Japan’s Top Three Festivals
Right across Japan there are thousands of omatsuri (festivals) held every year. However, the top three festivals, known collectively as Nihon Sandai Matsuri, are unique larger than life processions of shrines, displays of fireworks and performances of traditional arts that need to be seen to be believed.
Japan’s three top festivals, or ‘Nihon Sandai Matsuri,’ comprise Tokyo’s Kanda Matsuri, Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri and Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri. Some of their most-photographed moments include rugby scrum-like processions of enormous portable shrines, dazzling fireworks displays and rare performances of traditional music, theatre, and dance.
Tokyo’s Kanda Matsuri occurs across a weekend in mid-May every other year and boasts some of the most impressive shrine processions you will see in Japan. Notably, the Sengan Mikoshi, a 3.75-tonne golden behemoth, is heaved through the streets of Tokyo on the shoulders of over 1,500 shrine bearers. It’s just one of 108 portable shrines from the 108 parishes of Tokyo that pay homage at the city’s historic guardian shrine, in a ceremony known as the Miya-iri.
Accompanying this incredible spectacle are a mouth-watering host of food stalls lining the procession, all serving traditional dishes that perfectly complement the festival’s old Tokyo setting. Amidst all the colour and movement of the busy Kanda Matsuri festival are some permanent fixtures not to be missed, such as Tokyo’s most famous eel and tempura restaurants and the nearby Imperial Palace.
In the welcome warmth of Japanese summer, Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri Festival is almost like Japan’s version of 4th of July, given the incredible firework displays that light up the city. Known as the Tenjin Matsuri Hono Hanabi, the fireworks occur above a traditional fleet procession crisscrossing the city’s Okawa River. Visitors can enjoy the awe-inspiring 90-minute display from the banks of the river or at iconic sites such as Osaka Castle, the city’s traditional heart.
Those seeking a festival that communes with one of Japan’s most iconic symbols, the geisha, cannot miss Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri festival, which takes place in mid-July each year. One of the many signature traditional events, the festival features 32 ornate floats that have been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list for their outstanding cultural value. The ornate floats are so detailed they are considered ‘moving museums’, and they parade slowly and gracefully so visitors may drink in their beauty. The parade route cuts a path straight through Gion, Japan’s most iconic Geisha district.
Gion is also adjacent to the vibrant shopping and entertainment district of Kawara-machi, where long-established traders endure amidst the glow of modern fashion boutiques. Gion’s wooden architecture, lit up in the glow of lanterns by night, makes it an iconic place to experience seasonal “kaiseki” cuisine in the traditional Kyoto style.