Tucked away in the mountains of Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture is a well known but small hot spring town called Higashiyama, which literally means "East Mountain." You can soak in any one of the many outdoor hot springs as you watch water cascade down between the mountains and over small waterfalls. Green in summer, red in fall and white in winter, Higashiyama is beautiful any time of year.
However, if you want a little more excitement in a usually relaxed place, I recommend braving the hot summer weather in early August for their annual Water Throwing Festival. As the name suggests, this unique festival is not something to miss. The best part? You are more than welcome to participate.
The festival starts going around 6:45pm after a Shinto Ritual at the entrance of the hot spring town. Two women dressed in traditional wear and standing on top of a portable shrine - called a mikoshi - are hoisted up onto the shoulders of dozens of people who are also dressed in traditional wear, and are then paraded down the street. Throughout the festival these women throw 5 yen coins with either red, white or yellow strings to bring good luck for love, health or money. For the first twenty minutes, there is also a mini shrine carried by young children who follow after the main shrine, chanting fiercely as they make their way through the hot spring town.
True to the name, the hot spring hotels set out large tubs of water with buckets for hotel guests and spectators to scoop water out and splash it onto the shrine. If you would like to participate, also be aware that you may be caught in the crossfire. Some eager people behind you may also be throwing water, or you may accidentally slosh water back on yourself if you throw it too enthusiastically.
After the first twenty minutes or so, the portable shrine is put down in front of a large hot spring hotel for a small break. This is the point when whoever would like to carry the portable shrine can join in. From there you proceed from hotel to hotel, chanting and sputtering under warm hot spring water being tossed on you (or watching people sputter if you are spectating).
There are special shuttles for people carrying the portable shrine to help transport them to hotels that are a bit further apart, although they are still within easy walking distance. I am not sure whether it is because they are just very friendly and inviting to foreigners, but both times I have been to this festival they have enthusiastically ushered us onto the shuttles, regardless of whether we were carrying the portable shrine, throwing water, or just spectating. Even if you don't take the shuttles, you can just follow the crowd on foot, it is not terribly far and you will get great exercise out of it.
Along the way, you will also be offered beer and rice balls, which is generally for the people who are carrying the portable shrine, but they always hand it out to us foreigners as well. The last stop of the moving festival is a large hotel near where it first started. Once water is gone and the chants have died away, beer and rice balls are freely handed out to everyone.
If you arrive late or get lost, there are volunteers guiding traffic who can point you in the right direction, or show you where you can go to cut off the slow procession. Since this festival is in the middle of the summer, don't worry about being too cold, the weather is usually warm and pretty humid. Although this is a one night event, there are plenty of accommodations in the hot spring area where you can enjoy a nice soak in the hot spring following the event, although I am sure the hotels will book up fast. There are also other hotels within Aizuwakamatsu city that may be cheaper, and there are frequent shuttles that run from the main train station to the hot spring town, which takes about twenty minutes.
Regardless of whether you want to participate or not, this is a fun and unique festival in a beautiful part of Aizuwakamatsu. If you find yourself in the area in the beginning of August, stop on by!