Festivals are the unsung heroes of travel in Japan—from fiery winter ceremonies to glorious dance processions in summer, there are almost more of them to enjoy than street snacks to be eaten on the sidelines.

For the top events, not just festivals, throughout the year, check out our complete guide organized by month.

Sanja Festival of Asakusa Shrine/Sensoji Temple, Tokyo
Photo by iStock.com/magicflute002

While a few Tokyo festivals have grabbed the attention of international media—here’s to you Kanamara Penis Festival—there are countless events that show a different side to Japanese life. Taking place between skyscrapers are centuries-old processions commemorating ancient rituals. The stark contrast reflects the nation’s ties to its past and adds a tangible atmosphere to what can be impersonal city streets.

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Although some events are a little more somber, Tokyo summer festivals in particular offer a chance for communities to relax and even get a little rowdy—something you don’t see in daily life, (unless you venture into a particularly good izakaya on a Friday night). The food stalls, fireworks and riotous processions combine to create a unique atmosphere that will no doubt become one of the best experiences of your trip to Japan.

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1. What to expect: From food to fire-walking

Firewalking, Honsen-ji Temple, Shinagawa Shukuba Festival
Photo by iStock.com/loeskieboom

We weren’t kidding when we said there are A LOT of festivals here. The rough estimate is around 200,000 festivals held annually across the country. On top of that, the term “festival” can cover a real range of events including seasonal celebrations, Shinto ceremonies, historical events and sometimes just celebrating a specific food (if you’re lucky, it’ll be a mix!).

When it comes to religious festivals, the large processions are publicly visible. However, the ceremonies will often take place beforehand and not all are open to the public. Some events, like the Meiji Shrine Grand Festival or Kyoto’s annual Gion Matsuri, will combine a series of ceremonies and events so you can pick and choose what you attend.

The sheer variety makes it a tad tricky to create a checklist of what to see and do, but we’ll stick to some of the more common and fun elements we think are best to see.

First: Look for a mikoshi parade

Photo by Gregory Lane

This is where locals carry portable shrines (mikoshi) through the streets, chanting and drawing huge crowds as they go. Requiring a lot of strength (the mikoshi often weigh upwards of a ton) and running for many hours, there’s often drinking involved, so the processions are energetic and amazing to watch.

Streets will be closed for mikoshi processions. You can often follow the parade or find a route map and head it off for a good view (they usually begin and/or end at a shrine, so it’s often a good place to start). Some of the best mikoshi parades include the Sanja Matsuri and the Torigoe Night Festival—with the Shitamachi districts of Tokyo known for having the best events.

Second: Feast on the food

Japanese festival food stalls
Photo by iStock.com/Hiromi Kudo

One of the absolute highlights of festivals in Japan has to be the street food. As one of the few East Asian countries with no common night markets or street food (it’s actually hugely frowned upon to eat while walking in most areas), this is a temporary burst of foodie heaven. From yakisoba to okonomiyaki, grilled meat in a thousand forms, and fresh, character-shaped castella cakes, you’ll be spoiled for choice. The colorful stalls are called yatai, and dishes usually cost around ¥500, so you can try a few out!

Third: Try out the unusual smaller events

While huge Tokyo parades are an experience, there’s a lot to be said for the weirder events that take place throughout Japan’s smaller towns and villages almost every weekend. There are the attention-grabbing ones, like the aforementioned phallic celebration or an afternoon spent watching sumo wrestlers scare babies. But why not head out to a small local festival to see what you find? Communities here often pride themselves on very specific produce, so you can spend a day at a tofu festival (complete with an eating competition) or watching student sumo in Setagaya. As they draw fewer out-of-town visitors, these events are often friendlier, and you’ll get more opportunities to join in.

Last but not least: If you go big, go early

Sumidagawa fireworks
Photo by Gemini st. used under CC

The only thing Tokyoites love more than a festival is arriving eight hours early to the festival site and claiming a space with giant tarps. Whether it’s a spot on the parade side line or hotel room in Sapporo, the prime real estate of each festival will be claimed early, so you need to be prepared. I am aware that this point is boring, but you’re in Japan now, and being boring gets you a hell of a good spot in three months’ time. You can turn up to plenty of events on the day, and sometimes that is better than wasting a morning on a mat, but sometimes it is worth it.

  • For popular festivals that require you to travel, like the Sapporo Snow Festival or the Kyoto Gion Matsuri, you will need to book accomodation and travel exceptionally early. There are people waiting on hostel booking slots to open at the drop of midnight, three months in advance. If you have money, no problem—pricey hotels will always exist. But if budget is your make-or-break factor, get in ahead of the game.
  • For fireworks and popular cherry blossom spots, those wanting the perfect viewing point will need to claim it early—and we mean like at least the morning of or day before for major spots. For fireworks there are often strict rules on where you can sit or stand (complete with angry old guards) and sections are often closed off when deemed full, so you have to be in it for the long game. This can be part of the fun though—make a picnic, bring drinks and settle in.
  • Japan may let its collective hair down for festivals, but it is still Japan, so festival schedules are a thing. While the atmosphere and food are great, it can suck to travel for ages only to arrive and find that you’ve missed the main attraction. When researching, try to find official event websites (sometimes this will be the site of the affiliated shrine) and the follow the social media accounts. They will often post schedules and updates which will likely be entirely in Japanese, but a little Google Translate can go a long way.

