Festivals (matsuri) of all kinds are a staple of Japanese culture and summer is the premier season to experience them. In recent years, the country has seen a bit of a boom in cultural festivals, to the point that it’s possible to book every weekend of your summer around them. We’re here to help by highlighting the best “fests” happening over the next three months.
Summer officially starts June 21, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from kicking things off a couple days earlier at the Tohoku Craft Beer Festival (Akita; June 19-21). The three-day event features drinks from nearly a dozen local brewers. The weekend is also a good chance to catch some smaller music festivals, before the heavyweights start later in the season. Dum-Dum Party (Daikanyama Unit, Tokyo; June 19) features British post-punk group The Raincoats and American indie-rockers La Sera alongside a bunch of Japanese acts, while those seeking something a bit heavier can turn to the Satanic Carnival (Makuhari Messe, Chiba; June 20), with Fact and Ken Yokoyama, for their rock fix.
The end of June is known for unpredictable weather, so maybe taking in some movies isn’t a bad call. The France Film Matsuri (Yurakucho Asahi Hall and Toho Cinemas Nichigeki, Tokyo; June 26-29) will screen 12 films over four days. If you aren’t a cinephile, Luna Sea’s Lunatic Fest (Makuhari Messe, Chiba; June 27-28) happens the same weekend.
The weekend of July 3 features the Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri (Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Pref.; July 3-5), which marks the start of a period wherein areas of the country start celebrating the Star Festival, which is officially on July 7. The Hiratsuka one is the largest in Kanto.
Not all the festivals are one-offs this summer. Various smaller arts events will be held nationwide under the banner of the Asahi Art Festival (various locations; June 13 to Oct. 12), which is a great chance to take in your local art scene.
The 24th Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (Omotesando and Shinjuku, Tokyo; July 11-20) comes at a time when sexual minorities have been in the news frequently in Japan. The organizers mention this in the press materials, but add, “We’d like everyone to enjoy (the films) with a little thought, but sometimes without thinking much.”
On the music front, mid-July is the point when a deluge of music festivals start to pop up across the country. For these two days, the highlight will be the Senseki Train Fes (Miyagi Pref.; July 11). The lineup is solid, but the draw is the experience — each stage can only be accessed by train.
If you don’t want to spend that much time on trains, head down to the Nippon Craft Beer Festival (Shonan, Kanagawa Pref.; July 11-12) to drink dozens of delicious brews from all over Japan — and attend the Beer Con, a craft-centric dating event.
It’s also a great time for traditional matsuri: Catch the always-interesting Mitama Matsuri (Yasukuni Shrine in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo; July 13-16), then prep for the Kingyo Matsuri (Edogawa Ward, Tokyo; July 18-19) a few days later. Or take in the Adachi Fireworks Festival (Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo; July 18). Or swing by Kyoto for the legendary Gion Matsuri (Kyoto; all July), though expect that one to be especially crowded.
One of the best places for art lovers in Japan in July is Niigata. The Water And Land Niigata Art Festival (Niigata; July 18 to Oct. 12) promises a lot of nature-centric works to check out. Then stick around in Niigata one more week for Fuji Rock Festival (Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata Pref.; July 24-26). This year’s headliners are Foo Fighters (frontman Dave Grohl’s broken leg permitting), Muse and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, and Fuji Rock boasts the best setting for any music festival in the country. If a weekend of rock isn’t appealing, check out the more traditional Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri (Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo; July 26).
The weeks leading into August are the heart of music festival season. The first weekend of the month features the first two days of the Rock In Japan Festival (Hitachi Seaside Park, Ibaraki Pref.; Aug. 1-2 and 8-9). The festival concentrates on primarily Japanese music and this year features the likes of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Sheena Ringo and 2015’s big J-pop breakout Gesu no Kiwami Otome. Running counter to Rock in Japan is the Tokyo Idol Festival (Odaiba, Tokyo; Aug. 1-2), featuring nearly 100 idol-pop outfits of all varieties.
For those who’d rather bypass the music festivals, the stage will be set for the 14th World Ballet Festival (Tokyo; Aug. 1-13) and, a couple days later, the Hanagasa Matsuri (Yamagata; Aug. 5-7), where more than 10,000 dancers sporting hats adorned with red flowers will take to the streets.
Prep your belly for early August, which boasts two great food-and-drink related happenings. The Aloha Yokohama event (World Porters Hawaii Town, Yokohama; Aug. 7-9) offers the chance to experience Hawaii in Japan, with plenty of island food and cultural events to check out. Meanwhile, the Nagoya Great Beer Festival (Shirotori Hall, Nagoya; Aug. 8-9) serves up some tasty suds from beer makers hailing from all over Japan.
O-Bon takes place the week around Aug. 15 and one of the best festivals connected to the holiday is Tokushima’s Awa Odori festival (Tokushima; Aug. 12-15), which attracts millions of revellers. Two big music festivals take place over the same weekend in different parts of the country. Up north, Rising Sun Rock Festival (Ishikari Bay New Port; Hokkaido; Aug. 14-15) presents a music showcase of only Japanese artists in a lovely natural setting. Back in the capital, Summer Sonic (Makuhari Messe, Chiba; Aug. 15-16) leans more toward big-name overseas acts inside a convention center and baseball stadium. It also boasts SonicMania (Makuhari Messe, Chiba; Aug. 14), an all-nighter that finally brings shock rocker Marilyn Manson and J-pop trio Perfume onto the same bill.
By this point in the summer, music festival lineups get repetitive, a lot of the smaller ones attract the same acts mixed in with local talent. However, Kazemachi Legend (Tokyo International Forum, Tokyo; Aug. 22) may be a change of pace as it features strictly older J-pop performers, such as Haruomi Hosono, Minako Yoshida and more. If ever there was something of a master class in the country’s pop music — this is it.
Heading into the end of the season there are more music festivals, such as the Asakusa Samba carnival (Minato Ward, Tokyo; Aug. 29). If you are near the capital, though, the best way to end the summer is the Koenji Awa Odori (Suginami Ward, Tokyo; Aug. 29-30). Drawing inspiration from the Tokushima event, the streets around Koenji Station will fill up with dancers and drinkers.
Don’t expect the heat or the parties to fizzle out as September arrives. Fall events include the 14th annual Tokyo Jazz Festival (Tokyo; Sept. 4-6), the Sapporo Autumn Fest (Sept. 11 to Oct. 4) and the techno fantasyland of Labyrinth (Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata Pref.; Sept. 19-21). Summer might be the peak time for matsuri, but the festivals never really stop in Japan. Best keep on your toes.