Japan has festivals all year round, but July-September is the season when they peak. Our events section doesn’t even begin to cover all the summer festivals in Tokyo! The ones listed there are larger in scale and/or more publicized, but even small neighborhoods have their own celebrations. Summer is so vibey that we don’t just mean traditional festivals, but also modern ones – music festivals such as Fuji Rock, dance shows with an international flavor (hula and samba festivals, for instance), as well as pop culture events such as meet-and-greet sessions with popular children’s characters and Yokohama’s “outbreak” of dancing Pikachus. In this article, though, we’ll be focusing on your typical Japanese summer festival.
Why So Many Summer Events?
Obon refers to the period when, according to Buddhist teachings, the dead return to the world of the living. During this time, people are supposed to honor the deceased by visiting their ancestral homes, cleaning their loved ones’ graves, and making offerings to them. Summer happens to be obon season – the Gregorian calendar pins down July 13-15 as the dates, but Obon according to the lunar calendar usually falls in August.
Summer festival traditions such as Bon Odori (the Bon dance) and fireworks festivals are rooted in Obon, as these were meant to welcome and celebrate the dead as they briefly visit our world, and then – in the case of fireworks festivals – send them off afterwards. Nowadays, however, with many Japanese being Buddhist only in name, summer festivals are less about ancestor worship and more about having fun the old-school way. In some areas and regions, however, you’ll still find some Obon celebrations that are heavy on honoring the dead. Some examples are the more solemn Toro Nagashi, a ceremony in which lanterns that represent guiding lights for the dead are floated down rivers (Asakusa will observe this ceremony on August 13th); and Nagasaki’s Shoro Nagashi, which may be more festive and rowdy, but still very much about honoring deceased loved ones.
Additionally, in accordance with the Obon tradition, most companies give employees four days off during summer. Many take these precious few days off to go on holiday or just relax. Students also go on break from their studies in summer, so this is a good time for families to take a vacation. With students and professionals alike getting a break – however short – during summer, it’s not hard to see why event organizers get busy!
What to Wear at Japanese Summer Festivals
Festivals don’t have a dress code, so you can just show up in casual clothes. But if you want to do as many other Japanese do, wear a yukata – a kimono that’s typically worn by men, women, and children alike in summer. Since it’s made of lighter, thinner material (cotton) than the usual kimono, who knows – you might even find it more airy and comfortable than your regular clothes! If you want to buy one to keep, you won’t have too much trouble finding yukata for sale, as most department stores have special sections for them in summer. Uniqlo has some rather inexpensive yukata sets (including the yukata; obi – the belt/sash; and koshi-himo, the thinner sashes to tie the yukata below the chest and at the waist) with colorful, attractive designs for not more than 8,000 yen, but sorry, men, as of this writing, their yukata are only for women and children!
Complete your getup with geta (traditional Japanese sandals), a drawstring bag called kinchaku, and a fan (take your pick between a sensu – a folding fan – or the non-foldable type, an uchiwa). Ladies (and gents?), you might want to add a flower accessory to your hair, too.
Having trouble getting into a yukata on your own? There are several videos on YouTube to help you out! If you’re still having trouble (tying the obi can be complicated), it’s common for hair salons to offer yukata dressing (and even hair-styling) services in summer. But if you don’t have your own yukata and don’t intend on buying one, you can always just rent a yukata for a day.
Sights, Sounds, Smells and Tastes
Bon Odori and fireworks are distinctly summer activities, so expect many (but not all) festivals to have at least one of them. Fireworks festivals tend to go all-out with the pyrotechnics, synchronizing them to music so you get a full show. They’re also known to be very crowded, especially the large events like the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival, so check our guide to Tokyo’s fireworks festivals to learn about staking out a good spot.
As for the Bon Odori, don’t be shy to join in! Even if you think you have two left feet, the dance steps are usually quite simple. Just join the circle of people dancing around the yagura (the bandstand) and follow them. You won’t be committing a major faux pas if you’re out of sync or you get a step slightly wrong, and older folks will be delighted to see a foreigner taking part in the dance.
Bon Odori and fireworks aside, food and amusement booths are also staples of Japanese summer festivals. We’ve got a guide to typical festival food, but if there’s one thing to try at a summer festival, it’s kakigoori, or shaved ice with syrup. On a muggy day, it’s a great way to cool down.
Lastly, if you want to try your hand at the amusement booths, these are the commonly found games:
- Kingyo-sukui: Goldfish catching with a paper scoop
- Super ball scooping: Scooping bouncy balls, also with a paper scoop
- Shateki: Shooting at targets (which you win as prizes)
- Wanage: Ring tossing
- Yoyo-tsuri: Fishing for water-filled balloons with a “fishing pole” with a paper string