2. Spring festivals: Beyond the blossom

saitama sakura
Photo by photo.ktdm.jp used under CC

Spring is known as the time for cherry blossom festivals, but they’re only part of the festival scene. As plum blossom festivals come to an end in early spring, you can enjoy the unusual fire festival of Mt. Takao and attend that famous penis festival you’ve no doubt heard all about. As the cherry blossoms appear, pink-themed festivals appear across the city, with stalls lining park walkways and hanami parties galore. Long-running spring festivals such as the Meiji Shrine Grand Festival combine a host of events from horseback archery to poetry recitals, while the Ome Grand Festival is a little more procession based.

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If the warm weather tempts you out of the city, check out the best spring day trips from Tokyo. There will be plenty of blossom and (slightly) fewer people!

Top spring festivals in Tokyo

For what to eat at spring festivals, check out our seasonal spring food guide!

3. Summer festivals: Yukata, yatai and fireworks

Harajuku-Omotesando Super Yosakoi Festival, Tokyo
Photo by iStock.com/magicflute002

Summer festivals revolve around fireworks and dancing, which are two pretty great things to celebrate. The heat means evening fireworks are perfect, and it’s customary to don your favorite yukata (a summer kimono) and stroll through street food stalls, playing fair games and settling down to watch the display. For the summer dance festivals you can join right in at local Bon Odori events or enjoy the impressive displays held for Awa Odori, yosakoi (from Kyushu) and eisa (the Okinawan tradition). Tanabata festivals are also traditionally held around July 3rd, and you’ll no doubt see the wish-adorned papers strung up around town!

If you find Tokyo too sticky in summer, check out our top summer day trips. Plenty can be combined with a festival, but remember to book ahead!

Top summer festivals in Tokyo

For tasty treats at summer festivals, check out our guide to the best summer foods!

4. Autumn festivals: Changing leaves and sumo shows

Setagaya Hachimangu Autumn Festival Sumo
A sumo display at the Setagaya Hachimangu Autumn Festival | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Autumn is a cross-over season to make the most of, with the final fireworks displays of the year and local festivals celebrating the changing leaves. Known as koyo, the golden leaves are often viewed on walks with evening illuminations, but many local areas hold festivals too. Larger annual autumn festivals take place at major shrines across the city with mikoshi, parades and plentiful arrays of seasonal food. Not to mention the occasional semi-naked man if you head out to Ohara in late September.

If you’re looking for Autumnal day trips, why not match them up with local festivals?

Top autumn festivals in Tokyo

Autumn treats like baked sweet potatoes are a real highlight. Read on here for some more seasonal suggestions.

5. Winter festivals: From fire to plum blossoms

Chichibu Night Festival/Yomatsuri
Photo by iStock.com/JoshuaHawley

Winter in Japan will take you through a whole host of festivals, from fiery purification rituals to the blooming of plum blossoms, the sign that winter will soon be over. Before the new year dawns, you’ll see rituals with purifying firewalks. After, there’s the opportunity to burn your new year’s decorations at a tondoyaki festival. The new year night is celebrated with your first visit to a shrine or temple, known as hatsumode, and the fox parade (below) is an unusual way to spend the evening. Come February you can ward away demons with bean throwing and shake off the winter blues with the first plum blossoms of the year!

If you’re keen to get away from the city, try an easy-to-reach winter break—preferably with onsen to soak away your stress!

Top winter festivals in Tokyo

If you get chilly at your winter festival, be sure to keep an eye out for these warming winter treats!

6. How to get involved at a Japanese festival

Bon Odori at a summer festival. | Photo by Adrienne Mah

Standing on the sidelines munching street food is good enough for most of us, but some prefer to jump into the festival anarchy. While being dragged into carrying a mikoshi by a drunk local is pretty fun, there are ways to get officially involved too.

Short-term options: Bon Odori and volunteering

Generally, opportunities are slim for non-residents when it comes to taking part (keep in mind these are first and foremost community-led events, not tourist attractions). You can keep an eye out for volunteer opportunities though, which require some training but provide a great way to meet people and try something new.

We suggest trying the Facebook pages of events taking place during your visit as foreigner-friendly events tend to be more social media savvy (we have no science for this, but it seems to work). One example is the Some no Komichi festival in Shinjuku.

Some festivals are easy to pariticpate in though—the best being summer Bon Odori events. Everyone gets involved to dance and you can pick up the moves pretty fast. You can also attend one of the practice dance sessions most communities hold in the weeks leading up to the events.

Long-termers: Join a club or committee

If you are a resident, you can keep an eye out for community events notice boards. Try your ward office or the local volunteer center. You may need a decent level of Japanese to get inolved, but not always. For those in community-based roles like teaching at public schools, you may be asked to participate (especially if you live rurally), so befriend those teachers and ask around.

Your best chance, however, is to be part of a club involved in the festival. For example, taiko drumming or eisa dancing. As these are pivotal to the festivals, local clubs practice and prepare for months leading up to the event, which is often the highlight of the year. However, you will need to be dedicated; Japanese clubs are full on, so discuss the schedule/expectations before you commit.

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