Interesting Under-the-Radar Festivals?
So we all know that celebrations like Kyoto's Gion Matsuri, Osaka's Tenjin Festival or the really cool Tanabata celebrations of Sendai get a lot of press. How about the lesser known festivals around Japan? Does anyone have any unique festivals to share? Here in Kumamoto two weeks ago, we just had the cool fire swinging ritual at Aso shrine ... it never seems to make the guidebooks though! I'd love to hear your favorite festival discovery.
I lived in Toyama for 4 years so some of my favourite festivals from that area were:
- Oawara kaze no bon - their own unique dancing along narrow streets, and traditional music everywhere. This is probably Toyama's most famous festival. Held in Yatsuo which is a beautiful old "inaka" (countryside) town.
- Fukuno Yokata Matsuri - this festival is a little insane. Residents of this small town spend months building their floats in preparation for the festival. Once they've proudly paraded them around the town at night, they then proceed to battle against each other by smashing and destroying passing floats belonging to other residents before a cheering crowd.
- Toga soba festival - this is held in early February at the international campsite in Toga-mura. Toga residents are quite known for their oishi soba noodles and at this festival there is lots of soba dishes (and soba beer), snow sculptures, fireworks, kamakuras and even an actual wedding on the stage which sometimes can be quite bizzare with staging dancing, and costumes.
- SCOT summer season - these are a collection of performances directed by Suzuki Tadashi who is world renouned for this unique style of acting. Many performances are held in Toga-mura which I think is his hometown. Actors who study his style will come from all over the world.
There are a lot of great festivals! Here are some of my favorite festivals in Fukushima. I particularly like these because they are unique (Japan often has festivals that seem similar and offer the same kind of food and events).
Taimatsu Fire Festival - this one is an annual event held in November. This year it is coming up on November 14th. Dozens of giant pillars are set up and they are set on fire. It is absolutely breathtaking to watch. Being a spectator is also amazing, to feel the heat against your face and if you look straight up, you can see burning embers drifting through the air above you.
Higashiyama Water Throwing Festival - This is a lesser known festival, but popular with people in Aizuwakamatsu City area. Like many other festivals, there is a shrine carried through the streets on the shoulders of volunteers. What makes this event unique, is the hot spring water placed outside of the onsen hotels. spectators scoop up this warm water and splash it on the shrine and all the people carrying it. It is fun to participate in this festival!
The best festival I went to in Japan was the Tagata Honen Matsuri in Aichi prefecture - it's a fertility festival and the star of the show is a giant wooden carved phallus that is paraded around the streets! I'm not sure how under the radar it is, but it's definitely unique and worth a visit if you are in the area in March.
Otherwise, I did quite enjoy just stumbling upon festivals by chance. It seems like every town, no matter how small, has its own festival. It can be hard to find out about them unless you live in the area, however. For example, Yamagata prefecture has a number of snow festivals in the winter and they are lovely - with sculptures and snow lanterns galore - but not very well-publicised in English.
I did really enjoy the snow festival in the town of Yokote, in Akita prefecture. It's a fairly big festival, I think held every February, and the main attraction is the chance to see and go inside kamakura, or igloos, that are traditional to the area. It's amazing how cosy they are inside when outside it's absolutely freezing!
Nebuta Festival in Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture is well known, however, there are actually 3 such festivals in the prefecture happening around the same time. A variation in Hirosaki is known for its artistic floats, and the Goshogawara Tachi Neputa features towering floats similar to the Gion festival--only this time floats feature monsters and scenes from Japanese mythology!
If you are looking to escape the crowds, no luck here. These are less well known variations of the festival, but still frequented by Japanese tourists. Still, very cool and recommended if up north during the summer time.