Festivals in Japan: where and when to experience them

Time your trip just right and you might be able to experience some of Japan’s stunning festivals. Here, we run through some of the best.

By Saga team

Published 4 May 2024

Festivals in Japan are vibrant, joyful celebrations and if you time your holiday here just right, you'll be lucky enough to experience one. Giving you a chance to mingle with locals when they’re relaxed and enjoying themselves and discover their traditional culture first-hand. In this post, we’ve rounded up some of the best Japanese festivals to add to your holiday hitlist.

Where: Nationwide

When: March/April

Of all the festivals in Japan, Hanami, or the Cherry Blossom Festival, is the best known, and it’s unique to the country. Rather than being a local affair, Hanami is very much a national Japanese festival that brings the entire population together. People flock to the parks and rivers of the towns and cities, meeting with colleagues, friends and family to appreciate the flowering cherry blossom (sakura).

While beautiful in its own right, the cherry blossom’s short flowering period is symbolic of the impermanence of all things, a central idea within the Buddhist faith. Its timing, toward the end of March and beginning of April, also makes it a spring festival, reinforcing the association with rebirth.

The changing of seasons is important in the culture of Japan and has inspired Japanese traditions, cuisine and artwork for hundreds of years.

As Hanami is tied to when the sakura bloom, it does not fall upon a certain date. Instead, the weather reports in late March include a section tracking the emergence of the blossom across the country. Generally, the southern areas of Japan are the first to see the flowers, and a wave of pink moves north across meteorological maps until the entire country is celebrating the beginning of spring.

As for where’s best to appreciate the flowers? Parks along waterfronts are always popular and can be found in any city. While they may be crowded at times, particularly weekends, this can add to the spirit of the viewing.

Hanami is nationwide, but certain areas are more renowned for the celebration. Kyoto, the former capital and in many ways the spiritual heart of Japan, has some of the very best spots for viewing cherry blossom.

Photo tip:

A particularly famous area is Kyoto’s Philosopher’s Walk. Joanna Lumley said that “there’s something intoxicating about seeing cherry blossom on this scale”, and she’s not wrong. It can be crowded though, so if you want to take unobscured photos of the best views you need to get there early.

Where: Sapporo, Hokkaido

When: February

Sapporo, the largest city on the northern island of Hokkaido, hosts an annual snow festival that’s so popular the city’s population doubles for a week in February.

The festival is relatively new, having started in 1950 when a group of students started using the snow cleared from the roads to sculpt.

Over the years it’s blossomed into a major festival with varied groups, from communities and companies to the military, contributing to the vast array of artwork spread through the parks and squares of the city.

The sculptures all show a high degree of skill in their crafting, with some taking over a month to fashion out of the deep snow.

Their scale is often surprising. The defense force projects, in particular, can reach several meters high; in fact, they’ve been known to recreate entire buildings as the centrepiece of the festival.

While the sculptures are impressive enough in the daytime, it’s at night that many of them really come alive. The parklands make for a picturesque walk in the evening – just be sure to wrap up warm!

Where: Nationwide

When: August

Obon, or often simply Bon, is a nationwide holiday and will be observed wherever you are in Japan. Most regions celebrate on 15 August, though others recognise the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, meaning that the date changes every year.

Bon is the day when Japanese families honour their ancestors through tending shrines and grave markers and leaving offerings.

While there is a private aspect to the day, carnivals are commonplace and there’s plenty of dancing accompanied by songs and music from traditional bands in ever Japanese prefecture.

Interestingly, every region celebrates Bon in a different way, reflecting the history of the area. It’s an ideal time to get some street food and see some local culture – and it’s a treat to see people so proud of their regional identity.

Where: Nationwide

When: Throughout the year – mainly spring and autumn

Regional pride can also be seen in the Hikiyama festivals celebrated throughout Japan at different times of year. Hikiyama are the floats common to many Japanese festivals, so the purpose of the festival may vary.

Considering the importance of the seasons in Japanese culture, it’s unsurprising to find that Hikiyama festivals are often clustered in the spring and autumn months, either celebrating the approach of summertime or the year’s harvest.

Your experience of the Hikiyama festival will depend on the size of the town and the scale of the festival. The important thing is you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

The floats are huge constructions; often decades old, and they’re continually renovated or rebuilt so they can be used in the annual festivals.

Some floats will be overloaded with actors in period dress, while others will bear mythical creatures or hundreds of lanterns swaying in the night.

The good thing about Hikiyama festivals is that no matter when you visit, there’s a good chance a festival will be happening nearby, particularly in spring or autumn. Given Japan’s reliable and tourist friendly rail system, it’s definitely worth making a day trip to a neighbouring prefecture if you have the time.

Fancy experiencing a festival in Japan for yourself? We offer both independent and guided tours of Japan that take in all the highlights of this serene island country.  

Recent articles

Published