Japan is known for its unique festivals. Throughout the year, a range of celebrations reflect the country’s traditional and modern culture, providing a glimpse into the nation’s character. Here are some of Japan’s most fascinating, fun, and occasionally bizarre festival traditions.
Picture a writhing mess of ten thousand men in loincloths scrambling desperately, jumping, grappling, and occasionally pinching each other to gain an advantage over the competition in their pursuit of a sacred pair of sticks being thrown into the melee. You’re picturing the Hadaka Matsuri.
Although it initially sounds a bit like a nightmarish fever dream, participating in the festival is actually a pretty fun bonding experience. Being mostly nude in public doesn’t feel nearly as weird when everyone else is doing it too. Don’t feel like stripping down and wrestling an infinite horde of sweaty revellers? It’s also fine to watch the spectacle unfold from afar, fully clothed.
There are several of these festivals across Japan, but the most famous by far is the Saidai-ji version in Okayama, where the tradition began. The Okayama version takes place in the cold winter nights of February, and those who succeed in catching (and keeping) the shingi are guaranteed a year of good fortune.
Remember the crying baby that kept you awake for thirteen hours on the plane? It might be a celebrated athlete. The Nakizumo Matsuri is a tradition that has been going on for centuries, featuring screeching infants as the main attraction.
The tiny competitors are held aloft in a traditional sumo ring (by the wrestlers themselves), and the first to loudly laugh or – more realistically – cry, is declared the winner. In the event of a tie, the screamer with the most volume wins.
Want to see, and hear, this unique festival for yourself? The best-known rendition is at Senso-ji in Tokyo, but others are held throughout various spots in Japan around the end of April.
Ultimately, it’s an event praying for the health and prosperity of the children, and it’s a good laugh for everyone involved. Apart from the babies.
On the third weekend of May every year, large crowds gather to watch mikoshi – sacred portable shrines – being paraded along the scenic streets of Asakusa.
One of the biggest festivals in Tokyo, this annual event is a huge celebration bringing together people from all backgrounds. It’s also one of the few times where visitors can openly see the impressive full-body tattoos adorning the infamous yakuza.
While usually hidden from public view, the traditional Japanese art of irezumi is on full display at this event, while the owners of the artwork in question relax, socialize, and celebrate amongst each other. Sometimes they’ll even put on a special performance for onlookers.
At this point, we should offer a warning: it’s fine to look and admire the elaborate bodysuits, but obviously don’t touch them, or take unsolicited photos without permission.
Not interested in elaborate criminal tattoos? Try the festival’s huge variety of dance performances, musical entertainment, and of course the famous food stalls.
Enjoy some phallic treats, vigorous displays, and hard celebrations at the Kanamara Matsuri in Kawasaki.
That’s right, the subject of YouTube clips and BuzzFeed articles everywhere – it’s Japan’s famous fertility festival. Taking place on the first Sunday in April every year, the festival focuses around a local shrine shrouded in ancient folklore slightly too explicit to mention on here.
While the festival itself is only a few decades old – incredibly young when compared to most of the other traditions on this list – it has quickly become one of the most widely-known and popular Japanese festivals on the internet, for obvious reasons.
Join the locals for a rowdy day of celebration and good, clean fun. Introverts might need a stiff drink afterwards.
Arguably the most popular dancing festival in Japan, Awa Odori in Tokushima is not to be missed.
Male and female dancers alike have practiced for weeks, if not months, to perfect their choreographed routines and ensure that everyone is perfectly in sync. Their costumes have been flawlessly prepared, and the downtown area of the city of Tokushima is blocked off to provide hundreds of performers with the perfect stage.
So what’s in it for you? Seeing hundreds of people dancing and revelling in pure glee, observing the pride people have in their matching group uniforms, watching performers put their true uninhibited selves on display, and of course, all of the accoutrements that come with a good Japanese festival – food stalls, activities, souvenirs, and photo ops galore.
Best of all, the festival takes place in the sweltering summer month of August – adding an unforgettable sunny atmosphere to the festivities.
Make sure you pop by a vending machine to get a commemorative Awa Odori energy drink. They actually taste pretty good.
Once a year in October, the peaceful and beautiful city of Matsuyama, nestled in the rustic Ehime Prefecture, erupts into glorious violence.
Starting early in the morning, men gathered in teams raise their morale, and subsequently raise their mikoshi (a 300-500kg portable shrine) before running forward en masse to gain as much momentum as possible, and crashing into another team holding another sacred, priceless, artifact, also charging full steam ahead.
There are broken bones, as you can imagine. It’s intense to watch, and offers a side of Japan that’s very different to what most people expect. Afterwards, relax and do some shopping at nearby stalls and boutiques, scream “kanpai!” with some new friends, or join the battered and bruised participants for a restorative bath in the nearby hot spring.
Make sure that you go to the event in Dogo – it’s easily the most bustling and exciting location, with the most serious competition. Other venues tend to take it a bit easier on the violence.
Other cities in Japan including Fukushima and Himeji also have well-known kenka mikoshi festivals.
Spring in Japan is unforgettable – cherry blossoms spiralling down and floating on waterways and rivers, young swallows chirping from their nests, and the endless evenings of hanami celebrations with friends, family, and co-workers.
Also, at local shrines around the country, there’s mochinage.
Mochinage is an old shinto tradition in which priests or prominent community figures throw thousands of mochi balls out to a waiting crowd at the steps of a temple. Like another great Japanese cultural treasure, Pokémon, the aim is to catch ’em all.
It is said that the more mochi you catch, the more happiness and prosperity you will receive over the coming year. Needless to say, there’s a bit of competition, and some take it more seriously than others.
If you have the opportunity to attend one of these events (whether by invitation or by chance), make sure you take advantage of it and participate in this old tradition – you’ll probably make quite a nice target for the throwers.
Insider pro-tip from a local grandmother: Bring a bag or bucket to catch your mochi with.
Insider pro-tip from us: Do not get in the way of local grandmothers and their mochi collection. You will regret it.
Need travel inspiration? Look out for more posts about Japan and head over to our Instagram page for a daily dose of culture.