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7 Out-Of-The-Ordinary Japanese Festivals

There are lots of festivals in Japan that are slightly strange and might surprise you. Here are 7 out-of-the-ordinary festivals that are exciting and maybe even comical.

1. Onbashira Matsuri

Official name: Shikinen Zoei Onbashira Taisai
This festival is held at Suwa Taisha, one of Japan's oldest shrines. It includes 4 shrines in the Lake Suwa area including Kamisha Honmiya and Shimosha Harumiya, and is the main shrine of Suwa Shrines nationwide. The pillars (called "onbashira") in each corner of the main building are replaced every 7 years, and the Onbashira Matsuri refers to the acts of rebuilding the shrine repository, choosing the new onbashira, felling the trees and bringing them from the mountains, and finally rebuilding the pillars. What's impressive is the "kiotoshi," occurring at both the Kamisha and Shimosha. During this event, the 17m long and 10t pillars fall down a slope with momentum, and the worshipers desperately continuing to ride the pillars even as they tangle with danger is the sight of pure bravery.

Event date: The Kamisha's felling event is early April, and Shimosha's is 4 days after.
The parade of the logs is early May for the Kamisha, and mid-May for the Shimosha. The next time this event will be held is in 2023.

The photo is of the kiotoshi at the Shimosha. The logs thunder down a 100m long, max 35 degree slope.

1. Onbashira Matsuri

5828 Shimosuwa-cho, Shimosuwa-gun, Nagano

2. Fukushima Waraji Matsuri

Haguro Shrine in Fukushima is enshrined in Mt. Haguro. Long ago, huge waraji straw sandals were made to fit the now lost statues of guardian Deva Kings at 12m long and weighing 2t, said to be the biggest in Japan, and dedicated to the deities. It is said that the tradition later turned into this festival. During the akatsuki-mairi, a traditional festival every February that has continued for more than 300 years, one sandal is offered, and the other in August. The sight of people carrying the huge sandal and parading through town is a representative sight of a Fukushima summer.
Event date: Early August annually

2. Fukushima Waraji Matsuri

2-3 Motomachi, Fukushima-shi, Fukushima

3. Oga no Namahage

This is a traditional event that has continued since ancient times in the northwestern part of Akita, the Oga Peninsula. It used to be held on January 15th, but in the modern era it changed to New Year's Eve. Depending on the area, the masks they wear are different, but during this event, people visit houses dressed up as demons called namahage holding knives, wearing outfits called "kede" made from straw, and asking for crying children and children who don't listen to their parents. While children cry at the scary sight, namahage are actually visiting gods at the critical turning point of the year bringing sound health and cautioning against indolence. At the visiting houses, they are treated with traditional hospitality.

Event date: every December 31st

3. Oga no Namahage

Aza-Mizukuisawa, Kitaurashinzan, Oga-shi, Akita

4. Kokusekiji Sominsai

This festival in Oshu has over 1,000 years of history. The climax of the event is the Sominbukuro Sodatsusen, a contest in which men in fundoshi (traditional loincloths) fight for a jute bag. Inside the bag are amulets called "katsunoki" for bountiful harvest and sound health, so the men wrestle until dawn for possession of the bag. When dawn breaks, the person who grabbed it sings a victory song, and it's said that they will not just get the benefits of the bag but a great bounty in general.

Event date: End of January to mid-February annually

4. Kokusekiji Sominsai

17 Yamauchi, Kuroishi-chi, Mizusawaku-ku, Oshu-shi, Iwate

5. Kanamara Matsuri

Kanayama Shrine, within the grounds of Wakamiya Hachimangu in Kawasaki, is a shrine dedicated to blacksmiths and fertility. This festival is held every year. The mikoshi (portable shrine) is modeled after male genitals, and is paraded through the streets. This festival is said to be beneficial for a prosperous business and continuing the family line, and in recent years many foreigners come to the festival. But actually, because it's such a unique event, troubling behavior has also increased. In 2016, the wooden phallus on the grounds which worshipers can sit on to pray for treasured children was removed during the event. This festival started during the Edo period (1603 - 1868) for the prayers of Kawasaki meshimori-onna, women who worked in inns as maids and unlicensed prostitutes. Please enjoy it with good humor.

Event date: The first Sunday of every April

5. Kanamara Matsuri

2-13-16 Daishi Ekimae, Kawasaki-ku, Kawasaki-shi, Kanagawa

6. Ushitsu Abare Matsuri

This heroic festival happens in Ushitsu on the Noto Peninsula in the northern area of Ishikawa. The main attraction of the first day are the 40 or more "kiriko," 7m tall vertical lanterns, dancing very close to huge lit pine torches. On the second day, the 2 mikoshi are thrown into the sea or river or even into a fire. You might be surprised by how wild it is, but this festival started when the locals were saved from a bad epidemic by a blue wasp deity, and the overjoyed people made kiriko and carried them to Yasaka Shrine. The heat of the sparks from the flames and the sight of the dancing kiriko is impressive.

Event date: The first Friday and Saturday of every July

6. Ushitsu Abare Matsuri

1-197-1 Aza-Ushitsushin, Noto-cho, Hosu-gun, Ishikawa

7. Nozawa Onsen's Dosojin Matsuri

Dosojin is a folk deity that has been worshiped since ancient times for children's healthy growth, a prayer for children, and for disaster prevention. In the Hokushin region of Nagano, fiery Dosojin Matsuri are held on the lunar New Year to give thanks for the birth of one's first child and to cleanse oneself of an unlucky year, but the Dosojin Festival at the Nozawa Onsen is particularly famous for its magnificence. The first ones to enter the newly rebuilt main building of the shrine is a mass of men who fall under the unlucky ages of that year. The climax is tough battle between villagers carrying pine torches trying to burn the building down and the unlucky men protecting it, and this lasts an hour and a half. It ends with both sides clapping and chanting in gratitude that it ended safely, and the shrine building is burned down by flames leaping into the sky.

Event date: Every January sometime between the 13th to 15th

7. Nozawa Onsen's Dosojin Matsuri

9801 Toyosato, Nozawa Onsen-mura, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano

There are plenty of festivals nationwide with roots in the region. Please check out any festival that strikes your fancy, especially those wild dangerous ones or ones that are a little out-of-the-ordinary!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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