Translated by Briony Dunbar
Enjoy Japanese Summer Festivals From June To August!
Written by MATCHA
There are dozens of traditional festivals and events held in Japan. If you're in Japan, why not try experiencing Japanese culture and customs through these summer events?
Although summers in Japan are said to get hotter every year, the fact that there are dozens of fun activities unique to summer has not changed a bit. On July 1st, a Shinto ritual called Yama-biraki is held, where mountains, including Mt. Fuji, are opened up for a limited time, thus starting off the summer leisure season. Why not experience the festivals and events and enjoy the heat from June through August?
Events in June
Start of the Rainy Season
Every year the days around June 10th are known as tsuyu-iri, the start of the rainy season, due to the continuous rain which starts around the time when the plums traditionally ripen. Roughly one month on from this point is referred to as the summer rainy season.
People assume this time is unsuitable for travel, but there are plenty of temporary sunlight bursts called tsuyu-bare, as well as years with little precipitation called kara-tsuyu. And, since there are also cold days which are unusual for the season called tsuyu-zamu, you should definitely check the weather forecast before heading out.
Festivals and Events in July
Tanabata became an event unique to Japan, as it is the fusion of the Chinese Star legend and an Imperial court event. Based on a romantic legend in which the star-crossed couple Hikoboshi and Orihime (*1), who were separated by the Heavenly King, are allowed to meet once a year on July 7th by crossing the Milky Way (*2) in the sky.
At home, people hang decorations and strips of paper with their various wishes written on them on a small bamboo stick, and look up at the starry sky while wishing for their dreams to come true.
Beautiful Tanabata Festivals are held around Japan from early July or early August, depending on the region and include the Sendai Tanabata Festival (held in August in Miyagi Prefecture) which is famous for its gorgeous decorations, as well as the Tanabata Edoro Festival (held in August in Akita Prefecture) where hundreds of ukiyo-e art and portraits of beautiful women colorfully decorate the night sky.
(*1) Hikoboshi and Orihime - Hikoboshi is said to refer to the star Altair and Orihime to the star Vega. When connected, these combined with a third star, Deneb, create the “Summer Triangle”.
(*2) Milky Way - A cluster of numerous stars that form a belt shape on a clear night sky, and can be seen very clearly from summer to autumn in Japan.
The Gion Festival is a traditional festival at Yasaka Shrine (Higashiyama ward, Kyoto) which has been held since the 9th century. Held for a month from July 1st on every year, it is known as the premier Shinto festival in Japan.
Its most remarkable feature is the Yamaboko-Junko (the procession of festival floats), which was chosen as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage point. Two separate processions are held, the Saki-matsuri on the 17th and the Ato-matsuri on the 24th, with 23 yamaboko (festival floats) carried around the city of Kyoto during the Saki-matsuri and ten at the Ato-matsuri.
Yamaboko are decorations on the floats carried during shrine festivals, and, as treasures of old families and well-established stores are often on display, it is commonly referred to as a “moving art museum”.
The Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival
Fireworks festivals are held in various places throughout July and August, but the Sumida River Fireworks Festival is especially well-known in Japan. Every year on the last Saturday in July, Asakusa in Tokyo and the riverbed along the Sumida river close to the Mukojima area are overrun with spectators.
Starting from 19:00 and lasting for an hour and a half, the festival is divided into two areas: Area 1 (downstream of Sakura Bridge to the upper stream of Kototoi Bridge) and Area 2 (downstream of Komatagata Bridge to the upper stream of Umaya Bridge). You can see unusual fireworks at Area 2 since they hold an annual competition for creative fireworks.
** Please be aware that the fireworks may be delayed or canceled depending on the weather.
The Midsummer Day of the Ox
In Japan it is customary to eat eel (which is full of protein and vitamins, and thought to be effective against summer heat related fatigue) on The Midsummer Day of the Ox in the ancient Chinese calendar.
The most common way of eating eel is to make kabayaki by slicing open the eel, grilling it while applying a sweet and salty marinade and then placing it on a bed of white rice.
As the Midsummer Day of the Ox isn’t based on the solar calendar the day changes every year. In 2016, it was on July 30th and in 2017 it will be on July 25 and August 2nd, so on these days you’ll smell the fragrant scent of kabayaki from various eel restaurants all across Japan.
Festivals and Events in August
The Awa Odori is a traditional dance with a history of over 400 years that is said to have originated in Tokushima Prefecture. Though the Tokushima Awa Dance is the largest festival, this dance is performed not only in Tokushima but all around Japan during the summer months.
In Tokushima, it is held every year for four days from August 12th to the 15th. During this time, the downtown becomes full of dances, with about 1,300,000 spectators and 100,000 dancers taking part.
Groups of dancers called ren display their unique outfits and dance styles, vying for top honors. Recently, some visitors to Japan, unsatisfied with just watching the dances, have begun actually taking part in the dances themselves.
Kyoto's Gozan Okuribi Festival
The Kyoto Gozan Okuribi Festival, also known as the Daimonji Festival, is a traditional Buddhist rite held on the 16th of August every year in which enormous Chinese characters are set on fire on the five mountains surrounding Kyoto, in order to send home the souls of the dead.
The fires are set from 20:00 in the following sequence: “大文字” (daimonji, the character for big or great), “妙法” (myoho, a character meaning Dharma or Buddhist teachings), “船形” (funagata, not the character itself but rather its meaning, the shape of a ship), “左大文字” (hidari daimonji, the character for big or great repeated on the left side) and “鳥居形” (toriigata, the shape of a Shinto shrine gate), and are displayed for 30 minutes in the dark night sky.