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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogWhat is Natsu Matsuri? Summer Events Then and Now

What is Natsu Matsuri? Summer Events Then and Now

Thuy FangThuy Fang
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July 23, 2022

Summer days in Japan, especially in big cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka, are hot. In spite of the scorching heat, you can still enjoy a natsu matsuri! Let’s find out what it is!

What is Natsu Matsuri?

When translated into English, “natsu” (夏) means summer, and “matsuri” (祭 り) means “festival”, so natsu matsuri can be understood as a summer festival. However, more than the translated meaning, this term refers to various sorts of festivals occurring in regions all across Japan during summer. Some of these festivals are Japan’s most famous festivals yearly. 

Many young men wearing traditional Japanese garbs carry a mikoshi (housing for the gods) with a man directing them on top at a Japanese natsu matsuri event.
You can think of the phrase “natsu matsuri” as an umbrella term to describe the many festivals that happen at a specific time in summer. Image via Shutterstock

Usually, natsu matsuri events happen between July and August. However, in the case of some September events (in July under the lunar calendar), Japanese people also celebrate them as summer festivals. Did you know that every natsu matsuri has its own meaning and purpose? Let’s learn more about the origin of these summer festivals and see what natsu matsuri is in the eyes of Japanese people. 

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Origin Of Natsu Matsuri

In the old days, ancient Japanese people organized natsu matsuri for three main reasons. Let’s explore each reason.

Pray for Bountiful Harvests

Far different from the current culture of Japan where only 4% of Japanese people join the field of agriculture, more than 80% of people in Japan did farming jobs in the past. Indeed, agriculture played a crucial role in ancient Japanese life and conception because it directly affected the survival of contemporary farmers. In other words, without a good crop, it would get really tough for most of the community.

Japanese women wearing traditional festival wear pose during the Awa Odori dance, a summer festival that involves traditional Japanese style dancing.
Many summer festivals incorporate some kind of traditional dance into the event. The Awa Odori is one of the most famous. Image via Shutterstock

To protect crops as well as pray for a bountiful harvest, many festivals take place in summer. For example, in the early summer, the rustic and simple festival “Dengaku” was held during the rice planting season. On top of that, the summer festival named “Mushi Okuri”, which means repelling insects, was also popular in the past. 

Worship and Honor Spirits and Gods

Ancient Japanese people always believed that natural disasters in summer, like floods or droughts, came from the rage of vengeful ghosts or spirits from ancient Japanese royalty. So, several natsu matsuri have taken place annually up to now, such as the famous Tenjin festival and the Bon festival, to calm down angry spirits and souls or even to help them move on. 

Preventing Disease

In Heian-kyo (the former name of the ancient capital Kyoto), due to a high population in such a small area and ineffective sewage drainage, epidemics often occurred during the summer.

Men in traditional Japanese garb pull a very large float with people on top at a Japanese natsu matsuri event called Gion Festival in Kyoto.
Many summer festivals include the pulling of elaborate floats with no cars or motors to be seen. Image via Shutterstock

However, similar to the cause of natural disasters, the ancient Japanese also assumed that those diseases were caused by evil spirits. As a ritual ceremony to satisfy these spirits, the Gion festival, one of the most famous festivals in Japan, has been held since the beginning of the 9th century.

What is a natsu matsuri like today?

Today’s natsu matsuri is a chance for Japanese people to hang out with family and friends, relieve stress from work, or even make new friends. Even better, natsu matsuri are also events to attract foreign visitors and promote Japanese tourism while showing off the local culture. 

A young woman stands in a yukata, a summer kimono, in a line for food at a Japanese natsu matsuri event with other young women in yukatas.
You can’t have natsu matsuri without plenty of people, young and old, wearing amazing yukatas (traditional Japanese summer robes). Image via Shutterstock

As we mentioned before, they happen all over Japan at different times, and no two festivals are completely the same. The Gion Festival we mentioned earlier has different versions depending on the area, with the Kyoto one being the most famous. One festival may feature beautiful traditional dances by the sea, while the next town over may show off traditional Japanese floats. The variety is truly amazing.

While joining natsu matsuri, you’ll easily find plenty of amusing activities. Many Japanese summer festivals end with fireworks, so you can enjoy Japanese fireworks festivals all across the country. Plenty of stalls also allow you to play traditional Japanese festival games. Of course, how can we not mention the yatai (Japanese food stalls) where you can enjoy tasty Japanese street food and snacks? 

We hope you found the answer to some of your natsu matsuri questions and even more interesting information about it! Do you have anything like a summer festival in your area? Let us know in the comments below!

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