicating about seeing cherry blossom on this scale,” and she’s not wrong.  It can be crowded though, so if you wanted to take unobscured photos of the best views it would be best to get there early.

Related: Why you need to go to Kyoto.

The Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo, the largest city on the northern island of Hokkaido, hosts an annual snow festival which is popular to the point that the city’s population doubles for a week in February. 

The festival is relatively new, having started seventy years ago when a group of students started using the snow cleared from the roads to sculpt. 

Over the years it has blossomed into a major festival with varied groups, from communities, to companies to the military, contributing to the vast array of artwork spread through the parks and squares of the city.

The sculptures all show a high degree of skill in their crafting, some of them taking over a month to fashion out of the deep snow. 

Their scale is often surprising and the defence force projects in particular can be several meters high; in fact, they’ve been known to recreate entire buildings as the centrepiece of the festival.

While the sculptures are impressive enough in the daytime, it’s at night that many of them really come alive and the parklands make for a picturesque walk in the evening.  Just be sure to wrap up warm!

Obon- Celebrating the Ancestors

Obon, or often simply Bon, is a nationwide holiday and will be observed wherever you are in Japan.  Most regions celebrate on the 15th August though others recognise the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, meaning that the date changes every year. 

Bon is the day when Japanese families honour their ancestors through tending shrines and grave markers and leaving offerings. 

While there is a private aspect to the day, carnivals are common place and there is plenty of dancing accompanied by songs and music from traditional bands in every prefecture.

Interestingly, every region celebrates Bon in a different way, reflecting the history of the area.  It’s an ideal time to get some street food and see some local, rather than national culture. 

Outsiders often imagine Japan to be relatively homogenous in terms of customs so it’s really a treat to see people so proud of their regional identity and celebrating it.

Related: Culture shock Japan: things you need to know before you travel to Japan.

Something a little more local: Hikiyama festivals

Regional pride can also be seen in the Hikiyama festivals celebrated throughout Japan at different times of year. Hikiyama are the floats common to many Japanese festivals, so the purpose of the festival may vary. 

Considering the importance of the seasons in Japanese culture, it’s unsurprising to find that they are often clustered in the spring and autumn months, either celebrating the approach of summertime or the year’s harvest.

Again, what you will find at a Hikiyama festival will depend very much on the size of the town and the importance of the festival.  The important thing is that you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

The floats are huge constructions which are often decades old, continually renovated or rebuilt to ensure they can be used in the annual festivals. 

Some floats will be overloaded with actors in period dress, while others will bear mythical creatures or hundreds of lanterns swaying in the night.

A little unexpected…

While I was in Toyama, close to Kanazawa, I was fortunate enough to be able to go to a local Hikiyama festival. 

Not knowing what to expect, I was somewhat surprised when the sound of drums reverberating along the street materialised into a vast team of men of all ages hauling ropes attached to a gigantic wooden wagon which barely cleared the buildings on either side of it.

Following it was another team of men pushing and shouting encouragement, chased along by a handful of monks and a team of supporters. It turned out that several floats were involved in a race every year, representing different temples and their areas.

 I can only assume that the race was a serious endeavour as the teams were certainly putting their all into manoeuvring the huge mobile shrine toward the finish line. 

I saw the team again later in the day while I was meandering around the fair enjoying a candy coated banana on a stick.  

Though they had not won the race, they genuinely seemed proud of getting their float to the end and their community spirit was entirely obvious.   

The good thing about Hikiyama festivals is that no matter when you visit, there’s a good chance a festival will be happening nearby, particularly in spring or autumn. 

Given Japan’s reliable and tourist friendly rail system, it is definitely worth making a day trip to a neighbouring prefecture if you have the time.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.