August is festival season in Japan with more events held than any other summer month. If you’re planning a trip to Japan during the late summer, here are a few of the traditional annual events and festivals you can attend.
During Kangen Sai, a 1,500-year old style of Japanese orchestral music is showcased at the Itsukushima Jinja shrine in Hiroshima. At the festival’s culmination, boats transport two statues of the shrine’s deity to two other shrines with a traditional music performance held at each.
Aomori Nebuta Festival
According to legend, ninth century General Tamuramaro of Aomori ordered his army to create giant bamboo and paper floats in the form of warriors to ward off enemies. Nowadays, the nightly parade of floats is believed to wake Aomori citizens from summer drowsiness. A fireworks display on the Aomori waterfront concludes each year’s festivities.
Akita Kanto Festival
A kanto is a long bamboo pole with several cross poles attached and on each of the cross poles hangs paper lanterns shaped like rice bales, 46 in total. During the Kanto Festival in Akita, young men parade through the streets balancing kanto on their heads, shoulders or hips, frequently changing positions to outdo their fellow performers. The lanterns are believed to frighten away evil spirits as the town prays for a plentiful harvest.
Flower Hat Festival (Yamagata Hanagasa Festival)
During the annual Flower Hat festival in Yamagata, more than 10,000 performers divided into around 100 groups don hanagasa, a type of conical hat decorated with flowers, and perform choreographed dances through the streets. While the festival is fairly new (1964), it has become one of the largest in the Tohoku region.
August is Obon season in Japan, an annual Buddhist holiday period when families honor their ancestors. The Awa Odori celebration in Tokushima is the largest Obon festival in the country with over a million visitors each year. The festival is named after the Awa dance (fool’s dance) where thousands of participants take to the streets in a jovial, carnival-like atmosphere. As the well-known local saying goes, “It’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches, so if both are fools, you may as well dance.”
By the end of the two-day Mantoro celebration in Nara City, more than 3,000 stone and bronze hanging lanterns line the path to the Kasuga Taisha shrine in Nara Park. The large collection of lanterns have been dedicated by local devotees for more than 1,000 years, with the oldest lantern dating back to 1,038 AD.
As summer ends, Kyoto residents light giant bonfires in the shape of the Chinese character dai, meaning ‘large,’ on five mountains surrounding the city. Folklore says that if you drink water or sake with the Daimonji fires reflected in your cup, you’ll gain protection from illness.