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A man in an elaborate orange kimono with a decorative mask in Miyajima.
A man in an elaborate orange kimono with a decorative mask in Miyajima.

Matsuri in the Summer: Five Unusual Ones to See!

Thuy FangThuy Fang
Published Time
Posted on July 09, 2024
Modified Time
Updated last July 16, 2024

Japan is famous for its limitless and exclusively creative ideas, including its annual natsu matsuri (summer festivals). Even though somewhat uncommon, the festive atmosphere in Japan is always joyful and exciting, perfect for families and people of all ages. Discover the vibrant world of Japanese matsuri with these five bizarre summer celebrations!

Numata Festival (August 3-5)

The Numata Festival, also known as the Numata Tengu Matsuri, is the largest and most exciting event in Numata City, Gunma Prefecture. It happens every year and attracts over 200,000 people. This event began during the Edo period (1603-1868) as the Gion Festival of Suga Shrine. Later, in 1970, it combined with a commercial festival. Today, this become a mix of traditional Shinto rituals and joyful celebrations.

One of the most memorable parts of the Numata Festival is the Tengu Mikoshi (Tengu portable shrines). Tengu are powerful goblin-like spirits believed to protect people and bring good luck. It’s also Japan’s most massive portable shrine featuring a red-nosed goblin mask. During the event, around 300 women carry a massive Tengu mask shrine, weighing more than 400 kilograms, through the streets. 

A bunch of people carrying a large tengu mask at the Numata Festival.
The Numata Festival features a giant tengu mask! Image via Nearby Tokyo

In addition, there are two main shrines, mikoshi, and about 30-40 smaller town mikoshi. These portable shrines are paraded through the city with lively traditional music called Gionbayashi, filling the streets with energy and excitement. 

It’s not just about the parades; the city’s downtown district also transforms into a bustling market with over 200 open-air stalls selling food, crafts, and other goods. Plus, visitors can enjoy various performances, including the Sennin Odori dance performed by a thousand people. The mando floats have beautiful decorations, making the event even more special.

Shibukawa Heso Festival (September 7)

The Shibukawa Heso Festival, or Navel Festival, is a unique celebration in Shibukawa City, Gunma Prefecture. Shibukawa City has proudly called itself Japan’s “navel” since 1984 when the festival began to boost local pride. Generally held in July, the Shibukawa Heso Matsuri is one of the city’s favorite yearly events. But this year, the celebration will take place at the beginning of September to escape the hottest weather.

Men with painted bellies at the Shibukawa Heso Festival.
Everyone gets their belly painted with a goofy face! Image via Visit Gunma

Every year, attendees enjoy the colorful and dynamic “Belly Button Dance Parade,” the matsuri’s centerpiece. They paint funny and creative designs on their bellies and dance in the streets to happy music. This parade starts late afternoon and brings everyone together in a joyful celebration of community spirit. 

Aside from the dance parade, the matsuri offers various activities and attractions celebrating the belly button theme. You can explore street performances, participate in the Kids’ Belly Button Dance Parade, and participate in interactive events highlighting Shibukawa’s cultural significance.

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Yoshida Fire Festival (August 26-27)

The Yoshida Fire Festival, occurring annually at Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine and Suwa Shrine, is one of Japan’s three most unusual celebrations. For over 500 years, the event marks the end of Mount Fuji’s climbing season and aims to please the mountain’s goddess to avoid volcanic eruptions.

People marching with ceremonial torches in the streets during the Yoshida Fire Matsuri.
It’s one of Japan’s most unique festivals. Image via Shutterstock

The matsuri begins with rituals on August 26th at Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine. Local carriers move two portable shrines, Myojin Omikoshi and Oyama Omikoshi, to their resting place at O-tabi-sho. As dusk falls, the city lights up with over 70 pine torches, nearly three meters tall, turning the streets into a breathtaking blaze that lasts late into the night.

On the second day of matsuri, the celebration continues with a mikoshi parade through Yoshida City from the afternoon until dusk. People join in a lively march around the shrine grounds, making it a vibrant and memorable event.

Abare Festival (the first Friday and Saturday of July)

This matsuri is also called the “Rampage Festival”. It’s a lively and high-spirited celebration annually on the Noto Peninsula, Ishikawa Prefecture. It originated over 400 years ago when the community prayed for help during a severe sickness. They believed the deity Gozu Tenno from Kyoto’s Gion Shrine could cure them.

A ceremonial fire at the Abare Matsuri.
Fire festivals are popular even in the summer! Image via Ishikawa Travel

The event kicks off with a formal Shinto ceremony at Yasaka Shrine. Then, over 40 decorated lantern floats parade through the streets, accompanied by taiko drums and cheers. When night comes, towering seven-meter torches light up, adding more energy to the event.

Yet, the most exciting part of the Abare Matsuri happens on the second day, known for its “Fire and Violence”. Two small portable shrines are carried through the town and undergo symbolic destruction. They get thrown onto the ground, dunked in rivers, and finally burned in a big fire. Twelve men do this to show how thankful the community is for being kept safe by their gods.

Muon Bon Odori (Mid August)

Muon Bon Odori, or Silent Dance Festival, is a modern twist on Japan’s traditional Obon Matsuri. Originating in Tokai City, Aichi Prefecture, this event stands out because it’s completely silent! Obon, celebrated for over 500 years, blends Japanese beliefs and Buddhist customs to honor ancestors. And Bon Odori, a folk dance in yukata (summer kimono), welcomes spirits with drum beats.

A bunch of people dancing at the Muon Bon Odori Festival.
These people are dancing with headphones! Image via Wired Japan

To address noise complaints, organizers in Tokai City now play music directly into participants’ headphones. During the Muon Bon Odori, everyone gathers to dance to their tunes transmitted via FM radio. This way, dancers can gracefully move to traditional Japanese tunes without making any noise. 

Why should I attend these unusual matsuri?

These matsuri are not just about traditions; they unite communities in joyful celebrations. Experience the vibrant Numata Matsuri, where ancient traditions meet joyful celebrations with giant Tengu masks and energetic street parades. Join the Shibukawa Heso Festival for navel-painted dancers and community spirit. Also, don’t miss the burning of the Abare Festival’s symbolic shrines!

A bunch of Tanabata streamers.
Have you ever been to these August festivals before? Image via Shutterstock

Whether dancing silently to your beat at Muon Bon Odori or witnessing the blazing torches at Yoshida Fire Festival, each event offers a unique experience you won’t forget. Join the fun and immerse yourself in Japan’s rich cultural heritage! Leave a comment below to share which matsuri you’d love to attend!

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