Japan: The Best Country for Festivals?

Article by: Brandon Presser|@bpnomad

Wed January 15, 2014 | 00:00 AM

Japan is a land of superlatives: soaring Alp-like mountains, prismatic shorelines, and unfathomably large cities bathed in concrete and glass. But it's the culture and lore of this enigmatic island chain that inspires the most wonder and awe from those who visit. For in Japan, attending a festival is not just about people uniting in space and time to share in an experience; it’s about witnessing a variation of organized chaos that could only exist in a place where the local population is hell-bent on perfection.


Photo credit: Shota Watanabe via Flickr Creative Commons

There’s no better place on the planet to ring in the New Year than Japan. The Shogatsu tradition is a frenzied multi-day affair involving temple visits, eating special food like mochi and soba, mailing handcrafted greeting cards and staying up all night to watch the year’s first sunrise.

Yuki Matsuri

Photo credit: Art Gimbel

During Yuki Matsuri, a snow festival befitting a Disney film, the northern city of Sapporo transforms into a winter wonderland—quite literally—of epic proportions. Over 400 ice sculptures are erected in various forms: castles, statues and slides, all chiseled from frozen water.

Gion Matsuri

Photo credit: Takeshi Tuboki via Flickr Creative Commons

Named for the hallowed alleys of Gion, Kyoto’s traditional geisha district, this is one of Japan’s most famous festivals. Celebrated throughout the month of July, the matsuri is best experienced on the 17th when elaborate ‘yamaboko’ floats are paraded through the streets of the city.


Photo credit: Tighten Up! via Flickr Creative Commons

Steeped in Buddhist tradition, Obon has transformed into a festival of family gatherings and ancestral worship. Traditions vary across the country—in Kyoto there’s a famous kanji-shaped bonfire—but everyone unites in the solemn performance of the bon-odori dance. 

Tokyo International Anime Fair

Photo credit: A.L.P.H.A via Flickr Creative Commons

It’s like you’ve died and gone to manga heaven. Attended by over 150,000 people annually, this beast of a tradeshow takes place in late March and comes complete with costumed fans, an awards ceremony and veritable labyrinth of booths dedicated to best comics and cartoons.


Photo credit: Chris Dickey via Flickr Creative Commons

Ephemerality—a pillar of the Japanese aesthetic—is best appreciated during hanami, or cherry blossom-viewing season. Trees throughout the country ignite with bursts of fiery reds and pale pinks as millions of onlookers descend en masse, their picnic blankets in tow. The best time for leaf-peeping usually occurs during the last week of March or the first week of April.

Aomori Nebuta Matsuri

Photo credit: ChrisLiang82 via Flickr Creative Commons

Famous for its complex float processional, this summer festival is the singular event that attracts the highest number of tourists to Japan’s Tohoku region, which was devastated during the earthquake-tsunami of 2011. 

Travel expert Brandon Presser is an award-winning writer, photographer and TV personality. He's penned over 40 guidebooks—most for Lonely Planet—and has appeared on a variety of programs for ABC, CBS and the Weather Channel. For more, check out www.brandonpresser.com.